Drugmonkey reposted an older post about the ‘hierarchical nature of the modern academic bioscience labororatory’, and this repost has generated quite a long comment thread which I have been following loosely. Part of the discussion has revolved around mentorship of trainees- including trainees who choose not to pursue an academic career.
Comrade Physioprof commented …
I would be committing malpractice if I were to attempt to advise my trainees about how to succeed in industry, SLACs, high school teaching, or anyfuckingthing other than the tenure track.
Yikes. While on some level I get where this comment is coming from, I think it’s a cop out on an important responsibility that we have as mentors- a role, which I might add is not rewarded AT ALL by the traditional methods of reward in academic bioscience ($$, papers). While I’m reluctant to get in a blog fight with C PP (whom I otherwise adore, just so you know), but things have been a little dull lately so I’m going to face the fear and do it anyway.
Why is this a cop out? Well, first- we admit and train vastly larger numbers of Ph.D. students than there will be tenure track positions to fill. Let’s save ourselves now and not feign ignorance on this please. I do think that once we admit someone, we have a responsibility to the student beyond just sayin’ ‘I’ll help you if you choose/or are intellectually capable of the TT track, otherwise leave your lab coat on the chair on your way out after your 6th year…’, just as the student has a responsibility to learn and work to the best of their ability for their mentor and for their own advancement on whatever track they choose. Getting a Ph.D. isn’t like going to the police academy… an example mentioned by some of the commenters… where you spend maybe 2-3 months of your life. We are admitting people to a 5+ year program, we will spend huge $$ on their training in exchange for a big chunk of their effort and life. To me, admitting 10x more students than we know that there are TT positions for with the idea that we are only going to mentor the single one that will choose this track, essentially throwing 99% of them to the wind, is ethically wrong.
Why does this attitude bug me so much? Because it’s not just about telling them about alternative career options, it’s deeper than that. I’ve encountered PIs in my career who felt that they couldn’t mentor trainees who weren’t interested in the tenure track- those trainees became viewed/treated as labor for hire. I guess my feeling is, that if one of my Ph.D. students tells me that they want to be a teacher, that doesn’t give me permission to abdicate my responsibility to teach that person how to do experimental biology. It doesn’t give me permission to just give them a list of experiments that need doing so I can analyze their data. And it doesn’t give the student a pass to stop tryin’ to learn what there is to be learned in a Ph.D. program either.
It gives me an extra opportunity though- to try and supply additional training experiences for that student when its possible- maybe monitoring PBL sessions or teaching a lab for undergraduates or medical student’s once in a while. Hopefully this allows that student to leave with a leg up on the teaching position that they want when they finish their degree, in addition to having learned to be an experimentalist and having made a contribution to the field.
As for mentoring people interested in other careers where they might use their biology expertise, say law or industry. Let’s face it, how difficult is this really? I surely can’t recite the required prerequisites for law school to a trainee, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. But I can put them in contact with people that I’ve met throughout my career that DO know about this as a career path that might be able to give them a leg up. And man, don’t tell me that you don’t know any such types- if your Ph.D. class was anything like mine, you are the only one of the class in academia- the other 9 are either in law, teaching, or industry- and only an email away.
Fiinally, to come around to the ‘we’re training more than we can put in TT positions’ again- I have a colleague who only rarely takes Ph.D. students, and primarily hires post-docs. This mentor makes sure that all the postdocs that work in his/her laboratory- get teaching experience during their time in the laboratory. Why? Because this mentor has problems training too many people for too few positions, and then having put them out there with no skills to fall back on if their TT ambitions should not come to pass…
Just a thought.
P.S. Isis also has a post up about DM’s post and C PP’s comment that I didn’t see until after I wrote this post. You can find it here!