Lab learning, 2015, the postdoc situation.

Lab learning.

A few weeks ago, i was talking with some tweeps about learning in the lab as a Ph.D. student, how to learn to use shared department resources like confocal microscopes and qRT-PCR machines, any commonly used equipment or how to learn a new technique period. The way this is done now often seems to have all sorts of problems and shortcomings. How do you design a training system for trainees that are all in different places in their level of knowledge?

Confocals are complex; and the software + hardware combination allows for all sorts of possibilities, and potential for things to go wrong, especially with the objectives on the microscope. While it’s unlikely anyone needs to know everything about every function possible, it’s hard to tailor education to each student. I’m sure there are all sorts of online resources now for learning a lot of these things, but it’s always hard to know where to go. do companies have ‘virtual confocals’ now where you can play around/simulate what would happen with various functions/what the output images look like. In our department, we have a fantastic resource in our research support specialist. She manages all the common equipment and knows a lot about all of it and everyone is required to sit down with her for an introductory session on anything we want to use regularly. This is good and useful as far as it goes, but isn’t quite sufficient in some ways. One session is often not quite enough (at least for me…it is enough to learn how not to break something, and maybe that’s the point…the rest is up to us to thinker on our own). And that’s sort of fine as an adult scientist; guide your own learning, etc. It’s what we’re supposed to do. Some departments don’t even have the basics of this training in place though (or it’s the non-active learning form of training with someone just talking in front of a room).

I’m trying to learn to code and learn my statistics better as well. I’m going to take a MOOC on it this term. And I dabble in learning to code as well. It’s up to me, and that’s fine. These things seem to get pushed to the edge, fit into spare time, taken away from life. it’s important to make time to learn new things, and yet the culture of academia seems to make it a fringe activity, not a core function. Asking people for help is tricky as we’re all busy. Or asking for feedback…it seems to be secondary to getting things done too much of the time. Some of this gets at what Lenny Teytlmann writes about; the need for improved training of PhDs and postdocs. For both research and non-research careers alike. It’s something that can easily go by the wayside. Even when we’re acting as our own mentors.

I know I’ve written in the past about how I still have a hard time asking for help or feedback, and it’s something I’ve worked a lot on. I am slowly getting better, but have noticed that the culture of academia and science almost runs counter to that.

The current postdoc situation.

The Future of Research Symposium report from a group of enterprising postdocs really does address some of these problems with training and the perverse incentives in the system right now. It really resonates with me.

And in Science Careers this week, Beryl Lief Benderly wrote about the recent National Academies Report on the Postdoc Experience in her Taken for Granted column. It’s not a sunny report. It ends with this:

I feel terrible for the cohort that’s been caught” in the current crunch. It may be too late to help them, but if the academic science community can reach the conclusions implicit in the report and make the appropriate changes, future generations of young scientists may have much smoother and less painful transitions to satisfying and productive careers.

As one of those ‘too late to help’, it really makes me feel like I sucker for taking a fools bet. I’ve written before about how if young scientists aren’t enthusiastic about their work, they really can’t recommend it and instill it in the next generation as easily. Science is amazing, but it does not come before having a life. Something too many Postdocs of my generation that fell squarely in an awareness gap of what academic training meant and ought to be. Of course, it’s hard to know how to pivot (especially when it all seems like it’s down to pure luck). I’ve also dealt with depression which really stopped me in my tracks for awhile. I am really just now getting going again.

I’ve started some new projects on my own. I am doing a tumblr blog inspired by plant science where plants give advice to people. I know it’s not what the ASPB quite had in mind when they set up the hashtag,but it sparked the idea. And I started a new blog, The Quiet Branches where I’m going to attempt to be like the great science communicators I see on Twitter through writing, a skill I’ve really tried to cultivate.

All of this is by way of saying I am growing, learning, trying to push out of the box I’ve been in with new thinking, trying new things, and basically doing at least some of those ‘take charge of your own career’ ideas people always say to do. I don’t know where I’ll end up. I don’t think I want to be an academic. Something in research communication might suit me well as teaching in any form is something I have a deep desire to do.

I hope future generations of scientists aren’t stuck like postdocs in my generation. My next post here will be on ‘the overtaxed expert’…we’re expected to know so much and yet now, with all the information out there, no one person can possibly process it all.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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