Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learning without teaching

Last weekend I got together with former member of Bear's lab (we'll call him Forte) who was in town for a meeting. Forte was a senior grad student in the lab when I joined, and he taught me a lot about the techniques used in our lab, the system we were studying, and the politics of the lab. He finished up a little less than a year after I joined. It had been a couple of years since I'd seen Forte or talked with him much, sometime before I finished my dissertation.

Part of our recent conversation revolved around the education we received at PSU and what we learned from Bear. At one point, Forte commented that when he left grad school, he thought he didn't get a great education there--sure, he learned stuff, he got his Ph.D., but it just didn't seem like much... until he went somewhere else and realized the breadth and depth of his training compared with colleagues from other institutions. We also talked about the similar experiences we had as we left PSU: We were pissed with Bear. We were so ready to be gone. We questioned what we had learned from him. We just wanted to get out manuscripts out and get on with our lives. Then, a few months after we left, we realized that we had actually learned a lot from him and why he did some of the things that pissed us off so much.

Trainees (myself included) become very upset when there is a lack (sometimes perceived, sometimes real) of formal, structured mentoring. Our PIs becomes enamored with the newest shiny object or cool project or sexy data, and we feel ignored and neglected. Sometimes we're just left completely alone for weeks or months at a time. Our PIs only communicate to get slides or figures or data or whatever for a talk or grant or paper. As a trainee, you essentially have two options: (A) Decide that your PI is out of touch, that he doesn't know what he's doing, and ignore everything he does... or view it only as the antithesis of what should be done. (B) Realize that he's been pretty damned successful up to this point and start paying attention.

I chose option B. That's not to say I didn't do my share of bitching and commiserating with fellow grad students. But I also paid attention to how Bear ran things. When he made suggestions or recommendations, I listened. By doing this (I realized after some time, distance, and reflection), I learned some incredibly important things from Bear. I learned how to write manuscripts, how to put together a clear, concise presentation of data. I learned a lot about grants--writing, submission, review processes. I learned that I should keep up to date with what's being published, not just in my field of study but in other fields as well, and with what's going on in science policy and funding. And a hell of a lot more. But in the end, the most important things I learned from Bear... he never actually taught me. He showed me, even if he didn't know I was watching.

1 comment:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

By the end of a long period of training in a laboratory, *all* trainees (1) hate their PIs and (2) think they are smarter and better scientists than their PIs. In the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases, this is delusional on the part of the trainee. Those trainees who eventually realize that they were delusional about this have a *much* better chance of going on to a successful independent career than those who continue to nurse grudges and think of their PIs as fools or naifs.

The extreme (and sad) case of this delusion would be someone like Young Female Scientist who hates *all* PIs and thinks she is smarter and a better scientist than *everyone*. This fact makes it highly likely that--were she to ever end up a PI--she would fail miserably, having closed her mind to learning anything from anyone.