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Monday, August 27, 2007

The Purpose of Graduate Education

There has been considerable debate about the real purpose of a graduate education. Is it just a way of training students to become university Professors? [Job Propsects for Graduate Students]. Is it true that graduate students are just indentured labour as a recent article in Nature implied?

These are interesting questions. One of the issues that often comes up in these debates is the "pressure" to publish. Supervisors will often try to persuade their graduate students to publish papers. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

It's a good thing, in spite of what most people believe. Here's how Ryan Gregory sets up the question ...
At the base of this discussion is the assumption that most advisors actually do encourage/pressure their students to publish -- an assumption with which I will not disagree here. What remains open is the interpretation of why this might occur. There are several possibilities:
Read his blog to see why graduate students should publish papers and why this doesn't necessarily mean that the advisor is treating them like slave labor [Why would advisors encourage students to publish?].

[Photo Credit: Graduate students in the Dept. of Biochemistry, University of Toronto.]


  1. I agree on the whole (it's obviously in a student's vital self-interest to publish), but I don't think the situation Gregory describes is really typical in some important respects. Typical in my personal experience is 1) Much or even most of the training of grad students in all but the smallest labs is done by postdocs, not the PI. 2) The PI (unless she's only a few years into her career) hasn't been at a lab bench in years, and is likely to be a figure of fun for his misadventures if she attempts to return to the bench. 3) As a corollary of #2, if the PI actually has data of his "own" that he could use to write papers without either student or postdoc coauthors, those data were actually produced by technicians. 4) In the larger labs, even supervision of the techs is also more likely to be a function of the postdocs rather than the PI. (The PI in some big labs might have one "personal" tech for his own experiments.) Direct supervision and experiment planning for techs by the PI is characteristic only of pretty small labs. 5) Thus, grant-writing is by far the PI's major role. And this is not a denigration of what is in fact a very difficult job in today's funding climate- the PI after all should be the one who really has intellectual command of the big picture of what the lab is working on, and obviously grad students and postdocs are hardly in a position to supply their own lab space and consumables (plus they have to eat).

    So the real picture, while hardly some Marxist caricature of exploitation, is also not quite as idyllic as some scientists like to make it sound.

  2. Publishing can be a great learning experience and the skills developed can be used in a wide variety of arenas. The problem isn't those faculty (which Larry/Gregory are apart of) who care about learning and are open to students exploring options outside of pursing tenure track positions at research universities. The problem is with the faculty who are focussed on the research part of their position, consumed by the competition and don't take the time to develop the critical thinking and writing skills of their trainees but rather adopt the sink or swim mindset across the board.

  3. And let us be honest. One of the great taboos needs to be cracked.

    Sometimes the trainee is just a fucking idiot.

    "sink or swim" can be in the eye of the beholder. When a PI has repeatedly "nicely suggested" experiments that need to be conducted, things that need to go into/be taken out of a manuscript draft, etc, and this doesn't happen, well sometimes this is not the PIs fault.

    Trainees are expected to have above average smarts. They are expected to be able to learn via observation and experience. They are expected to be engaged in the process and pay attention to what the PI has to say.

    Oftentimes the attitude of antagonism towards that asshole PI gets in the way of learning something...