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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Goal of a Science Education

We've recently been debating the purpose of our undergraduate program in biochemistry. There are some who think that the main goal is to teach students how to do biochemistry. Those biochemists want as many lab courses as possible and they want to provide plenty of opportunities for students to carry out research projects in a research lab. In some cases, they want to minimize the number of formal lectures. These are the biochemists who want undergraduates to read the primary literature instead of textbooks.

On the other hand, there are biochemists who want to emphasize the basic concepts and principles of biochemistry. They want to teach student about biochemistry. They believe that students need the latest knowledge of how cells work at the molecular level before they learn how to do research at the frontiers.

The first group wants to train students for a career in biochemistry while the second group tends to think that most students will not go on to be biochemists.

Eva Amsen, a graduate student in our department, has some comments. You should read her posting on her Nature Network blog [What will you be?]. Here's some of the interesting part ...
The problem is not that a science undergraduate degree is not a career-oriented degree. It shouldn’t be. History, English, Philosophy, and some of the social sciences aren’t career paths either. But for those fields people seem to know that, and yet people associate science with something that leads to a job. They picture a scientist in a lab somewhere, and don’t realize that the people at the bench are either lab techs with a degree from a technical college or university students or -graduates at some point in their training. It’s all training, it never ends. A select few will eventually have their own lab, and if their grandmother lives to experience this they can tell her that they now are a scientist. Finally, at the age of 35-40 they have what the family would consider a job. And then they spend the next few decades struggling to get grants and write papers just to be able to keep that job.

The problem is that science programs pretend to be career-oriented. They train you for the job of research scientist, but there are way more students than ever needed to fill these jobs. I’d guess that about 10% of PhD students end up with their own lab. Everyone else has to find an alternative career. But if 90% of the graduates of a science program need to find an alternative career, is it still alternative, or is that just what people do with their degrees?
I agree with Eva. Science programs often pretend to be career oriented but they should be knowledge oriented. The main goal should be to teach students how to think and not how to work at a bench. Thus, students who graduate from an undergraduate—or graduate—program will have valuable skills that they can use in any career they choose.


18 comments :

  1. Oh man, that 10% estimate is the most depressing thing I've heard in the past week (and yet isn't Canada trying to graduate more Ph.D.s????).

    With regards to idea that students should be taught how to think: I agree, in principle. In my experience, the problem is that nothing in the textbook seems to 'stick' in most people's minds. I once had a 3rd year undergrad ask what would happen if she actually ate DNA??? Maybe it's only me, but I tend to learn by doing - actually applying those nebulous skills I'm taught in the classroom.

    So while I agree that it's somewhat naive to assume that everyone's going to be a biochemist one day, it's also naive to assume that most students even care. It's cynical, I know, but it's the rare undergrad that I've met that's even really interested in most of this stuff. As long as they get the marks to get into med school it's A-ok.

    It would probably help a lot if people didn't just go into school because it's the logical next step. I sometimes fantasize about classrooms full of bright young minds, eager to learn!

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  2. I once had a 3rd year undergrad ask what would happen if she actually ate DNA???

    Sounds stupid when you first hear it, doesn't it? But... what do you suppose would happen if you let C. elegans eat double-stranded RNA? Does that sound like Nobel-prize winning research to you?

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  3. I have a computer science background which invites a much greater emphasis on practise over theory. In my experience working with people from a variety of backgrounds, a technical, job-focused training seems to produce people with the skills to get entry level jobs but then never advance beyond. It's the people that know how to think who go the furthest.

    Surprisingly enough (and this may be restricted to computing), people who have a good theoretical background and who get thrown into situations where they have unfamiliar languages and unfamiliar tools are working at least as well after 4-6 weeks than people with extensive training. To me, this says that focusing on 'career' and technical skills instead of theory fails in the short term as well as long.

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  4. In my experience - from undergrad through grad school - the most generally useful learning process has been the iterative loop consisting of cycles of thinking AND experiment at the bench.

    I don't think I ever fully knew what it meant to learn until I had a chance to test knowledge in the real world.

    Besides reinforcing the learning process, I would also add that lab work is an extremely effective forum for developing skills of organization, project management, dealing with stress, writing and in many (certainly not all, but increasingly) teamwork and leadership. Can't get any of those in the lecture hall, although most are derived I suppose from the independence of grad level lab work rather than undergrad lab courses.

    So I guess I agree that lab courses where students have no experimental independence shouldn't be overdone, since they can't achieve much more than an introduction to the most basic technical skills.

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  5. I agree with you, Larry.

    It would be a pity, no, a tragedy, to have a training programme that produces individuals who are superstars in all the practical and administrative aspects of a scientific career, but deeply hold irrational thinking or superstitious beliefs at heart, eg. a creationist scientist or "theistic evolution" scientist.

    I know that there are many such scientists who publish very well and get promoted to very high places, but these heroic levels of compartmentalization disturb me greatly.

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  6. I agree; an undergraduate education, in any field, should teach the student to be a critical, independent thinker.

    My issue is with the state of graduate training in Canada, but that's another topic for another day.

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  7. While I agree with the point that the primary goal of any PhD (science or whatever) is to learn how to think critically, what happens if no jobs are available to require me to think critically? The time, money, and many years spent learning this skill seems wasted then. Sure, I can carry the way of thinking I learned into my personal life, but if I can't use those skills I learned to their fullest, it would sad for me. I worry about this now as I enter the end stages of my graduate career.

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  8. While I agree with the point that the primary goal of any PhD (science or whatever) is to learn how to think critically, what happens if no jobs are available to require me to think critically? The time, money, and many years spent learning this skill seems wasted then. Sure, I can carry the way of thinking I learned into my personal life, but if I can't use those skills I learned to their fullest, it would sad for me. I worry about this now as I enter the end stages of my graduate career.

    Notice we were talking about an undergraduate education. A graduate education, must, I think, have at least part of its focus on ensuring marketable skills.

    Part of this is the responsibility of the graduate program and the supervisor, of course, but the larger issue, especially in the life sciences, is that there simply are not enough jobs to go around. Universities are creating new Ph.D.s at a much faster rate than they are creating faculty positions. Hence, the 5-7 year post-doc (I'm in year two).

    The extended post-doc is a recent phenomenon, and its only reason for existing is that we've made it far, far too easy to get a Ph.D. Not in terms of the difficulty of the program itself, but in terms of the number of students accepted. While it is true that not everyone who does a Ph.D. wants to be a PI at a university or university-associated institute, I know that at least some of the people who don't want to feel this way because there are too few jobs.

    Universities need to make it easier to get undergraduate degrees, but make it harder to get graduate degrees. They need to make a commitment to tying faculty hiring rates to Ph.D. acceptance rates (and especially to post-doc hiring rates). They wont, and this problem will only get worse. As someone who would like to be a university faculty in the next 2-4 years, I know that my only chance is to publish something in Nature/Cell/Science; in other words, fantastically lucky. I had a very good Ph.D. experience, published in good journals, got good scholarships, had a year of work experience outside of research, came back, am doing a post-doc where I have gotten good fellowships; by all accounts, I should be competitive for jobs. But the market is SO flooded with people like me (CIHR's Feb 1/08 post-doc fellowship funding rate was...11%), and there are SO few jobs, I know I'm going to need a fair bit of "right place at the right time" to get beyond this stage. I dont want to be an R.A.; I want to be a PI, I want to teach, but my abilities are not enough. I'll need to get lucky, too.

    My advise to people who love science would be: get a B.Sc., get an M.Sc if you really love it, and then go get trained to do something else; be a lawyer, go to medical school (don't get me started on how much better THAT is for getting into academic research), go to business school. But don't get a Ph.D. unless you're prepared to earn money that is far, far below what is deserved by your education and training.

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  9. Of course we all eat dNA every day, because it's in many of the foods we eat (meat, grains, vegetables, fruits...).

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  10. As long as they get the marks to get into med school it's A-ok.

    At least med school puts appropriate caps on the number of students they'll take, such that demand always vastly outstrips supply. Can't say the same for Ph.D. programs or post-doc hiring (which is a consequence of the former).

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  11. "My advise to people who love science would be: get a B.Sc., get an M.Sc if you really love it, and then go get trained to do something else; be a lawyer, go to medical school (don't get me started on how much better THAT is for getting into academic research), go to business school. But don't get a Ph.D. unless you're prepared to earn money that is far, far below what is deserved by your education and training."

    I'm getting depressed even more after reading that. I would add that a Nature or Science paper should not equate with better chances of becoming a PI (but it does unfortunately). The simple fact is that there are so many other factors that go into publishing in those particular journals that you can't always control; There's a bit of luck, there's a bit of politics, a little bit of what's "fashionable" in science currently, a little bit of "who you know in the field", and of course the quality of the work matters too. I have known too many students in an adjacent lab to mine where their soul goal is to get that Nature or Science paper, and I've seen how miserable they get when that doesn't happen. People should just focus on doing good science and forget about all the publishing hooplah.

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  12. I'm getting depressed even more after reading that. I would add that a Nature or Science paper should not equate with better chances of becoming a PI (but it does unfortunately). The simple fact is that there are so many other factors that go into publishing in those particular journals that you can't always control; There's a bit of luck, there's a bit of politics, a little bit of what's "fashionable" in science currently, a little bit of "who you know in the field", and of course the quality of the work matters too. I have known too many students in an adjacent lab to mine where their soul goal is to get that Nature or Science paper, and I've seen how miserable they get when that doesn't happen. People should just focus on doing good science and forget about all the publishing hooplah.

    Sorry. The situation facing us is depressing; no other way to spin it. I tried leaving research for a year, and I hated it. I missed the constant thrill of discovery that you only get from research. So I came back, to a lower salary, and crappier job prospects. I'm in this for the long haul.

    But make no mistake, things are bad. If I had any sense, I'd invest the 80-grand and go to medical school, spend another 6-8 years getting an M.D. and finishing a residency/fellowship, and then get a university position through the backdoor. Or I'd go to law school (3 years), article for one year, and then go be a star in a firm that specializes in science/medicine IP; make oodles of money that way.

    But research and teaching are what I want. I think I'm doing all the right things, but I know that in order for me to be considered a good candidate at a large university, I'll need at least one really high-impact paper. And that will take a bit of good, creative research and a whole lot of luck. I'm in a good lab for that, and we always seem to be right NEAR the high-impact stuff, but it's incredibly hard to go from IF=7-8 to IF=10-15 or higher.

    If you really love science, stick with it. You'll make it eventually. But you'll be in this for a long time. And whatever you do, DON'T start comparing yourself to your friends with B.Sc. or M.Sc. degrees who are making double what you are, get benefits and job security, and get a legitimate chance to move ahead in a realistic amount of time.

    This area of science is in real trouble in this regard. And the funding agencies and universities continue to make the same mistakes over and over.

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  13. I have known too many students in an adjacent lab to mine where their soul goal is to get that Nature or Science paper, and I've seen how miserable they get when that doesn't happen. People should just focus on doing good science and forget about all the publishing hooplah.

    ...agreed. Most of us go into this field because we love it...and its important to keep that in the forefront of our minds (i'm anti-jadedness btw).

    To put my 2 cents in for the post: I think that its the job of the university to teach us the basics and how to critically use that information. I think that it is up to the student to go out and get the experience they need if science is what they want to do with their lives.

    And to reply to Mike...from my experience (which is in the US, not canada...so things are prolly different), I have never heard that students/postdocs are feeling pressure to leave academia due to less jobs per se. Instead, through graduate school I have been taught many alternatives to academia and thus do not feel the pressure to become a PI. And personally, I feel you should get a PhD because you want the education and/or the opportunities (i.e. to use your brain as well as your hands). When I applied, I knew I was walking into a saturated market...and that was my decision. I don't think that its the systems job to keep me from making a mistake.

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  14. Instead, through graduate school I have been taught many alternatives to academia and thus do not feel the pressure to become a PI. And personally, I feel you should get a PhD because you want the education and/or the opportunities (i.e. to use your brain as well as your hands). When I applied, I knew I was walking into a saturated market...and that was my decision. I don't think that its the systems job to keep me from making a mistake.

    If you don't want to be an academic PI, then so be it. That's great.

    I do, and the problem is that the university system has made it so easy to get in at one end, while making it virtually impossible to get out the other end. The universities are, obviously, encouraging people to come and do advanced degrees, which is fine, but failing to notify them that "Hey, we don't actually have anywhere for you to go at the end of all of this, but c'mon and spend the next 5-7 years with us doing an advanced degree for no money". At the very least, it is the responsibility of the university (and, indeed, of the PIs themselves) to be upfront about academia.

    I love research, and I want to teach. That means academia. I left academic research for a year, and then came back, knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. You can call me stupid if you want to; that fine. I accept that I'm doing this against my better judgement. But the fact remains that this problem is solvable, but the universities and the granting agencies could care less about anything but the bottom line. Universities will keep hauling in the students and minting Ph.D.s, granting agencies will keep funding 15% of grants and then slashing budgets to get the numbers up.

    Sorry, I know this wasn't the point of Larry's main article, but this is a real sticking point for me.

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  15. LOL- the main goal is to teach!?! HAHAHAHAHA. OH man.... so far after three years of undergraduate study- I can say with confidence that no science professor has taught me a thing. Oh wait?! they have, how to go through mindless hours of memorizing details and pathways so I can use them for an hour of my life and then be rid of them. Also how to study according to the class averages! Oh and lets not forget how to fake interest- most valuable skill- it allowed me (and my GPA) to take research positions away from students who truly "love" science.

    The problem with undergrad science programs is not that they are focusing too much on the practical aspect- it is the education itself!

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  16. I can say with confidence that no science professor has taught me a thing. Oh wait?! they have, how to go through mindless hours of memorizing details and pathways so I can use them for an hour of my life and then be rid of them. Also how to study according to the class averages! Oh and lets not forget how to fake interest- most valuable skill- it allowed me (and my GPA) to take research positions away from students who truly "love" science.

    I'd say this is an accurate description of many science programs. It's the way these programs are set up. There's not a lot of room for discussion; it's didactic pathway learning.

    Granted, you need to know the pathways, but a little room for discussion of the scientific method, the process of discovery, the historical context of important findings, etc would be a welcome addition.

    This is one of the reasons that I want to teach; I'd like to try to bring some of that to undergraduate programs. While I get that not every undergrad is going to be all that interested and will just be doing it to get the grades to get into med school, there will be some that CAN be reached, and those are the ones I want to go after. Now, if they would just start HIRING people...

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  18. I apologize in advance for extending the tangential discussion into the realm of graduate education, but it's a fascinating topic. And a topic of discussion that really needs to be out in the open and not on a blog (sorry Larry).

    It's true (at least I hope it's true, because this is what I'm living right now) that getting a graduate degree demonstrates a number of "soft skills" along with the hard/technical ones. Skills that (apparently, from what I've read) are valued by employers, such as: presentation skills, project management, organizational skills, interpersonal skills, ability to learn complex concepts, write large proposals and reports, among others. You can't learn these in the lecture hall.

    However, there is so little in the way of formal guidance and direction for students to find academic or "alternative" careers. By no means do I suggest guidance should be spoon-fed, but at the very least, communication of potential career paths should be required for any and all graduate programs. As well, pursuit of "alternative careers" shouldn't be frowned upon by the establishment of PI's.

    Furthermore, there is so little in the way of formal explanation to grad students at the application stage about the issues we're talking about today that students jump into a Ph.D. and are left with grappling with these issues on the way out. At least I did.

    All of these things result in the obvious dichotomy between supply and demand for Ph.D. educated individuals. It is an insult that graduate programs do not illustrate job prospects to their applicants before they accept. But wait--if applicants to grad school knew the situation they would be in after they got their Ph.D., no matter how much they love the science they likely wouldn't join. And down would go the admissions numbers.

    There needs to be massive changes to the way graduate education is run so that there are defined, clear and explicit purposes for the programs and admissions numbers. I am not suggesting graduate education should become job training programs. I am suggesting that students should know the facts before and during grad school regarding the job market facing them in academia, industry, not-for-profit, law, teaching, medicine, etc, etc, so they can make informed decisions

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