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On Graduate School and the Practice of Science

Benferguson72x724Ben Ferguson -- Graduate school seems to be fascinating to people who are not in graduate school. More fascinating, say, than the IT industry is to people who are not in the IT industry, or the janitorial profession to people who are not janitors, or even the medical profession to people who are not medical professionals. I say this not because I enjoy exaggerating my chosen profession’s level of interestingness, but because I always seem to get the same questions about it in passing conversations and with people I’m meeting for the first time. The most common seem to be, in this order: 1. “When will you be done?” 2. “What do you … actually do?” often followed up with “Huh?” and/or blank stares; and 3. “What on Earth is wrong with you?”

Honestly, it’s tough, for me at least, to answer these questions over and over and over again without boring my counterpart (or myself) into a deep sleep, and I think one reason that many of these questions even come up is because people have a general lack of understanding of what grad school is and what grad students do with all of their time. To be sure, almost the whole of graduate school, as I have said before, is transferring liquids between their receptacles and occasionally analyzing those liquids in different ways. Much of the rest is reading about other scientists’ experiences with their own successful liquid transfers, trying not to fall asleep, and trying not to fall asleep while reading about other scientists’ experiences with liquid transfers. Despite all indications to the contrary, the reading part has some utility.

Today, in a seminar class I’m taking, I realized that the practice of science -- graduate school included -- really is a lot different from most professions in a number of ways. Perhaps the biggest fundamental difference is that, in science, one is expected to know a number of different things -- pathways, techniques, etc. -- that rarely ever come up in one’s specific focus or area of expertise. For example, in this seminar class, we students discuss assigned papers by going through the figures and explaining them as if we have some clue about what the researchers did to generate the data within. None of us have ever actually done experiments analyzing facial phenotypes in embryonic knockouts, and none of us probably ever will in the course of our career, but we’re still loosely familiar with the concepts and rationale underlying the experiment (and even more loosely familiar with how to interpret the data). None of us have ever done wound healing assays, or mass spectrometry, or protein crystallization, or in vivo metastasis modeling, but we are expected to know what they’re all about. Through reading about them and about how others design and interpret experiments, we, then, are expected to be able to add these options to our own arsenals in case such techniques present themselves as useful methods for answering unique questions that come up in our future work.

For the most part, medicine isn’t like that. IT work isn’t like that. Janitorial work isn’t like that, and most other jobs aren’t like that. In most other fields, including medicine, you are trained broadly but then focus on a specific aspect, however large or small, of that field.

In medicine, you practice surgery, or dermatology, or pathology. Yes, in the course of your training, you’ve seen psychiatry and you might have even placed a central line or two. No radiologist though, for example, would be expected to perform trauma surgery at the drop of a hat (or even after a short amount of training), nor would any orthopedic surgeon be expected to treat schizophrenia. Reading about it in papers certainly wouldn’t cut it for these things. (This is why we specialize in the first place, no?)

In science, though, most everyone knows what siRNA does. Everyone knows what a Western blot is and how to interpret its information. Everyone has at least heard of flow cytometry, C. elegans, confocal microscopy, G proteins, and knockout mice, and would be able to become relative experts in these methods and topics within a couple of days (say, for the purposes of writing a last-minute grant). (Perhaps that’s why science, at its most basic level, is easier than medicine. Literally anyone can learn it and then go do it.) In order to be a successful scientist, you absolutely must have at once this breadth of loose knowledge alongside your hardcore, focused obsessions, or else you risk not knowing at all what others are talking about. You must also be able to interpret these data and methods and experimental rationales in the context of your own work, or else you risk not taking full advantage of what’s available to you as an experimentalist. There are only so many proteins to assay using Western blotting (and only so many conditions under which to collect the proteins), and it’s important for any scientist to stay up to date with information not only in one’s own field, but -- dare I say -- in all of science.

Medicine? IT? Janitors? Important for those too, yes, but not so much.

May 8, 2008 in Ben Ferguson | Permalink

Comments

"Hello Janitor"

"Hello Scientist"

Your excellent scientist's apologetic reminded me of a collision of high-brow with low-brow humor. "Got any papers?" Please see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SGr46uHAoQ

But seriously, you say: "Perhaps that’s why science, at its most basic level, is easier than medicine. Literally anyone can learn it and then go do it." My beef with this is that not everyone can make a living doing science as you present it. The academic training system is flawed by the expectation that most graduate students will pursue academic research 'when they grow up.' That there is not enough $$$ to go around makes for an extremely competitive environment. (I think this explains the condition you lamented in your previous post.)

There will however always be sick people for surgeons, pathologists and dermatologists to treat and (per chance) to heal.

Posted by: Thomas | May 8, 2008 10:24:10 AM

Great article, but I still have no idea what you do. :)

Also, as an aside, I've always thought of pursuing a PhD in a medically related field as the "more altruistic" path, compared with an MD degree. Both professions have the capacity to help many people, but one could argue that you could help more people by pursuing the former. However, it's not as easy to see the direct benefit to individuals with research, which is why it makes it a more altruistic path. You don't get that instant gratification that you get with direct patient care. I don't know if there is any truth to this, but that's how I've always felt.

I guess that makes me selfish in some ways, but I'm okay with that. It's the falling asleep part that you described that makes grad school seem scary to me. If I could get my narcoleptic butt in gear, maybe I could be as altruistic as you. :)

Posted by: Kendra | May 8, 2008 12:25:47 PM

I think you're dead wrong. In medicine, one is certainly expected to have a vast store of underlying knowledge in addition to the specialized knowledge of one's chosen field. Maybe you just perceive otherwise because you've never done clinical medicine. No, a radiologist would not be expected to perform trauma surgery at the drop of a hat. But neither are you expected to employ protein crystallization "at the drop of a hat" if that's not what you usually do...if you developed an idea for an experiment in which you needed to utilize that technique, odds are you'd turn to a colleague who had expertise and experience in that area to help you figure out how to get up and running (as well as consulting the literature, of course). Similarly, in any field of medicine we are expected to have a vast foundation of knowledge upon which to draw, which allows us to communicate with colleagues in other specialties about patient care, decide when we need our specialist colleagues' help on a particular case, and read & interpret the literature.

Posted by: | May 13, 2008 5:06:51 PM

I'm an MD, taking a surgical residency and now having a break by taking a PhD. I enjoy them all, but still, the most important thing for me is to see a patient get cured, not how drug cures or what signalling pathways involved.What that makes me then...?

Posted by: | May 14, 2008 9:03:52 PM

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