« This week's picks | Main | This week's picks »

Transferable skills

Mike the Mad Biologist makes some good points, commenting on the claim that employment options are worse in biology than other scientific fields.

...most of the skills you learn are only useful in...the biomedical sciences. Most don't learn enough 'generalist' skills, such as high level math or serious programming skills, to have other career alternatives if academia doesn't work out.

Jessica Palmer says the key is to develop "transferable skills." I agree. And not just skills that can be applied outside biology, but skills that can be applied to new problems within biology. As Mike the Mad Biologist continues:

Worse, many of the skills they learn become obsolete. A decade ago, sequencing was a Ph.D. activity, or at least, an activity supervised very closely by a Ph.D. Now, it's largely automated...

So, grad students and postdocs should learn skills that will continue to be needed and can't be automated, especially critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. Can you spot flaws in scientific papers, especially flaws that are only evident in light of information from other papers or even other fields? Can you combine information from different fields and come up with new questions and hypotheses? Can you import useful ideas from economics into biology, or vice versa? Can you express complicated ideas clearly, orally and in writing? If so, you have little to fear from automation.

But, Mike continues

one reason that won't happen is the shortage of funding.... It isn't in the career interest of those doing the training to have students do many things that aren't related to the [short-term?] success of their lab's--their PI's--research program.

I agree that 6% funding rates for grants put Principal Investigators under a lot of pressure. But does that really translate into pressure on students and postocs to crank out data with the skills they already know, rather than learning new ones? Maybe in big, multipostdoc labs, only the most creative postdocs are encouraged to develop new ideas, while the rest become glorified technicians. I wouldn't know.

In my own small lab, interactions with grad students and postdocs are motivated by the hypothesis that fierce competition for grants puts a premium on creativity and new ideas, often combining theory and methods from different fields, even if that means having a little less preliminary data. I therefore encourage them to learn a variety of highly transferable critical-thinking skills, in addition to whatever technical skills may be needed for a particular project.

It might help if the career success (in academia or elsewhere) of former grad students and postdocs in a lab (pro-rated by the number of years spent in that lab) was weighed more heavily by grant programs.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.