Thursday, 31 March 2011

What are you supposed to get out of college, anyhow?

The most excellent Dr. Palmer has written an interesting post on how she views many biology graduate students shoot themselves in the foot through focusing on the wrong skills in their tenure as students. While on whole I would agree with what she's written, especially the bits about non-transferable skills, I think the focus on `soft skills,` things such as lit reviews and public speaking, is slightly misguided.

While soft skills might help you get a job in the future (potentially one goal of a Ph.D. student), I'm not convinced they're the major determinant of your ability to get hired. You see, I've just suffered through a hiring committee - I wasn't actually on it, but everyone even tangentially affiliated with me was, which meant I might as well have been on it given how often I was caught up in conversations about it. While quite a few of the candidates were highly polished presenters, with style and panache, that didn't necessarily correlate with  getting into the final list of candidates.

What's more important, I would argue, is not the technical skills - those will vary over time. Learning R now is like learning SAS 15 years ago. Sure, it gives you a temporary window of relevance, but unless you're constantly chasing your tail picking up the latest technical skills, you'll quickly become irrelevant (Yes, I am arguing SAS is passé). But nor is it the soft skills - Billy Mayes would not be a top candidate in any academic job search, should he still be alive, no matter how much useless junk he can convince people to buy. The important things to get out of a Ph.D. education is an integrated worldview and conceptual framework upon which to hang your hat. It's raw knowledge.

Don't forget you're at an institute of higher learning. While there's just a bit more to a job search than being bright, in academia we tend to be awfully capitalistic in how we pick professors. Results matters, and to generate really good results, you either need to be a) lucky or b) good. Since you generally can't count on a lucky career path falling in your lap, it's better to focus on being good. And the most important aspect of conducting good research is not methodological prowess, or your ability to communicate your results to the public, but your ability to have the conceptual framework to conduct robust, appropriately nuanced research.

Here's a question I've found really reveals the strengths and weaknesses of any graduate, be it Ph.D. or B.S. Ask them, quite simply, "What do you think the big, unanswered questions in your field are?" If they start prattling on about P52 protein structure, it's clear they don't have the right conceptual framework, or they're hopelessly mired in the details. Likewise, if they feel there aren't any big parts of the map with "Here Be Dragons" written on it, they haven't thought critically about their field either.

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