Not trained for it

Jul 03 2014 Published by under Careers

Years ago, I was a postdoc at Johns Hopkins. When I was leaving there to start my tenure-track position here at Big State U, the chair of the dept at Hopkins, one Jeremy Berg (aka Datahound), dropped by to say goodbye. Something he said to me has stuck with me all these years.

You have not been trained to do what you are about to do.

He was absolutely right.

Despite the ubiquitous hand-wringing about academia only training PhDs and postdocs to be future faculty, truth is, we don't even get that right.

We're not trained to teach. Or manage people. Or manage a lab budget. Or serve on committees. Many are not trained to write grants. Or devise and run a research program. Program, not project.

The tenure-track years are all about on-the-job training.

The sooner you embrace the fact that you don't really know what you're doing, and neither does anyone else on the TT, the sooner you can work to fix that.

9 responses so far

  • BenK says:

    At each level of education and training we are screened for a different set of skills and talents. Until tenure track, most people have no experience with creation of curricula, sitting on committees, human resource management, budgets, legal/IP, information technology infrastructure, international trade/ITAR, contracts, and so on.

    Nobody is even passably good at all of them. Sure, we can do out of our way to train on a few of them - choose wisely - but after that, avoidance, collaboration, acceptance of risk, are the only possibilities.

    Getting the training isn't easy, either. It takes many years of experience (and some talent) to learn how to hire and manage people, for example, but doing this also requires access to substantial financial resources. One might need to embrace the entrepreneur attitude that a round of failure or two is the path to eventual success - but in the academy, this is not necessarily viable. Also, the academy doesn't provide co-founders, boards, C-suites, and the apparatus that allows for filling skill gaps in start-ups.

    Personally, this system seems poorly structured; but the European and Asian systems of hierarchies of Professors doesn't seem to work better - perhaps because getting to the top of that ladder doesn't require skill in mentoring the younger faculty...

  • The whole point of the faculty interview process from the standpoint of the hiring department/institution is to determine whether each candidate--who wouldn't even have been invited if they hadn't published some awesome shitte as a post-doc--has the other skills required to be successful running their own lab. Of course, this is pretty fucken difficult. And in my mentoring of junior faculty, I try very hard to detect post-doc-like thought processes or habits, and provide guidance in avoiding them. Of course, sometimes people flame out anyway...

  • boba says:

    Ayup, this is true... And yet when I explain to these elite level PI's that they need to think about such things, I'm told they don't have time, they can't know everything, and a host of other canned excuses why they can't. It's almost as if they are trained to "listen to refute, not to understand."

    I think the reality is that academia trains idiot savants. Whether that is the intent, or just an unfortunate byproduct I will leave for you to determine. But the results speak for themselves.

    Well, it's either idiot savants or craven egotistical megalomaniacs, but that's another story

  • potty theron says:

    One needs to find the Jeremy Berg in one's new department. Or school. Or university. They exist. Not all bluehairs/greybeards want to eat their young. Some are even committed to helping first instars make it to the 2nd molting. Take them to lunch. Pump them for info. Come armed with a list of questions. "How did you manage your first grant budget?" Not all advice is good advice, but you'll learn more than you would than if you ate lunch in front of your computer.

  • When I initially commented I clicked the "Notify me when new comments are added" checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Cheers!

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I think one way in which I benefited greatly from my postdoc PI is that she had a more or less "benign neglect" approach to mentoring. I was given resources and some broad research areas/open questions and let loose to come up with something impressive. She was always happy to give advice if someone sought it out (and of course there was regular feedback from lab meetings), but she didn't micromanage. That made the transition to being a PI myself much easier, I think.

  • datahound says:

    Thanks, Odyssey. I remember that conversation as well (and a few more like it). I had an uncomfortable discussion with a Congressional staffer on the same topic when I was at NIH. He had a friend who was starting her first faculty position and was commenting that she had not been trained to do most of the things that we now on her core agenda. The staffer noted the irony that after more than 10 years of training, presumably focused on preparing her for an academic position, she felt so ill equipped. The staffer asked me "Isn't that a problem?" I did my best to explain and to note that there was some progress providing graduate students and postdocs with more exposure at least to the demands of academic and other scientific research careers, but I am not sure he was convinced (and I am not sure I was either).

    In any event, I was just sharing my experiences when I started by first faculty position and felt at sea. I tracked down more senior faculty members and asked for guidance with regard to grant applications, lab management, etc. Most were very helpful and generous to me and these interactions continued for many years. I had the advantage that I grew up in an academic household (in a different field) so that teaching (lecture preparation, grading, etc.) marked much of my childhood.