I have seen my own graduate students – and many others – struggle with issues that include writing, promoting their work, and establishing a career in science.
I have seen many promising young scientists enter graduate school with great enthusiasm about a life doing science, only to leave disgruntled and discouraged. Sometimes they leave with a degree in hand, and sometimes without. But in either case, the lost enthusiasm is a tremendous waste. That’s because enthusiasm is the foundation for good science.
This shouldn’t be happening, but I believe it is not only happening, but widespread.
It is bad for the young folks, and it is bad for society. We are facing unprecedented challenges in the environment, with limited energy supplies, from over population, and more. Science can help solve many of these problems, if applied properly.
But if we loose a lot of the enthusiastic idealists along the way, who is left to solve these problems? Maybe a few lucky ones who have exceptional mentors, and the strong ones with unusual persistence. But aside from that, it seems to be mostly folks from developing nations who see how important a scientific education is in improving their life, and who are willing to make the sacrifices it takes to achieve that (which can be many). Often the people in the latter group take their education and problem-solving abilities back to benefit their home country. That’s fine, except that it means less people helping improve things here.
The situation seems to be getting worse. The sacrifices that are required to do science these days are too great for most people. And many of those sacrifices seem to revolve around getting work funded.
Why is science training so hard?
Most graduate training programs in the sciences focus on developing specific scientific skillsets. That usually includes specialized knowledge of a particular field of study, and learning the tools and techniques for addressing problems in that field of study.
But it is rare for programs to provide general training on the other needed skills, which include managing a lab, obtaining funding, getting papers accepted, and things like that.
I can take my own university’s training programs as an example. I helped develop our curriculum in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. All of the core courses are subject-matter specific. We had some discussions about developing a more general class on “how to do science,” but that sort of fizzled out.
So our students will only get training in these other aspects if their advisor gives it to them once they join a lab.
Many advisors don’t do that (I have not always done that).
It is not that most advisors don’t want to. It is that faculty have a lot of demands on their time, and so it is easy to keep putting this kind of thing off. Many faculty, particularly those in hot research areas, are ever more expected to get grants, write a lot of papers, and many other things. Good student advising is not directly rewarded by a University. So it gets left out.
But a second factor is that many faculty never learned how to be good advisors, because they simply weren’t trained to be. I can count myself in that category. I’ve learned by trial and error – with a lot of error in the mix. Hence it is a cycle that perpetuates itself.
I want to be a part of dampening down that cycle, by figuring out new ways to interject meaningful training and advice that helps fill the gap. The internet is a wonderful tool by which to do so.
Society is forgetting about the value of science
I have come to realize there is an even bigger picture to consider. It is that our society (particularly in the USA) is forgetting the value of science. Pop culture glorifies the rich, the famous, and even the depraved. But not the scientist. Many young people aspire to become rock stars, basketball stars, or even American Idol stars. Few aspire to become scientists.
But rock stars and American Idol stars won’t solve the real problems facing the world, or the USA. Scientists may, if there are enough of them.
Yet even if we can overcome the lack of enthusiastic young scientists, how do we overcome the lack of value that society places on doing science?
The one and only way I can figure out is by doing a far better job communicating the value of what we do to the general public.
But who has the time or training to do that?
If I can help people learn to better communicate the value of their science to their colleagues, a likely side effect is that they will better convey value to the general public as well. At least they will have improved tools to do so. Whether they choose to use those tools is another matter.
Why provide open access here to my grant writing/science tips and secrets?
First, I realized that through one-by-one mentoring I would not have any dramatic impact on the situations mentioned. I am an ambitious person, and want to improve the world in lasting ways. The internet enables far greater impact than one-on-one mentoring can have, but it is not being used much for this purpose.
Second, about two years ago, I co-founded a bike shop to encourage more cycling. That has been a big learning process for me. One component of that learning process is figuring out marketing. I’ve paid thousands of dollars for some of the best training that money can buy in marketing.
And I realized something: all that marketing stuff applies to the science just as well as the bike shop. In fact, looking back on my successful efforts at getting grants and doing great presentations, I was already using these same techniques as taught in all the marketing. I just hadn’t realized it was “marketing”.
I want to bring that realization to other scientists to help them promote their work.
Third, the playing field right now is nowhere close to level. It is the people who have figured out the “marketing” (whether they realize that is what it is or not) who get the farthest ahead in science. But there are many people out there with great ideas and talents who cannot get support for their work because they haven’t figured this out.
Helping people remove the obstacles to communicating the value of their science will perhaps level that playing field a bit. My hope is that it will enable more of those with great scientific ideas to actually pursue those ideas. The world needs it.
You might think that sharing my secrets would just produce more competitors, and so be harmful to me. But in elaborating on my “secrets” I learn in the process, and become better at it as well. And if it gets to the point where I have helped so many people so much that I have a lot of new, tough competition for grants, then the tradeoff is worth it, because I will have helped the world in the “big picture”.