Monday, December 03, 2007

Graduate research: is it school or work?

Here's an Opinion piece posted on behalf of Joel:

"I had an interesting (mostly one-sided… sorry Laura) conversation yesterday, which has led me to write a little opinion-piece.

I obtained my first research experiences working in a basic biology department at a small university. I was lucky enough to find a phenomenal mentor and get some experience in molecular biology in a department with a faculty that focused mostly on ecology, fish biology, teaching, and (for many tenured profs) reading the paper while waiting-out the years until retirement. The graduate students that I worked with were paid primarily by the department; however, they had to earn their living wages (which amounted to about $12,000 a year). They worked as TAs for 2-3 afternoons a week and marked lab reports for at least 10-15 hours every week. They did this to have the opportunity to do research. Similarly, graduate students in basic science programs throughout Canada are paid very little; they also need to TA and to mark reports to earn it. Therefore, they do their research in what amounts to spare time. Although it makes doing their research difficult, it gives them independence. They are not employees of a prof, they are students; they learn in their chosen lab, work on projects that are within the scope of the research interests of their PI, but tailored to their own interests and goals. This should sound familiar: it’s called being a grad student.

In Ottawa, particularly at the OHRI, we are paid comparatively well, and asked only to do our thesis research in return. However, our salaries (unless externally-provided) are paid by our PIs, through their grants. I found the research environment very different when I arrived in Ottawa. People here refer to their PIs as “boss”. They call their research “work”. I have always rejected the term boss for my PI. He is my mentor; I’ll even go as far as to call him my “thesis supervisor”, but never my boss. I don’t go to work. I go to the lab. This matter of semantics has been my private rejection of a system that I have never been able to understand.

To me, a PI has a specific role. They obtain funds to work on projects that they find interesting. They recruit like-minded people to help them work towards their research goals. The PI obtains funds, and thus has responsibilities to both the providers of funding - to ensure that the money is well spent - and to the people that work in their lab, to ensure that they are able to pursue their research in a good environment. This is where the formal authority of the PI ends for me.

Graduate school is a learning experience, not a job. Any PI that tries impose hierarchical ruling on a graduate student (outside of the realm of authority that I described above), is not only exercising unwarranted power, but is also harming the potential of the project and the student. Creativity and invention are what makes good research great research. When creativity is stifled, mediocrity is inevitable. Whenever such unnecessary imposition of force is encountered, it should be rejected and fought. However, it is so pervasive in Ottawa that all incoming graduate students undergo a form of indoctrination that keeps them from questioning the role of their mentor in directing their day-to-day activities.

I will finish with an excerpt from a biography of James Watson (maybe not the greatest role model for potential PIs, but a man who often makes some great points and who obviously achieved great things in his mentoring and administrative careers):

“(Watson’s students and post docs) knew that they were working “primarily to advance their own careers.” Though terrified of Watson, they weren’t working for anyone but themselves. “I never worked for anybody,” Watson recalled on his 60th birthday. “I could never work under others. You only get somewhere with people if they feel they are working for themselves”."


Anonymous Coward said...

I agree with you, we have no boss, and it's more school than work. But the end result is the same: productivity is important, finishing your project is the priority, and only a few will be promoted (become PI's). In some ways it's worse than a job, because you have no-one to blame when things don't work out, and no reason to avoid the lab on nights/weekends. Or at the other extreme, no-one expects you in the morning, so you need real inner motivation to come. And when things don't work out, that can be difficult...

kamel said...

Don't let your boss read that. She is listed as one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada.