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The Black Hole

What I wish I knew sooner: highlighting gaps in early career researcher training

There is a clear need for additional training at all levels, but uncertainty remains as to how to deliver it all in a fair and systematic way.

BY DAVID KENT | FEB 26 2021

Nobody is born knowing everything, although sometimes it can feel that the current academic system selects for people who behave like they do. Academic researchers learn an enormous amount from their peers and mentors along the way and, as you can probably imagine, the access points to such learning are highly variable from person to person. Depending on the career you want to enter, when you learn certain things can also be instrumental in propelling you forward faster or even extracting you from an unsuitable path.

Scientific training is very much divided up into stages and phases from understanding the language through to learning the techniques through to mastering the theory. Equally important, but rarely signposted, is learning to discover, learning to fail, learning to manage and learning what you love (and what you don’t love!). In going over my own academic journey and discussing with Black Hole readers and colleagues over the past 10 years or so, I’ve compiled some of the more impactful lessons I learned a little too late and put some ideas forward for how we can better serve the next generation of young scientists.

Masters degrees – a chronically under-valued tool for transitioning

With the increasing size and scope of undergraduate programs across the world, it becomes less and less possible to deliver hands on laboratory experience that is meaningfully directed towards a research question. While there are some attempts to address this (co-op programs, integrated masters programs, etc), it remains the case that students with degrees in laboratory science subjects often lack substantial lab experience. In many cases, students enter PhD programs without this experience, undertaking an often lengthy period of intense work with no real sense of what they are getting themselves into. A lab-based Masters degree can help bridge this gap by putting someone at the bench full time to test whether or not they are up for many more years of the same.

Tangential can be good

People often think of PhD scientists as an incredibly focused group of individuals who study the minutia of a particular discipline. Over the course of a lengthy PhD, however, there are sporadic “rabbit holes” that one can end up travelling down and some of these are more valuable than others. They can range from discovering the business side of scientific research all the way through to biologists and physicists undertaking collaborative projects. Working in a space where new things are meant to be discovered can be flexible, exciting, challenging, or just plain overwhelming. The tangential moves I’ve made throughout my career often started with simply having an open-mind as to where an initial conversation might go and while some ideas completely flop, others have shaped key research directions in our lab and would never have happened without that first rabbit hole.

Learning from past efforts

It is highly unlikely that you were the first person ever in the world to think of an idea or approach. Everything from research questions through to advocacy efforts has almost certainly been trialled by someone else at some point in the past and – here’s the important bit – they are often really willing to share their stories of success and failure. The number of times I have wished to have a conversation “years ago” is no longer countable. This is especially important when working in unconventional, difficult, or unpopular areas – we need to find ways of liberating this knowledge so that new efforts can be more successful.

Luckily, we at the Black Hole are not the only ones trying to push change and while we focus on sharing best practice and discussing new opportunities or ways forward, others have invested in creating practical tools to help address specific problems in really focused ways drawing on this sort of experiential learning. Two excellent examples in the academic career path are:

  1. EMBO Lab Leadership courses – I’ve never taken one, but I often wish I had as the feedback I’ve heard from colleagues is incredibly positive.  I was lucky to learn quite a lot from both formal and informal mentors along the way, but this sort of course formalizes that process and gives a much broader set of experiences to learn from.
  2. Harvard Catalyst – again, learning from people who have been there before, the Harvard Catalyst program appears to be particularly focused on covering areas related to translating research to clinical application.

There is a clear need for developing and growing these sorts of impactful specialist programs that can help young scientists succeed in a range of areas by drawing on the experiences of others – it’s a highly efficient way of discovering things that you did not even know might be issues to face later.

No room for rubbish

Having just made a case for needing more training and learning along the path to being a scientific leader, I think it is equally important to avoid the serial expansion of companies and programs that seem to be designed to suck every penny from training budgets that are allocated with good intentions. Professional development for the sake of ticking a box is not helpful and can be incredibly costly. As a research community, we cannot open ourselves up to acquiring lots of “useless” training and it is critical to identify what “successful” training looks like and who we trust to deliver it.

From the university perspective, it would seem eminently more sensible to invest in actual programs (like the two mentioned above), research grants/opportunities, flexible funding pots, etc. to actually help people advance their careers rather than pushing money towards salaries and external consulting and delivery costs.

Either way, some serious PR work needs doing

In my experience so far, I’ve come across very few senior professors who would openly welcome more training time and less research time. Similarly, I’ve heard many negative reactions to the new edict from Vitae’s “Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers” which states that all institutions and scientific group leaders must make provision for staff and students to have a minimum of 10 days of professional development. What remains vague is how the training benefits the person, the research group and the institution beyond the checked box and this, in combination with negative experiences from poor professional development provision, makes for a great need to communicate specifically how professional development programs benefit people. It is critical to share successes (postdoctoral fellow X went on program Y and has achieved Z which they attribute to the program) and build value. Otherwise it leads to a constant battle of communicating “we know this is good for you” to a group of people who have full time careers in demanding evidence.

Overall, we find ourselves at a cross-roads – there is a clear need for additional training at all levels (including senior lab leaders and managers) to maximize the impact of scientific researchers. However, this is pitted against a fairly uncertain understanding of how to best deliver this sort of training in a fair and systematic way so it equally allows a broader group of people to be part of this process. It therefore becomes critically important to rigorously assess the impact of various “gap filling” programs and professional development opportunities so that we focus on supporting those that can deliver tangibly to early career researchers.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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