Learning without teaching: A repost and addendum

GertyZ is a little irritated with all the whiny grad students and disgruntledocs. My own response reminded me of a post I wrote a year ago. It seemed appropriate to repost and update now.


The following was originally posted on Blogger on Sept. 19, 2009, not quite a year after completing my PhD. For new readers, Bear is my PhD adviser, and PSU is the Pretty Southern University where I did my PhD

Last weekend I got together with a former member of Bear’s lab (we’ll call him Forte) who was in town for a meeting. Forte was a senior grad student in the lab when I joined, and he taught me a lot about the techniques used in our lab, the system we were studying, and the politics of the lab. He finished up a little less than a year after I joined. It had been a couple of years since I’d seen Forte or talked with him much, well before I finished my dissertation.

Part of our recent conversation revolved around the education we received at PSU and what we learned from Bear. At one point, Forte commented that when he left grad school, he thought he didn’t get a great education there–sure, he learned stuff, he got his Ph.D., but it just didn’t seem like much… until he went somewhere else and realized the breadth and depth of his training compared with colleagues from other institutions. We also talked about the similar experiences we had as we left PSU: We were pissed with Bear. We were so ready to be gone. We questioned what we had learned from him. We just wanted to get out manuscripts out and get on with our lives. Then, a few months after we left, we realized that we had actually learned a lot from him and why he did some of the things that pissed us off so much.

Trainees (myself included) become very upset when there is a lack (sometimes perceived, sometimes real) of formal, structured mentoring. Our PIs becomes enamored with the newest shiny object or cool project or sexy data, and we feel ignored and neglected. Sometimes we’re just left completely alone for weeks or months at a time. Our PIs only communicate to get slides or figures or data or whatever for a talk or grant or paper. As a trainee, you essentially have two options: (A) Decide that your PI is out of touch, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and ignore everything he does… or view it only as the antithesis of what should be done. (B) Realize that he’s been pretty damned successful up to this point and start paying attention.

I chose option B. That’s not to say I didn’t do my share of bitching and commiserating with fellow grad students. But I also paid attention to how Bear ran things. When he made suggestions or recommendations, I listened. By doing this (I realized after some time, distance, and reflection), I learned some incredibly important things from Bear. I learned how to write manuscripts, how to put together a clear, concise presentation of data. I learned a lot about grants–writing, submission, review processes. I learned that I should keep up to date with what’s being published, not just in my field of study but in other fields as well, and with what’s going on in science policy and funding. And a hell of a lot more. But in the end, the most important things I learned from Bear… he never actually taught me. He showed me, even if he didn’t know I was watching.


Now fastforward a year to present day.

I’m walking away from a less than stellar postdoc experience, to put it mildly. I tried to take the option B approach again, really I did. It did not go as well. Perhaps with a little distance and time, I will begin to realize things I learned from my first postdoc mentor. I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that option A I described above arises from a personality clash, a major mismatch between management style of the PI and its reception by the trainee. I won’t say I’ve learned nothing. In my view, if I walk away from any experience, good or bad, without learning anything, then that’s my own damn fault. Maybe sometimes you do come away with more bullets in the “things I’ll never do” column than you have in the “the way I want to do things category”. Either way, I’ve learned some things.

One of those things is that you don’t know how truly good, bad, or indifferent your mentor(s) and network are until you feel like you’ve been backed into a corner. Luckily, it turns out my mentors and network are pretty friggin’ awesome. Bear took the time to talk with me about what was going on and what my next step should be. He recommended people I should talk to, labs I might consider. He offered suggestions for how to frame inquiries and explanations for my departure from the lab. He went to bat for me. I have little doubt that his name and scientific reputation helped me land the new postdoc position. Bear and Forte made introductions that expanded my existing network. Forte, who’s been industry since graduating, also provided some perspective from that side and reviewed my industry CV. My mentors, colleagues, and newfound connections turned the daunting, terrifying task of finding a new job into an incredible, invaluable learning experience of its own.

I’ve had my moments as a whiny disgruntledoc, and I’m sure I’ll have more. But even when I’m bitching, I’m learning somthing along the way in this scientist-in-training gig. Thanks to all those who have dealt with that and who have taught me so much, even if you never realized your were.

This entry was posted in advisor/trainee interactions, mentoring, responsibilities, teaching, things they don't tell you in grad school. Bookmark the permalink.

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