Tag: transferrable skills

Helping students to draft CVs and resumes

In preparation for this week’s lab meeting I asked all of my students to put together a draft CV or resume. They each emailed it to the other members of the lab and we all made constructive comments on these documents. At our lab meeting each person gave feedback to each student on their document that was useful and insightful. It was also a great way to generate questions and have a good discussion about CVs and resumes.

One thing that all of my students noted was how time consuming it was to put together this document for the first time. We talked a lot about content (e.g. what should go into the document) and organization (e.g. what sections or headings to use?). I also impressed upon them the importance of updating the document regularly (I do mine once a month) because if you leave it too long it becomes very difficult to remember what you’ve accomplished. My students also have a tendency to undersell their skill set or they often don’t recognize that they have particular talents or skills. In a previous lab meeting we addressed that issue by brainstorming about transferrable skills and how to capture and describe them to an employer.

I also encouraged by students to take their drafts to our campus Career Centre. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the non-academic job market, or the academic job market for that matter, and the staff at the Career Centre are much better informed about current job market trends and application expectations. I think that part of my job as a faculty member is to help my students prepare for their next phase of life, whether that is looking for a job, further education, or some other goal. I think that professional development is an important part of training students in my lab.

Tips for designing experiments

One guarantee of being a scientist is that you perform many experiments in your career that do not work. I always warn trainees just joining my lab that this will happen and that they should expect it. This is an issue that I discuss in particular with undergraduate students because often the only lab experience they have is through undergrad labs run as part of a course and those experiments are designed to work and have already undergone extensive troubleshooting. I make sure to tell my students that they will run many failed experiments and that this is a normal part of doing science and is a cornerstone of the scientific method. I tell them that so far in my career I’ve only had a few experiments that worked out perfectly the first time and that a failed experiment can happen for reasons other than their abilities or talent for doing science.

That being said, there are things that you can do to decrease the chances that an experiment will fail right out of the gate. I offer some tips below:

1) The first thing that I suggest to students is that they do extensive reading of the literature and established protocols related to their experiment before starting to design it. I’ve heard the phase “one hour in the library can save you one month in the lab” and I absolutely believe it! It’s really important to understand the rationale behind a particular protocol and the nuts and bolts of why you are doing each step. In the days of commercial kits I think that many people forget this crucial step and it often causes issues later.

2) Make sure that you are including all reasonably possible positive and negative controls as part of your experiment. From talking with several of my colleagues recently it has become clear that many undergraduate and graduate students have not had explicit training in how to determine what the appropriate controls should be for an experiment or are simply not including them. By including controls in your experiment you allow yourself the capability of narrowing down where problems cropped up in your experiments. When an experiment fails, this step can save you a massive amount of time when it comes to troubleshooting and determining what went wrong. The presence of control and experimental groups also ensures that you will be able to conduct statistical analyses of your data in an attempt to demonstrate whether your results are significant.

3) Write up an extremely detailed step by step protocol for your experiment. Try to think about what might go wrong and where key steps are in the protocol. Attempt to troubleshoot the experiment before you even do it. The plans for your experiment should be written in your lab notebook and not on paper towels, scrap pieces of paper, etc. This will ensure that your experiment will be reproducible and will help you to identify potential issues before you get rolling. If someone in the lab has done the experiment or protocol before, go and talk to them. They may have tips or tricks that are not explicitly written down that are valuable. Write out the protocol in your own words with as much detail as you can. I tell my students that if they needed to perform the experiment without thinking about the steps, the protocol should be detailed enough that they could do this.

4) Ensure that all of the materials and reagents that you need for your experiment are available and ready to go before you start the experiment. There is nothing worse than getting part way through a long protocol only to realize that you’ve run out of Tris buffer and have to order more in from the supplier. Complete any prior steps that are needed before starting the experiment. Do you need to culture cells, wrangle critters, grow plants, etc.?

5) Conduct a small trial run of your experiment. Starting things off with a pilot experiment allows you to save money, time, and can allow you to discover problems with the design of your experiment before you fully commit large amounts of resources to it.

Designing good experiments is an art form that requires years of practice in order to get better at it. I am still working on designing the perfect experiment, but I have certainly improved this skill by extensive practice over the years. Due to the challenge of designing an effective experiment it is truly amazing when an experiment works beautifully on the first attempt. This is one of the eureka moments that scientists live for!

The Real Value of a Ph.D.

In the past few years, a lot of the blogs that I’ve been reading have been challenging the structure of the Ph.D. in terms of its value and the process of how you get one. There have also been discussions about how there are too many Ph.D. degrees being awarded and not enough jobs (academic, industrial, governmental, etc.) available to graduates. These articles often make me feel guilty for two reasons: I am one of the lucky ones to have a stable, tenure-track position and I am contributing to this perceived glut of scientists problem by training a new generation of scientists in my lab.

This post at Wandering Scientist assuages some of my guilt by talking about some of the non-specific skills that you can pick up by doing a Ph.D. Based on her blog post, I would agree that she has picked up realizations about herself and a skill set that are much more valuable than the piece of paper that represents her degree.

I think that if you were to ask most people with a Ph.D. what the most valuable skill that they came away with from their stint in graduate school they’d probably talk about something technical like becoming a bioinformatics whiz or being able to build the flux capacitor of their dreams. You might get a few people who will talk about the development of time management, project management, or organizational skills or other similar soft skills. You’d get fewer still who would talk about how their Ph.D. experience shaped them as an individual.

Earning that Ph.D. results in your strengths and weaknesses being put under a microscope and being pushed to the limit by the time that you emerge on the other side. It’s pretty cool to go from being a caterpillar, to building your own chrysalis, to ripping that sucker apart to soar on new wings. It’s a transformation and at times it’s very painful, but I think that the experience is a valuable one that tells us more about ourselves than our research question.