Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

The Advantages of Maturity

Posted by Athene Donald on September 3, 2010

A final post on the Oxford meeting, before I go on holiday for the next week (no laptop, no emails and no posts).  This topic is provoked by some comments made to me by a mature PhD student attending the meeting.

These days we are much more organised about training PhD students than when I set out. However, what this woman remarked on were the advantages of advancing years in coping with interdisciplinary research.  This woman had recently come back to do a PhD in physics, although she is slightly older than me. Her take was that she would have struggled to cope with the need to interact with people in the different disciplines, challenge the less than ideal supervision she had – shared as she has been between 3 supervisors separated by geography and discipline – and generally take control of the project if she hadn’t had 30+ years of ‘real life’ to equip her to do it.  Certainly, at 21, our students have not yet had the opportunity to develop the sort of confidence in themselves and their interpersonal skills at a professional level that this woman was implying.  That is not to say some students will not arrive equipped with exactly these skills by virtue of their schooling, families or other background input, but most will lack the requisite experience, personal insight and confidence.

Standard PhD student training (at least in the UK) is likely to incorporate some elements of transferable skills training.  This might include presentation skills, scientific writing, maybe information on how to prepare your CV and interviewing skills, but almost certainly nothing about the lifeskills that this woman identified: dealing with difficult people, team working, knowing how to negotiate and having the confidence to ask awkward questions – and then keep asking them.  These skills are important in ensuring a successful outcome of research, and maturity does give the opportunity to develop them as well as the confidence to know that the sky will not fall in if you dare to challenge, if you misread a situation and put your foot in it or otherwise get it wrong.

More often than one would like, research students find themselves in unsatisfactory situations and for a variety of reasons. These might include having difficult peers and/or supervisors who go AWOL, make unreasonable demands on them or simply do not interact with their students or teach them anything. Increasingly universities and funders set up systems to try to ensure things don’t go awry, but since so often they go wrong for non-systemic reasons, life skills are also needed.  For example one practice that appalls me, although I have only heard of it occurring in the US, was that of a professor who set two students on essentially identical projects to see which came out on top. What a waste of time, and probably one student’s career, since the ‘failure’ was implicitly going to be dispensed with.  The trouble is that I am not convinced a university’s policies would necessarily pick it up as an example of bad practice.

Interdisciplinary research poses even more problems because you may have to deal with two lab cultures, two research teams and conflicting expectations and demands. Training for students maybe should be extended to cover these other ‘soft’ skills of confidence building (something locally  WiSETI tries to do through workshops for early career women researchers), conflict management and team working skills. As an example of lateral thinking to cure a people problem, I would cite a previous postdoc of mine who found a very effective way to speed up instrument making in the workshop – bake them a cake! Using whatever skills and native wit you have to make progress is what it takes to get on, after all, and thinking about how to make her requests literally more palatable clearly came naturally to her. These abilities may be more important than learning how to jazz up Powerpoint presentations, which most students will have learnt years before anyhow (though the same may not be true of the ability to construct a grammatically correct sentence). And of course, remembering my post on the deficit model, we should recognize it is not just the students who need training and by implication are at fault, but supervisors and their own line managers may also need such training.

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