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Does Anyone Know the Funny Handshake?

Posted in: Lab Statistics & Math
Does Anyone Know the Funny Handshake?

Greg Petsko, President of the American Society for Biochemistry wrote a very interesting article recently in which he drew attention to the parallels between the PhD/Postdoc system and the medieval trade guilds, and the problems our profession faces because it is drifting away from that system.

In the trade guild system the right of an individual to work as a tradesman had to be approved by the guild members, and approval was earned in two stages. The first stage required years of work as an apprentice under a master craftsman until the master decided that the apprentice had reached a sufficient level of competency to transition to a journeyman.

Attaining journeyman status meant being accepted into the guild as a tradesman in your own right, and was often accompanied by great ceremony, lots of beer and the passing down of funny handshakes. A journeyman was allowed to travel to different towns and work under different masters to gain a wide berth of experience in his trade. After many years of work, and generally after the production of a “masterpiece”, a journeyman would then be accepted into the guild as a master craftsman.

Substitute “apprentice” for “PhD/grad student”, “journeyman” for “postdoc”, “mastercraftsman” for “PI/Professor” and “masterpiece” for “a paper in Nature” and it is easy to see how the two systems parallel, although, like Petsko, I have never been shown the funny handshake for the Guild of Bioscientists.

So what’s wrong with the system?

The problem with the system, as Petsko points out, is that unlike 50 years ago when a fully fledged, master craftsman scientist would work in the lab along with his apprentices and journeyman, today’s PI’s rarely get to work in the lab and instead work on managing their scientists, writing papers, applying for grants and wading through politics. So the hands-on technical skills that were honed during their apprentice and journeyman stages are worth little to a PI and instead, they need a whole new set of skills – writing, communicating, people management, schmoozing etc etc. Few of these skills are widely taught, leaving PIs to stumble along and learn it themselves, which kind of defeats the purpose of the training system.

The solution?

Petsko’s absolutely logical and sensible solution is to make training in these skills mandatory throughout the undergrad and PhD stages and, indeed, this is starting to be offered by some institutions. I also hope that Bitesize Bio can help in this regard as one of our main focuses is on giving advice on non-technical skills and in the future we hope to expand out to provide more robust and detailed teaching on these topics.

But perhaps the most interesting point came in a comment left by an ASBMB member. He/she suggested that the solution is to change the system so that PIs can, and in fact are required, to do the job that they have been trained to do – practical lab in the work, alongside their PhDs and Postdocs. This would surely make a far more efficient system, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Worth bearing in mind

These points made by Petsko should be borne in mind by anyone who has the career goal of becoming a PI. Whether or not it is offered by your institution, you should take, and seek out, every opportunity available to train in the actual skills required to be a PI and equip yourself for the job that you are aiming for. Failure to do so means you are only storing up difficulties for yourself in the future.

How do you think our Guild should be fixed? And does anyone know our funny handshake?

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  1. Suzanne on April 2, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Hi Matt,
    How about an article for Bitesize Bio on “How to manage your PI”? Do you think you can write advice on that, having experience having to do it?

  2. Matt on April 1, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Ever since I was a graduate student, I thought that it should be a requirement that, somewhere along the way, PI’s should pick up some management skills. I have known several professors who, while quite proficient at the analytical side of science, were obviously inept at running their labs, largely due to a complete lack of any idea how to supervise people effectively. I’ve also often felt that first year graduate students should be given a course entitled, “How to manage your PI.” It might help to make up for the lack of suck knowledge on the part of the PIs.

  3. epibio on April 1, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    A related problem is that we are overproducing PhD graduates, relative to the limited amount of academic positions available. It would help to train graduate students in skills that they could use in nonacademic positions, and to remove the stigma often associated with students pursuing nonacademic careers.

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