25 March 2013

Steering into the skid: what can we fix with formal training in grad school?

A couple of years ago, I got into a car wreck. A tire blew out on a truck to my right. It swerved and hit me. I skidded across the road. You know what you’re supposed to do in that situation, right?

You’re supposed to steer into the skid.

I did not. I was unable to correct the skid, and wound up crossing a couple of lanes of the highway. There was no oncoming traffic, and I was fine.

I was trained to do the correct thing and steer into the skid. I took driving lessons. Steering into the skid is what you’re told to do in driving school. I know this intellectually. But it’s not intuitive, you have only a split second to react, and, most importantly, we try hard not to create out of control skids. Skids are rare for people doing routine driving, especially in someplace like Southern Texas, where there are rarely icy roads.

How much time should driving instructors spend training beginning drivers to cope with skidding? There isn’t a simple answer. Someone who wants be a professional driver should get more training. A person whose driving mainly to a daily commute in a warm, semi-arid climate, may not need any training. I never practised steering a skidding car, although I learned to drive in Canada, where icy roads are routine.

Last week, NESCent hosted a conference on journalism and reporting of evolution; something I’ve written about a fair amount here. As a possible solution to improve the situation, Melissa Wilson Sayres wrote:

Best Practice: Formal training in journalism/media communication for graduate students

(Check her original tweet for some discussion.)

This suggestion is well meaning. It’s a tempting suggestion to make for us in academia, since our entire career revolves around training in one way or another.I’ve been guilty of saying, “Every academic should make it a point to get good at... (pet topic).” But such suggestions are hard to do. 

The deeper concern is whether “formal training in graduate school” can what we want it to do.

For instance, there has been a lot of interest in having students receive training in research ethics. Funding agencies love these. Some set aside specific pots of money to supplement training programs so that those programs can include training in ethics. Despite that, the Retraction Watch blog has no shortage of material, and most retractions are due to unethical behaviour on the part of the authors (Fang et al. 2012).

As an instructor, obviously I am not going to say that training is entirely useless. Rather, I am saying that training happens in a larger context. There is a great big ol’ reward system in place in academic science. Academic science rewards you for original peer reviewed journal articles, preferably in a small set of journals with a high impact factors (the “glamour mags”), and grants. The rewards for getting those things are large.

Giving a grad student formal ethics training and expecting them not to be even a little tempted to take shortcuts in their research to get those highly rewarded papers in Nature, or Science, or Cell is like admonishing someone to cut down on calories while leading them through a cupcake shop giving away free samples while everyone’s back is turned.

Similarly, despite training about sexual harassment, there’s still a lot of pig-headed, boorish, sexist behaviour in the workplace. Again, note that I’m not saying that such training is useless, but that there is a lot of  cultural baggage that can’t quickly be overcome by “formal training.”

First, there is no central authority that says, “YEA VERILY, ALL GRADUATE PROGRAM SHALL TEACH...” Trying to implement any formal training across the board is tough, given that grad students are spread across thousands of independent fiefdoms.

And let’s not underestimate how long “communication training” would take. As Karen James wrote:

I’ve been working at (communicating outside a research field) for a decade and still not there.

Graduate students get a lot of formal training already. There has to be a point where we stop adding to their curriculum. We can’t just send students to a workshop, or even a semester long class, then dust off our hands and say, “They’ve been trained.” Communication training won’t matter much until there are rewards and opportunity for people to practice those skills, day in, day out, until it becomes like steering into the skid: when you don’t even have to think it through.


Fang FC, Steen RG, Casadevall A. 2012. Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(42): 17028-17033. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1212247109

Related posts

“We cheated death”

External links

Reporting Across the Culture Wars: Engaging Media on Evolution
Retraction Watch

Photo by Sugar Daze on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Peter said...

With so many possibilities for training, I wonder if we could use this as a measure of which are more (and less) important: how many people will be harmed if the grad student does not get the training. For example, if a grad student has poor communication skills, they harm themselves. Poor research ethics? Definitely themselves but also their professional peers, like the co-authors on the retracted paper and the group's PI.

I'm working my way up the one I care about most: teaching. Traditionally, grad students get very little training about how to teach. New faculty are thrown into a class (usually a large, intro class that no one with seniority wants to teach) and the instructor tries to figure out how to teach through trial and error. We see this a lot in Physics where students start the term interested and hate physics 3 months later.

This, in my opinion, is too large a sacrifice, too many people harmed. And it's why a growing number of universities like mine, UCSD, are offering intense, extended courses on teaching to grad students and post docs. We're sending them out onto the skid track and we're riding shotgun to give them training and feedback when they need it. Hopefully, we don't have to grab the wheel too often.