Monday, May 6, 2013

Everyone should learn everything.

Today I am getting on a bit of a soapbox about things.  Specifically about things scientists should learn.
Scientists should learn everything (source)
In an ideal world everyone would be good at everything, but as you have probably noticed this is NOT the case. Some people are good at lots of things and some people are really good at specific things, but terrible at others, and some unfortunate people are generally bad at a lot of things and mediocre at a few.

Recently, I've been hearing increasing noise for scientists (or scientists-in-training) to learn X, Whatever X is. 'Scientists should learn art"; "Scientists should learn creative writing"; "Scientists should learn how to communicate to the public more clearly" ; "Scientists should learn managerial skills" and so forth.

This bothers me for a couple of reasons.

1. Why should the scientists learn all this stuff? Why aren't people clamoring for artists to learn microbiology, or for novelists to brush up on their molecular genetics?


2. What is wrong with some people being good at science and NOT being good at much else?

Yes, if waving a magic wand could suddenly make scientists good communicators, artists, and managers, I wouldn't object. But these things (like science itself) take training. And god knows, graduate students already get a lot of training.

And yes, running a lab takes managerial skills and grant writing requires clear communication and story-telling skills. But instead of requiring one person to be good at all these things, why not divide up the labor a little and have a 'lab manager' help run the lab, and a 'departmental grants guru' to help polish the grants.

It is really easy to say 'scientists should learn X' because...

1. there is a perception that scientists are smart and can learn things easily


2. it is always impossible to argue that things wouldn't be better if scientists were good at X. (Wouldn't it be great if all scientists were excellent public speakers? yes of course.)

The problem is implementing the extensive training in X that a scientist should have, and what current training to replace. Therefore I propose that the 'scientists should learn X' statements should all be adjusted to say 'scientists should get extensive training in X rather than Y'.

© TheCellularScale


  1. Only semi-relatedly, you know what bothers me? Scientist geniuses on TV that DO know everything. That have three PhDs, can speak several languages, are gorgeous and stylish, are more-or-less socially adept, and are only 30.

    That stuff takes time!

  2. Ha, well yeah, that bothers me in a different way.

  3. I believe that this a part of a broader problem. I would call it "a cult of the best". Have you ever met a grant or scholarship announcement saying: "We want to support good scientist", "great applicants will be considered" etc? Or met a PI who wanted "to hire good scientist in his lab?" in my experience its rather always "we will support best of the best which are so best than no one can be bester or even bestest". Therefore if your ambition is to be "good scientist" you're lagging behind from the start line, and only a few can be best by the definition. What you describe in the post is I think derivative of this approach ("you want to describe yourself scientist? you have to be the best at everything"), moreover I believe it promotes PI's in the type of "science businessman" not in the "science aficionado" type (cause businessman will convince all that he's the best of the best, aficionado won't).

  4. I think miszcz has a point. There's a fascination that competition will produce only the best work. This isn't true. It simply produces the greatest diversity.

    More on point, there's a disturbing trend in the US towards greater production, and I think this topic relates specifically to that. One doesn't merely have be the best at one thing, but the best at all things in order to eke out a living.

    The available capital for research is drying up, or rather tightening up. It would be odd for scientists to not feel the tremors.