The drawbacks of learning on the job

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In benchwork, learning from your mistakes is an important, essential, and helpful part of the tuition process. There are so many variables to control in the average molecular biology experiment that those with anything less than the greenest of green fingers will probably need several iterations to get publication-quality data. Ironically though, it’s often best when things don’t go right the first time.

The requirement for working through a problem, optimising all the parameters, and finally getting a perfect (or nearly perfect) outcome provides a far richer learning experience than doing it three times and having it work flawlessly on every occasion. By working through a problem, inspecting it from all angles and figuring out what areas need extra care or consideration, you come to understand it much better.

This trial and error aspect is an integral part of learning to be a good bench scientist. And it’s not just full understanding that comes from painstakingly working things through – that baptism by fire approach is an essential component of developing your own style. Every researcher has a slightly different approach to problems, to priorities, to outlook, and it’s the long gestation process that makes this maturation possible.

This point has long been appreciated in the arts, where the slow and often painful struggle towards creative maturity is viewed as an integral part of the process. The Bildungsroman (or, more properly, the Künstlerroman) novel type celebrates the psychological and often spiritual path that the young creative must follow, and some highly autobiographical accounts have become literary classics in their own right (Joyce’s “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, Lawrence’s “Sons and lovers”, Graves’ “Goodbye to all that”).

The downside of learning on the job, however, is that it takes time. And time is a luxury that is becoming rarer and rarer for young scientists today. Not only that, but that trial-and-error approach tends to be carried over from benchwork into associated aspects of the scientific life – writing papers, applying for grants, reviewing others’ work.

The principal difference with these more conceptual elements of scientist’s life is the number of iterations you’re allowed to have compared to practical toil. At the bench, the number of times you can attempt to do something until it is perfected can be very high, and sometimes almost unlimited. It is precisely that high-frequency, iterative approach that lets you gradually attain expert status.

However the conceptual tasks tend to have a much lower number of “lives” associated with them. The very first paper a scientist writes may well be the first-author one from their PhD (and sometimes, regrettably, they are not even allowed to write that). A scientist can plausibly become a group leader having only authored 1-2 papers, but must then take responsibility for the output of an entire group.

Frighteningly, that’s probably the easiest of the three conceptual tasks to master. When it comes to writing grants, it’s entirely possible that a scientist will have no experience whatsoever of grant-writing when they become a group leader, but must immediately attempt to win funding to secure the long-term future of the lab they now run. And likewise when it comes to reviewing, a young scientist may suddenly be tasked with evaluating others’ work or proposals – and if it’s a grant, sometimes with profound and long-term consequences for those involved – with no practice at all.

This learning on the job aspect would function well if sufficient time and latitude were available, but as noted above that’s seldom the case for young scientists today. Perhaps more than anything it demonstrates the essential need in the current climate for young group leaders to find a supportive environment in which to hone their craft. And a supportive environment is not necessarily a well-funded one. Astute mentors, friendly but critical peers, and a sense of being a valued long-term investment are the ingredients of a supportive soil, and it’s a fortunate soul that finds their way into one.


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