Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blinded by the skills.

OK, I’m just gonna come right out and say it: I ain’t got no skills. I can’t code in R. I can’t run a PCR. I can’t do a Bayesian analysis. I can’t develop novel symbolic math. I can’t implement computer simulations. I don't have a clue how to do bioinformatics. I simply can’t teach you these things.

So why would anyone want to work with me as a graduate supervisor. After all, that’s what you go to graduate school for, right – SKILLS in all capitals. You want to be an R-hero. You want to be a genomics whiz. You want to build the best individual-based simulations. You want to be able to have these things so you can get a job, right? So clearly your supervisor should be teaching you these skills, yeah?

I most definitely cannot teach you how to code this Christmas tree in R. Fortunately, you can find it here

I will admit that sometimes I feel a bit of angst about my lack of hard skills. Students want to analyze their data in a particular way and I can’t tell them how. “I am sure you can do that in R,” I say. Or they want to do genomic analysis and I say “Well, I have some great collaborators.” I can’t check their code. I can’t check their lab work. I can’t check their math.

Given this angst, I could take either of two approaches. I could get off my ass and take the time and effort to learn some skills, damn it. Alternatively, I might find a way to justify my lack of skills. I have decided to take the latter route.

I think your graduate supervisor should be helping you in ways that you can’t get help for otherwise. Hence, my new catch-phrase is: “If there is an online tutorial for it, then I won't be teaching it to you.” Or, I might as well say: “If a technician can teach it to you, I won't be.” Now it might seem that I am either trying to get out of doing the hard stuff or that I consider myself above such things. Neither is the case - as evidenced by the above-noted angst. Instead, I think that the skills I can – and should be – offering to my graduate students are those one can’t find in an online tutorial and that can’t be taught by a technician.

Check out these crazy-ass impressive equations from my 2001 Am Nat paper. (My coauthor Troy Day figured them out.) 
I should be helping students to come up with interesting questions. I should be putting them in contact with people who have real skills. I should be helping them make connections and forge collaborations. I should be helping them write their proposals and their papers. I should be giving them – or helping them get for themselves – the resources they need to do their work. I should be challenging them, encouraging them, pushing them in new directions with new ideas. These are the things that can’t be found in an online tutorial; the things that a technician can’t teach them. In short, I should be providing added value beyond what they can find elsewhere.

Hey, in 1992, my genetic skills weren't bad - although, to be honest, my allozyme gels usually weren't this pretty
You might say I could, and should, do both – teach hard skills and do all the extra “soft” stuff just noted. Indeed, some of my friends and colleagues are outstanding at teaching hard skills and also at the “soft” skills I am touting. However, certainly for me personally, and – I expect – even for my polymath colleagues, there is a trade-off between teaching hard skills and doing the soft stuff. If a supervisor is an R whiz, then the student will sit back and watch (and learn) the R skills. The supervisor will have less time for the other aspects of supervision, the student will rely on the supervisor for the skills, the student might not take the initiative to learn the skills on their own, and the student might not experience the confidence-building boost of “figuring it out for themselves.”

Beyond my personal shortcomings when it comes to hard skills, it is important to recognize that graduate school is not about learning skills. Yes, hard skills come in handy and are often necessary. Certainly, skills look good on the CV – as long as they are reflected in publications. But, really, graduate school is not about technical aspects, it is about ideas (and, yes, data). PhDs aren’t (or shouldn’t be anyway) about learning bioinformatics or statistics – those are things that happen along the way, they aren’t the things that make you a Doctor of Philosophy. Most research universities don’t hire people with skills, they hire people with ideas. (I realize there are exceptions here – but that is another post.)

So, don’t come to me for skills. Don't come to any supervisor for skills. Come to us for ideas and enthusiasm. Come to us for arguments and challenges. Come to us for big ideas, stupid ideas, crazy ideas, and even a few good ideas. Come to us expecting us to expect you to learn your own skills – and to help point you to the place you can find them. We will tell you who has the skills. You will learn them on your own. 

We supervisors will help you with the things you can’t find on your own.



1. I have mad field-work skills - come to me for those!
2. Max respect to my colleagues who do actually have real skills.
3. Sometimes skills ARE the research/ideas, such as development of new methodologies.
4. Thanks to Fred Guichard (with Steph Weber and Simon Reader) for the "blinded by the skills" title - suggested during our weekly "periodic table" at McGill.

OK, so I do have a few some skills I can actually teach my students. I can catch guppies better than most.


  1. Yeah, but. Someone still has to have the skills to teach the students. If not you, who? And why should they take away time from their students to teach your students? How can you devote some of your resources to supporting all the hard skill learning that needs to be done by your students? Because it isn't necessarily so easy to just "pick up" these hard skills.


  2. Thanks for the comments and link.

    Usually my students learn hard skills through workshops and training courses taught by specialists and technicians. They also get specialized training through online tutorials, program manuals, and by interacting with their fellow students. However, I am sure some of my students wish I could actually teach them something concrete.

  3. I love the way you've put this Andrew. You've articulated what I've practiced for ages, but haven't ever thought deeply enough about to formalize as an educational philosophy.

    One thing I'd like to amplify - and this has been bothering me for a while now, but until you put it this way, I've lacked the right framework to explain it:

    The other reason it's not my job, and actually would be destructive to my educational mission if I made it my job to teach "skills", is that nomatter what skills I could or did teach, those would not be the skills that a student actually needed after college/grad-school. The single most valuable skill I can help my trainees to acquire, is the meta-skill to learn new practical skills on their own. This recent emphasis on "job targeted education" in college is entirely misguided.

    Almost no-one comes out of college or a graduate program with the specific practical skills they need to be successful in the next stage of their career. Those who are most prepared, aren't the ones with the most practical skills, but the ones with the most practice in acquiring any new practical skill that they need.

    If I "teach them" practical skills, I deny them the opportunity to learn the single most valuable lesson that they can learn, which is how to learn without me.

    That's not to say that I don't "help" with nudges in practical skill areas when there's a nuance that they haven't noticed and a bump in the right direction will help them clear some hurdle, but I'm here to teach them how to think and be independent, not how to set up a PCR reaction, or code in C, or do terminal bleeds on rabbits.

    And to address Margaret's question - my colleagues are generally happy to donate their time to train my students in areas where they're experts (or, more often, to donate their trainees' time - which serves two purposes), for the same reason I'm happy to donate my time to help their students: Voluntary cooperation and collaboration is a necessary part of a well-functioning community, and learning to function as a peer who can both give, and accept help from that community, is a critical part of the "learn to learn" meta-skill we aim to teach.

  4. Guys, I understand your point of view but based on the academic market (only a small percentage of graduate students actually ends up with a tenure track position) a minority of the graduate students you had, have, and will have will not need those skills and can rely on ideas alone.

    A vast majority of them will desperately need those skills to land a job (ideas only land you a job in academia in a faculty tenure-track position, outside of this they don't hire on ideas).

    This discussion needs to happen at all levels (Universities, Colleges, Departments, Labs), we cannot continue to produce PhDs with the sole objective of being tenure track faculties and close our eyes on the reality of the job market --> the PhD degree doesn't have to die with the faculty tenure-track position shrinkage.

  5. @Luc Dunoyer - I would argue that there's no reason for people to be trained to the Ph.D. level, if they're only interested in having the skills necessary to be a technician. It's also absolutely destructive to the concept of the Ph.D. to modify that degree such that the emphasis is on technician-level skills, rather than on the skills necessary to be a thought-leader in the field. The problem is not the training and targets of the different degrees, it is the "needed degree" inflation that leads so many people who really have no use for a Ph.D. down the path of trying to get one.

    At the same time, I don't think we're saying that our trainees aren't expected to learn the hands-on skills of the field - just that _those_ skills aren't the variety of skills that we are uniquely suited to teach. Technician-level hands-on skills can be taught by hands-on technician-level folks.

    No disrespect _whatsoever_ meant towards the technician-level folks. It's the difference between having an architect, and a carpenter, teach someone how to drive nails. The carpenter's work is just as necessary and important as the architects, and at the end of the day, he or she is going to be a lot better at teaching how to swing a hammer.

    1. @William Ray - I completely agree and join your position. But there are worlds between the tenure-track positions and technician-level jobs … I’m thinking of education related positions such as lecturers, instructors, teaching professors, etc. I’m also thinking of all the private industry with consulting, outreach, NGOs, etc. All those positions are reachable via a Ph.D. and often require one. Graduate students need to learn about transferable skills, management skills, teaching skills, etc. not every job for which a Ph.D. is asked requires to “be a thought-leader in the field” … that’s the discussion that needs to happen.

      PS: yes inflation of the needed degree is a thing … because universities don’t work toward transitioning Ph.D. training from solely for tenure track positions to what the market is becoming (the tenure-track position is dying).


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