Earlier this week, students in the department organized our annual symposium. During a panel, we came to discuss the skills of “the average biologist”, and what it means for the students currently entering the field. This was an interesting discussion, and it made me think a little bit more about three points: our expectations in terms of skills, inadequate training, and the need to value different profiles.
We expect biologists to know how to do more and more things.
There is a very clear message that in addition to be good a biologist (whatever that means), you should know programming, data analysis, communication, outreach, field work, lab work, some more data analysis, by the end of your graduate studies. This is not possible. And sending this message to students is exhausting for them.
The message we should send, instead, is that all of these skills are necessary to the advancement of research, but nothing says that a single person should be responsible for them all. There is a myth that says that you become a master at something after ten thousand hours of practice. The estimate may be wildly off, but there is truth in the idea that sustained practice over a long time is requirement for mastery. To know something deeply takes time, practice, and the conscious decision to not become an expert at most things.
Requiring biologists to know it all also sends the message that we should sell ourselves as a master of many things. The truth is, probably very few people can become experts at all of the aspects of science. After all this time, there is about one and a half thing about which I would say I am an expert, and that is still a preposterously generous estimate. But this is fine – expertise in a handful of things (a small hand, like you may find on a two or three toed sloth) coupled with an awareness of other things, and a steadfast refusal to care about a lot of other things, makes me productive.
The training is lagging behind.
Training currently increases in volume, because it seems to proceed from the idea that there is a common core of knowledge for biologists, and this core is huge. It varies across institutions, but we expect undergraduates to know a ton of systematics and taxonomy, natural history, statistics, basic lab work, genetics, and more specialized courses. So in order to keep up with the trend of biology relying on an increasing number of skills, the trend seems to increase the volume of content instead of making choices.
And I am all in favour of making cuts to the “common” set of courses. In fact, I would probably be happy with the common core being a single class. It would be pass/fail, and last for about 5 minutes. It would have a single multiple-choice question: “Do you want to study biology? yes; no; unsure”. Check “yes” or “unsure”, congratulations on being a biologist, let’s pick you some classes to get you where you want to be.
This would offer the huge opportunity of letting students grow into the biologist they want to become. Want to spend 90% in the field generating data? Go do it, we need this. Want to stay inside, drink tea, and do statistics? Superb, that’s useful. Want to do a mix of this, and help other people talk to one another? Congratulations, this is a much needed profile.
We need to value generalists and outfielders.
Currently, we tend to value the appearance of being able to do it all. My perspective on this is necessarily biased because I am not a very good “classical biologist” (don’t know much natural history, no interest for taxonomy, would rather not go in the field, thinks the lab smells weird) despite doing actual research in biology. But we need to improve the diversity of profiles. The idea of the “average biologist” is interesting, and maybe we can spend some time thinking about it. But I think it would be more interesting to think about the range of variance around this idea we are comfortable with.