Is there such a thing as a “Balanced” Scientist?

My Vice Chancellor, who has a law degree or two, reckons that calling our PhD-engagement Guidelines for the Balanced Scientist Program
program the “Balanced” scientist program is a akin to calling something an “Ethical Lawyer” program. His words, not mine.

When I say “our”, I’m still thinking of my old job at the Invasive Animals CRC. We thought quite a bit about how to involve our PhD students in the research program. We didn’t want them just to be trained on a single thesis topic, but to have a broader experience of the science scene in Australia; to be more self-aware so that they could work on their own strengths or weaknesses; and to gain some generic skills like writing for publication and grants.

We did it in a structured way. We offered our students 80 days of additional training beyond their own thesis work. We paid for that time in extra scholarship (most of them needed it anyway because they tend to work on animal ecology, and the three-year footprint for a PhD is hard to meet). Forty of the days are for learning in an environment they might end up working in; the other forty were spent on PhD-camps with specific aims and a whole range of things designed for each student.

The idea was to have a more balanced approach to the PhD degree. Australia has the third highest percentage of PhD-trained people staying in the higher education sector in the OECD. But for the overall economy, we need better access to those skills outside the higher ed sector. So communication skills was an obvious area to develop. But we also at least touched on financial skills and commercialisation skills. My colleagues and I felt that many postdocs are thrown in at the deep end and have little experience managing a budget or people. So we tried to cover those type of situations.I remember that there was only a single extravert in the first student cohort when we looked at Myers-Briggs preferences. Knowing about your own preferences can help in managing a team, for example, but many PhD trainees don’t get that opportunity until later in their career.

We learnt a lot implementing the program. A few things that come to mind are:

  • There is no such thing as a “typical” PhD student. The age, experience and backgrounds varied much more than I or my colleagues often assumed;
  • “Scientist” is a dirty word to some. Parallel to this program, our CRC was supporting more social science work (or what I would call social science). I was surprised that some of these people strongly preferred to be called “researchers” over “scientists”. I pretty well always get that wrong – but the CRC Association is now Showcasing Early Career Researchers rather than Scientists to be more inclusive.
  • Involving PhD students in bigger projects and the whole CRC is valued and appreciated. There can be a few IP issues or turf issues if students are involved in the main projects in a Centre, but they are worth working out. Students working on more defined, smaller, projects of their own did not feel as involved or as appreciated.

So that others can learn these and other lessons, the CRC has published some guidelines to the Balanced Scientist Program. Obviously, others would tailor the training to suit their particular students, but it is a good starting point.