Get ready for the real world

October 3, 1997

Anne White reflects on the success of a graduate training programme in biological sciences

Gone are the days when a PhD or MSc in biological sciences was a leisurely process planning experiments without worrying how they will equip you for your future career.

In the past, graduates picked up the skills needed to be a good scientist from discussions with a supervisor in the pub, at a conference or by bitter experience. But today a much wider range of skills are demanded by students and employers alike.

Funding bodies now require students to write their thesis within four years and their departments face penalties if they do not do so, so students must acquire time and project management skills and an ability to prioritise.

For biological scientists, research-based jobs are embracing robotics, high-throughput screens and bioinformatics that need a management style addressing decision analysis and relative risk. Our graduates will change jobs more frequently and must develop a portfolio of competences that provide them with the skills base for these moves.

In Manchester, we saw this looming five years ago and responded by developing a graduate training programme. It stemmed from a desire to help our PhD and MSc students to appreciate all the skills required to become good scientists. We started off with discussion groups on "life in the lab", which led us to consider teamwork skills, resource management and planning. In the early days, we interspersed discussion groups on how to give a better seminar with talks on lab safety and research training modules.

We have developed a self-assessment approach for information technology so the graduates can identify how much support they need to become competent in statistical analysis, report writing and poster and slide presentation. The outcome of training here becomes self-evident at the graduate student symposium each year where all graduates present their work. Second-year students present posters and over lunch develop their discussion skills with experts and intelligent novices.

A key feature of any graduate training programme is good informative questionnaires for all the sessions and the continuous feedback from our workshops has proved invaluable in the development of future programmes. The process of development has also been informed by a survey of training needs for graduates employed in numerous companies.

We now include sessions about the student/supervisor relationship and what happens if it goes wrong, and discussions on fraud and the scientists' responsibility to the public. We have also been able to develop our own "games" to train the graduates to recognise their strengths and weaknesses. We are also piloting a scheme for graduate mentoring where third-year students help second years.

The school of biological sciences emphasises the importance of providing transferable skills and in the last two years we have established a postdoctoral career development programme. This also evolved from a determination to equip them for the job market.

We now have more than 70 post-docs in group workshops covering topics such as supervisory skills, tutoring and effective communication. In supporting their learning needs both through their PhD, during their post-doctoral training and as they emerge into their subsequent careers, we hope we are producing scientists better equipped for industry.

Anne White is director of the graduate training programme in the school of biological sciences at Manchester University.

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