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By The Grey Wolf
Are you spreading yourself too thinly in your PhD? Is it more important for a PhD student to master a few skills or many?
Working on one big project, learning many skills. In some PhD projects, some may be aiming for a high impact factor journal, and so they work on the same biology integrating different themes for many years, often accompanied by orthogonal approaches and various outputs (ELISA, chromatography, PCR, CRISPR screens, recombinant proteins, etc). The advantage is that it often makes such PhD students well-versed in the literature surrounding their area. The downside is the lack of mastery of a selected technique at times. A PhD student once told she completed her PhD with one paper, learning many skills, yet she believes she was not truly competent in any one of them.
Working on many small projects, learning limited skills. For others, they can be working on many smaller projects, each being different one another in biology, but the outputs may all be fairly similar as there may not be a need for orthogonal approaches. The advantage is that this makes them more focused and practicing the same techniques often makes them an expert at it. However, they also brush a bit of everything when it comes to the literature.
For me, it’s a bit of both as I have many smaller projects under the same biological themes though my skillsets are limited. My PhD is comprised of many smaller projects, but they all started from one pursuit. That lead to one publication, and we decided to stop because it seemed hard to follow up on that paper. However, a few fateful discoveries later (after careful thinking), two other projects flourished within the same biological themes. What is the advantage? My science peers know me as the guy who deals with ubiquitin working in a cholesterol lab. Every now and then, I do get asked questions on ubiquitin and protein degradation from my circle of PhD student friends. Recently, I set up a Google Scholar account, and decided to use those keywords, not because I’m an expert but because my whole PhD has revolved around it and those are my scientific interests in this period.
At the same time, my techniques are fairly limited, but I’ve encountered numerous problems in my restricted skillsets. Because of that, I do get approached for my understanding of certain things like cloning, Western blotting and analytical / sample buffer preparations. I have friends who deal with tissues, and obviously they are precious, so I’ve offered (when asked) my understanding of what is best for their Western blot visualization. When it comes to chopping proteins, I provide what I understand of protein biogenesis and degradation before they make attempts to clone either a tag in the N-terminus or C-terminus or insert some signal sequences.
But how do I truly improve even with limited skillsets? I’ve learnt from others and through experience, that self-training and self-education are important. Understand the procedures inside out, learn the basic principles, keep reading, don’t just rely on someone who already uses the instrument and wait for the information to be imparted. Train yourself. I’ve had to self-learn two analytical chemistry techniques, which proved difficult, and often I wished someone was there to teach me. Sometimes, your institution may have thorough training services and these can be also useful if available, instead of painfully wrecking your head. A while back, I undertook confocal microscopy training. It was a new experience and I’ve learnt so much about what makes images publication quality, the intricate details of sample preparation and image acquisition.
The other thing I do is to ask my peers. For example, FACS plot are not my expertise. I know enough to understand and interpret the published data. But often, only experts can see what is wrong, and I contact my peers to really understand what is considered publication quality, what controls do they need, what should one critically evaluate? In a way, you don’t want to be trapped in your own expertise, but you don’t really need to carry out those techniques to be knowledgeable. It requires a bit of reading in the literature and textbooks. In a way, this builds a firm foundation so that you don’t make baseless claims or comments for experimental designs.
All in all, I’m fortunate to be working in the same biological themes for most of my PhD journey while trying to master a selected few techniques. What I lack, I can make up for by being more knowledgeable. Having said that, even attempts to diversify your knowledge needs to be selective. You can’t be an expert at CRISPR, cloning, recombinant proteins, Raman spectroscopy, mouse handling all at the same time. You also can’t be greedy about wanting to know / do more of cancer, dementia, membrane proteins, genomics, etc. What is most useful is probably to develop complementary skillsets and knowledge, at least that makes you a master of some.