Doctoral trainees soft-skills: the transatlantic perspective

Yesterday there was a terrific conference put on by the Polish Presidency of the European Union at the headquarters of the American Association for Advancement of Science here in Washington.

I had the honor of speaking about a real concern of mine: namely the doctoral students are only trained in the soft-skills (e.g. grantsmanship) of the place where they are receiving their training. So, for example, a doctoral student in neuroscience being trained here in the US, typically doesn’t learn anything about the European Research Council’s “starter grants”–even if that student is European and actually planning to return to Europe post-PhD.
The reverse is also true. What I am advocating for is a plan to create a transatlantic soft-skills curriculum, whereby all doctoral trainees learn something about each system: Europe and the US.

And of course, this could be expanded usefully elsewhere around the world.

Mentoring students in science soft skills

Yesterday I mentioned how European and North American science are joined at the hip. To walk around the Krasnow Institute, this is clear. Our students and faculty are truly international. And yes, that includes the rest of the world besides the EU, Canada and the United States. But I’d like to focus on one lacuna in how we handle advanced scientific training, both here and abroad:

Part and parcel of doctoral education here at Mason is training in the “soft skills” necessary to professionally succeed in science as it’s practiced here in the US. This includes grantsmanship aimed at US funding agencies such as NSF or the NIH. ¬†Crucially, we don’t, in general offer such soft skills for the European system (e.g. Framework 7).

By the same token, in my visits to Europe, I’ve noticed a complementary absence of such soft skill training for US sponsored research sources.

None of this would make much of a difference except for the fact that both here and in Europe, the trainee pool includes doctoral students and postdocs from everywhere. Hence, the New Yorker, I met briefly on one of my recent trips to Europe, will have a difficult time applying for her first NIH RO1 if she returns to the US. And our European trainees, while adept at preparing specific aims, intellectual merit and broader impacts (hallmarks of US NIH and NSF grant applications), will be in the dark as far as applying for EU support from Brussels.

This problem is even more acute for students from places other than the EU and North America. Simply put, we must train our students to succeed as scientists where ever they chose to put down roots.