Scholars and Enterpreneurs

When you get a PhD, are you also trained to head a lab? Zen Faulkes has some thoughts:

The first thing that happened was I botched my negotiation. Being god’s fool, I somehow managed to avoid disaster, but I could have been very badly burned if there hadn’t been some honourable people around.

I’d been a teaching assistant as a graduate student, so I wasn’t completely lost there. But there is a big difference between being a teaching assistant and running your own class from stem to stern.

But running my own lab has been… a mixed bag. It took longer for me to get my footing than I expected, and to have projects in the wings ready for students to pick them up. Judging by my success rate, I still have a lot to learn about “grantsmanship.” And I still don’t feel my management / supervisory style is all that it could be.

The big one, though, is bookkeeping and budgeting. I didn’t have to worry about tracking money in any significant way as a grad student or post-doc. Spending money at an institution is not like spending your own money. You have layers of people and paperwork that stand between you and purchases. You have obscure “enterprise finance” systems that seem designed to drive a person to substance abuse. I’ve learned that I despise trying to keep track of grant money.

John Hawks through whom I got the link to this post has his own thoughts too:

Running independent research requires entrepreneurship. A Ph.D. formally is training in scholarship. A great scholar may be a poor entrepreneur, and few Ph.D. programs require training that would instill values of entrepreneurship. Essential skills include professional networking, balancing risk by diversification, repeatedly and widely asking for funding, accurately judging the motivations of people who share information, and publicizing and promoting one’s own ideas. Some students get excellent informal training in these skills, but many miss them entirely.

Looking at the Indian scenario, I find the following:

  • There is almost no negotiation in terms of pay and benefits; that is all (almost) fixed. However, there could be better negotiation in terms of seed grants in certain institutions. But, seed grants can also be negotiated after joining the Institute.
  • There used to be almost no training in terms of teaching, especially, if you graduated from places with no undergraduate programmes. However, in IITs, I do see that we do train our TAs for some amount of teaching.
  • The scenario about grantmanship is the same as is elsewhere. As a student, you hardly worried about money — except when you went for conferences abroad, or applied for JRF/SRF. But even then, it is not the same as trying to get grant money. Here, the help of mentors becomes essential.
  • We did have some experience with day-to-day running of the lab and the processes involved such as raising an indent, settling bills etc. So, the paperwork and dealing with people is something that PhD students do get an experience of.

Not bad, on the whole, I suppose!

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