We're a little crazy, about science!

Breadth of knowledge, or the things they don’t teach you

As of yesterday I’ve started turning my latest idea into a reality. While I was working I realized that I have a large skillset and most of it wasn’t obtained through the traditional school route, but almost all of it has helped me become a better student and researcher. While there are plenty of things I wish the school required for a researcher, for those of you starting out it’s not too late to think about what seemingly disconnected fields may help you do your science better.

Believe it or not, this thought has occurred several times in my long, very long, academic career. As a researcher we need to convey our science to the public and there are several modes to doing this (a blog for example!), but schools don’t teach you this sort of thing. My background is mechanical engineering (both a BS and MS) and now my PhD is in neuroengineering. I say this a lot, but they sound almost the same, but totally different fields.

There are a lot of things that carry over though and I’m thankful for the stuff I’ve learned in my mechanical engineering classes because it’s been very applicable as I work for my PhD. That’s not the point of the post though, the point of this post is that there are things you never learn. Things that I wish I had learned or at least thought of learning before getting this far in my career because at this stage finding time to formally learn those things is (or at least feels) impossible.

For example, and this applies almost universally across fields, figure making. You know who would be super amazing at figure making and designing? Art students and since I’ve started getting more complex with my figures (and less 3D modeling) I’ve really noticed that learning even the basics on art and composition would be very useful. I mean knowing HOW to draw well would be super useful (see my last paper for example), I can draw somewhat, but I feel like taking a class would really help. More importantly, learning how to arrange the data to make it “look” good would (in my opinion anyway) make it easier for the reader to follow.

There are other skills, more specific to the kind of research I do, that I wish had been taught. I’m very lucky because these are skills I’ve learned on my own or through other means (classes) not related to my degree. Things like soldering for example, or more broadly speaking how to design tools/equipment stuff like that. Research is just as much about finding a way to make the tool needed for the experiment you’re doing as it is about doing the experiment itself. Experimental design is hard enough as it is, not being able to find the equipment to do the experiment means needing to make it yourself in most cases.

Which brings me to why I’m even writing this. I had a great idea recently (here). In hindsight the solution to the problem my idea solves should’ve been obvious. Now not all ideas are good and I’m willing to admit I’ve had some bad ideas. Not all problems need to be solved and I’ve had to learn that the hard way sometimes. This idea is different though and it gives hospital-PI’s lab the ability to do something other labs would not be able to do.

More importantly, we can do it cheap… if I do it myself. And that’s the point right there. I have the experience to turn this big idea into a working device, which no one else in the lab does. That doesn’t make me better, but it does make me useful. So how cheap are we talking? When I proposed the idea hospital-PI gave me a budget and kept increasing the budget as he started realizing the implications of my proposal. I’ve spent about 1/5 of what he budgeted for my work and that will be enough for two if the devices I’m making. It’s delicate work and a lot of soldering will be involved among other skills, but those are luckily skills I have.

Like most of my posts, this is a bit of advice if you’re just starting out, learn other skills. Find the skills that will help you do your job better and go out and learn them if you can. I learned how to machine (metal) parts early on and I watched people come into the machine shop with great ideas that could never be made because we didn’t have the equipment for the design they had. The easy fix is to learn the basics of what can be made and the characteristics that make something go from possible in house to very expensive.

This skillset will vary from field to field and even from person to person within the same field, but I think it’s important to highlight this. Mostly because education is so focused on a particular field, even undergrad when you’re introduced to a deluge of information across different sub-fields, you’re still learning things that pertain to that specific field. I wish I had thought ahead as an undergrad and taken an art class or maybe a creative writing course (technical writing just isn’t enough), but that’s why I’m writing this. No one ever told me, so I never gave it much thought. Not knowing how to do something was more of an annoyance than something I actively thought about learning.

It will probably be a few days before I finish my little construction project and even then I won’t be able to share anything. Thankfully I have the skills to do this and now hopefully you’re thinking about the skills you need too.

2 responses

  1. I think it’s great that you have all those ME and construction skills to bring in to your lab. It goes to show that changing fields between prior degrees and PhD can be a positive.

    Curriculum design in general is a tough issue, I think. I’ve probably had more trouble with people insisting “You need X!” and wasting my time (because I did not, in fact, need X) than people leaving things out.

    During undergrad, MSU required me to take courses outside my field in several categories: Arts (I chose Music History), Diversity (I chose Spanish), Humanities (I chose Linguistics), and Social Sciences (I chose Economics). In hindsight, those were the wrong ones. None of them ended up being relevant to my career, and for general benefit the only good one was Spanish. I probably should’ve traded Linguistics for Philosophy and Economics for Psychology … those would fit better with the AI stuff I’m doing now … but back then I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Heh.

    Perhaps part of the trouble is that these were viewed as courses to “get out of the way” in freshman year; I’m not sure it even would have been possible to select them later, with more experience. I don’t recall them being billed as a path to skills that would complement one’s engineering specialization. It felt more like a ham-fisted attempt to make me “well-rounded.” “Get some culture so you don’t turn into a narrow, stunted person who only loves machines, you nerd.” (Can you tell I’m still grumpy about this?)

    I’m not sure what the best solution is. Ideally you could get a course on something when you realized you needed it, but scheduling makes that difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 6, 2022 at 8:23 pm

    • The title of the post “breadth of knowledge” is actually the term the school uses for the requirement that we take classes outside our field so I’m glad you shared your experience with the same requirements. I’m pretty sure most schools do stuff like that, which is a shame it’s almost universally useless.

      It is a tough problem for sure, I felt the same way when I was required to take the “filler” courses. I treated it as an annoyance and a way for the school to make more money from me. I was just out of the military when I started school (a few years out really), so I felt more than well rounded enough!

      I think part of the issue is they typically make you get it out of the way right as you start (at least my school did), when in reality it may be better to do them at the end of the degree when you have an idea about what goes on in your field.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 7, 2022 at 9:17 am

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