Become a Scientific Expert in Five Years

OutliersGraduate school is undoubtedly a key training period in which we learn to carry out independent research in preparation for our future career.  The postdoc is considered an essential step on this pathway.  But what determines when we’re ready to step out on our own?  When do we officially become a scientific expert?

In his most recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the factors that contribute to the success of icons like Bill Gates and The Beatles.  Gladwell claims that all highly successful people have an intense period of training where they spend over 10,000 hours learning and practicing their passion.  Sound familiar?

So according to Gladwell, when do we truly become experts?  Are six, seven, eight years of graduate school truly required to master the bench?  We profiled a graduate career based on a 40- or 60-hour work week to see how long we’d need to stay captive- I mean, “enrolled”- to become masters.

We discarded the first year given that it is generally spent balancing class and lab, with little time to truly focus on research.  The second year is largely spent teaching, so we counted 20 hours a week toward training.  By the third year, we assumed the qualifying exam has been passed, teaching is over and it’s all lab, all the time. Based on the average of the top two results of our vacation survey, three weeks of vacation were granted.

Gladwell chart

According to the data, working a 40-hour week will require a healthy 6.6 year graduate career in order to become an expert.  On the other hand, a 60-hour week will have you graduated just over five years.  Perhaps this explains the flat part of the learning curve most of us feel towards the end of graduate school.

So if we’ve already become an expert in graduate school, does that mean a postdoc is a waste of time?  Does it suggest that the postdoc should be used exclusively for exploring new fields, where the learning curve starts over again and further training is required?

At 60-hours a week, a three year postdoc represents almost 9,000 additional hours of training.  Are we double-experts?  We certainly aren’t double-paid… For many, the postdoc marks a period of highly-focused research with few distractions.  However, it can also feel like an unnecessary hoop to jump through on the road to a “real” job.  Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how much “training” we really need.

If Gladwell’s theory is correct, and our expertise is achieved in 10,000 hours, are we overtraining ourselves in the current path to employment?  What would happen to the academic model of research if we eliminated the postdoc?

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. 13columns

    wrote on September 22, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    my chemistry postdoc has essentially been a cv builder. i have learned a slightly different area of literature, but the techniques and way of thinking are the same. i think the main purpose for doing a postdoc these days is to have it on your cv, since everyone else will have one. 50 years ago, having a college degree set you apart from the crowd – today, they're expected. similarly, the postdoc is evolving into one of these milestones that everyone must have. many of my colleagues are in postdocs that are as long as their graduate career, which is utterly ridiculous. for the most part, i'm not sure what we learn in a postdoc that couldn't be learned on the job.

  2. 13columns

    wrote on September 22, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    my chemistry postdoc has essentially been a cv builder. i have learned a slightly different area of the literature, but the techniques and way of thinking are the same. i think the main purpose for doing a postdoc these days is to have it on your cv, since everyone else will have one. 50 years ago, having a college degree set you apart from the crowd – today, they're expected. similarly, the postdoc is evolving into one of these milestones that everyone must have. many of my colleagues are in postdocs that are as long as their graduate career, which is utterly ridiculous. for the most part, i'm not sure what we learn in a postdoc that couldn't be learned on the job.

  3. xlr8r

    wrote on September 22, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    With the way science currently works, I think how valuable a post-doc is for the person doing the post-doc depends on what you want to do with your PhD. If the goal is to have a high profile academic research career, it's a chance to grind out more publications and network with more established scientists without having all the other responsibilities of a job (committee meetings, faculty meetings, teaching, etc.). Frankly, even in that case, I think the model of a post-doc should be changed completely. As graduate students, we spend years at the bench becoming good experimentalists and as post-docs, more years at the bench becoming slightly better experimentalists. Then when you become a P.I., you rarely use those skills and have to develop people management skills, multitasking skills, etc.–things nobody taught you how to do, but knew you would have to do them. Essentially, you start over but in on-the-job training, which you could have done right out of graduate school. How about having a post-doc period where you become P.I. in training (a junior P.I. in an established lab, for example) and learn how to run a lab instead of doing more of what you already know how to do in a different setting?

    Furthermore, if you want to go a more non-traditional route, I think the post-doc should be avoided completely. You should use those years developing those skills you'll need for your non-traditional scientific career instead of becoming slightly better at something you're not going to do.

  4. PlayLady

    wrote on September 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    The need is directly related to what you ultimately want. Sometimes, defining what you truly want is the hardest part. For instance, let's say you know you want a million dollars. You also know what you need to do in order to earn that (assuming you're not going to just stumble on that kind of money). Are willing to do it??? If so, then yes, you need the "training." If not, then pick another direction.

  5. Changing Scientific Focus: Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

    wrote on April 11, 2011 at 11:23 am

    […] book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that to truly become an expert in a field, we need to put in 10,000 hours of work.  While the exact number may be debatable, researchers understand that mastering a new scientific […]

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