Our professors and mentors are experts. I wanted to start by pointing out the obvious, and go further to say that I think there are a lot of PIs that are not only great researchers, but are great mentors and teachers, as well. However, there are a number of professors that aren’t. Throughout a lot of the blogs I have read this semester (in addition to conversations I have had with fellow graduate students) a common set of topics seem to persistently come up in graduate student circles…
- PIs that are great researchers, but leave some things to be desired while teaching
- PIs that struggle to provide adequate mentorship outside of the laboratory
- Committee members that fail to adequately grasp the intricacies of their research
Admittedly, I feel like the above can be (in some ways) contributed to the fact that human nature predisposes us to complain – but that doesn’t mean the gripes aren’t real. I think there are a lot of explanations for the above (whether they be related to a lack of time and resources, distractions, pressures, expectations, etc) and I think a lot of their ‘excuses’ for not being the ‘perfect’ PI are somewhat justified.
One concept I want to identify as a potentially contributing factor is the idea of ‘expertise drift’. I put it in quotes because it’s my name for the phenomena and I do not know if this concept is readily acknowledged or not. The basic premise is that once someone works towards and becomes an expert, that real level of expertise can gradually leak or drift into a perceived level of expertise in other fields or areas. I think that once someone becomes used to thinking (intentionally or subconsciously) of themselves as an expert it is easier to blur the lines of where that true expertise resides and where it doesn’t. By becoming a PhD or a PI you do essentially become an expert in your field, but it takes close to a decade (4 years of undergraduate + 4-5 years of graduate school) and is localized to your work. Personally, I think this contributes to the three major qualms above… you can have a PI that is an expert on their research, but never put the same level effort into learning to be a teacher or a mentor or an expert in research that isn’t directly in their wheelhouse. Instead, the feeling of expertise can drift into those realms and fosters a lack of self-awareness needed for further development and improvement.
I would be glad to hear others thoughts about this idea… if it’s good, bad, or idiotic. I tried to find some examples of others talking about similar concepts and surprisingly didn’t find much. It seems it can be an issue in the medical field where doctors who specialized in a particular subfield during their residency get a medical degree to practice all types of medicine and then drift into fields well outside of their expertise (source).