I did my PhD research at a doctoral training centre. It was a wonderful, though often stressful, experience (and I still work in academia). One of the conditions for the programme was that we attended various transferable skills workshops. These workshops were often framed as being about making us more employable, even if we were to fall from the “ivory tower” (heaven forbid).
One workshop was particularly memorable: two days on creativity, organised by the funding body and run by a multinational company which claims to have helped corporations to be more creative. Students travelled from across the UK to attend and were doing research on a range of topics across the breadth of science.
First the positive. Although research conferences are a good way to meet folk from elsewhere, everyone tends to have a similar background, so it was great to chat with people who were doing radically different things and discover what we all had in common, for instance in terms of the day-to-day challenges of doing a PhD.
The creativity workshop itself was exceedingly painful and for most of the time felt like a parody. One of the PowerPoint slides was a picture of three (badly drawn) tunnels. You could see the light at the end of one of the tunnels, you could vaguely see around the second tunnel, and the third tunnel was totally dark. We were told to strive to fumble around in the dark tunnel as it’s in there we’d find the really exciting ideas. Another slide had a diagram showing how there is a continuum of ideas, bad ideas at one end of the continuum, good ideas at the other. We should be striving to move to the end where the good ideas live. There were motivational posters all around the room with quotes like, “Creativity is seeing relationships were none exist” (a platonic friend and I got our photo taken in front of this poster, holding hands, gazing longingly into each other’s eyes).
The “facilitators”, I discovered later via the web, were neurolinguistic programming (NLP) “Master Practitioners”. As far as I can tell, NLP has no evidence of efficacy. Guess what happens when NLP practitioners try to use corporate training techniques with science and engineering students…? By the end of the second day, there were 40 of us sitting looking miserable, arms folded. They presumably get paid rather a lot to deliver something devoid of any content and they didn’t give us any evidence whatsoever to support any of the claims they made.
So much for transferable skills.
Is it possible that PhDs already train people up on useful skills? Most people leave academia and get jobs elsewhere, i.e., are successful! I think having more highly trained scientists wandering around the world can only be a good thing. Imagine if government used more evidence for its policies, for instance, relying on scientific thinking rather than ideology and rhetoric.