What can happen when “real world” training meets academia

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 friend and I had 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.

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One comment

  1. Martha Pollard

    Hmmm. Wouldn’t it have been great if they’d had professional artists, poets, musicians, etc come to be creative and/or lead workshops, not as an attempt to teach any kind of ‘message’ but simply to help foster what would already have been fun and highly interesting interactions, where cross-fertilisation among and between scientists and artists would undoubtedly have flowed? I wonder if there is any scientific endeavour which isn’t also simultaneously creative; or any creative endeavour which isn’t also simultaneously scientific (whether implicitly or explicitly in either case).

    Re: science and governmental policy: it seems to me that scientific findings require interpretation to be able to apply them to policy. The fact of evolution doesn’t, for example, by itself suggest that one type of approach to living in the world is the right way and another is the wrong way: therefore, philosophy is also needed. On the basis of the scientific fact(s) of evolution, one school of philosophical thought might argue that ‘survival of the fittest’ is the obvious/best approach to living in the world (fight to the death, look out for yourself and your own kind, etc.) and would, in government, set up policies that would fuel that. Alternatively, another school of philosophical thought might say that it is humanity’s ability to counter self-interested tendencies that makes us human, and would set up policies that would foster humanitarian aims to care for one another, including (and most especially) people who are vulnerable. Therefore I think that science on its own can’t provide enough for a government to make policy decisions: both scientific and philosophical filters are needed.

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