Earlier this week, I was pleased to be an invited speaker at UC - Berkeley's Science Leadership and Management (SLAM) seminar series. Here's the official description of the program:

What is SLAM?

Grad school is a great place to gain scientific expertise – but that's hardly the only thing you’ll need in your future as a PhD. Are you ready to lead a group? Manage your coworkers? Mentor budding scientists? To address the many interpersonal issues that arise in a scientific workplace, grad students from Chemistry, Physics, and MCB founded SLAM: Science Leadership and Management.

This is a seminar series focused on understanding the many interpersonal interactions critical for success in a scientific lab, as well as some practical aspects of lab management. The target audience for this course is upper-level science graduate students with broad interests and backgrounds, and the skills discussed will be applicable to a variety of career paths. Postdocs are also welcome to attend.

Let me say for the record that I think programs like this are tremendously important, and far too few universities with Ph.D. programs have anything like them. (Stanford has offered something similar, although more explicitly focused on career trajectories in academia, in its Future Faculty Seminar.)

In their standard configuration, graduate programs can do quite a lot to help you learn how to build new knowledge in your discipline. Mostly, you master this ability by spending years working, under the supervision of your graduate advisor, to build new knowledge in your discipline. The details of this apprenticeship vary widely, owing largely to differences in advisors' approaches: some are very hands-on mentors, others more hands-off, some inclined towards very specific task-lists for the scientific trainees in their labs, others towards letting trainees figure out their own plans of attack or even their own projects. The promise the Ph.D. training holds out, though, is that at the end of the apprenticeship you will have the skills and capacities to go forth and build more knowledge in your field.

The challenge is that most of this knowledge-building will take place in employment contexts that expect the knowledge-builders will have other relevant skills, as well. These may include mounting collaborations, or training others, or teaching, or writing for an audience of non-experts, not to mention working effectively with others (in the lab, on committees, in other contexts) and making good ethical decisions.

To the extent that graduate training focuses solely on learning how to be a knowledge-builder, it often falls down on the job of providing reasonable professional development. This is true even in the realm of teaching, where graduate students usually gain some experience as teaching assistants but they hardly ever get any training in pedagogy.

The graduate students who organize the SLAM program at Berkeley impress me as a smart, vibrant bunch, and they have a supportive faculty advisor. But it's striking to me that such efforts at serious professional development for grad students are usually spearheaded by grad students, rather than by the grown-up members of their departments training them to be competent knowledge-builders.

One wonders if this is because it just doesn't occur to the grown-up members of these disciplines that their trainees that such professional development could be helpful -- or because graduate programs don't feel like they owe their graduate students professional development of this sort.

If the latter, that says something about how graduate programs see their relationship with their students, especially in scientific fields. If all you are transmitting to students is how to build new knowledge, rather than attending to other skills they will need to successfully apply their knowledge-building chops in a career after graduate school, it makes it hard not to suspect that the relationship is really one that's all about providing relatively cheap knowledge-building labor for grad school faculty.

Apprenticeships need not be that exploitative.

Indeed, if graduate programs want to compete for the best grad-school-bound undergraduates or prospective students who have done something else in the interval since their undergraduate education, making serious professional development could help them distinguish themselves from other programs. The trick here is that trainees would need to recognize, as they're applying to graduate programs, that professional development is something they deserve. Whoever is mentoring them and providing advice on how to choose a graduate program should at least put the issue of professional development on the radar.

If you are someone who fits that description, I hope I have just put professional development on your radar.