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Training the Next Generation of Clinical Scientists

Advice for faculty on how to invest in the future of the discipline by recruiting and mentoring PhD students and postdocs to be persistent, productive, and broadly curious teacher/scholars.

Edward Conture

DOI: 10.1044/cred-ccpr-rmr-001

Why should faculty invest time in recruiting and training PhD students and undergrads in their lab?
If you’re interested in developing a program of research that’s going to go forth for quite some time, then you have about three options.

One, you can only involve other people at your level — maybe, mid-level and advanced — and they do all the work. Well, that’s probably not going to work too well anymore because of the number of hands you have to have on a project.

So most people then have two choices. They wind up bringing in PhDs, for example, who are postdoctoral individuals, or people who are not tied necessarily to an institution or university. That’s one way. They avoid the challenging process of actually training, from a basic perspective, students. They don’t get into all that difficulty and challenge.

That’ll work, to a degree. But the problem with that approach, in my opinion, is you don’t have people who are necessarily going to be carrying this on well after you’ve left the arena.

At some point early on, I decided that bringing doctoral students on, giving them the education, training, experiences that I thought would be very helpful to them going forward — they also would give back to the program in terms of their own energy and work. And that I was sending them out with the potential for continuing the work beyond what we did.

I would advocate probably for a person mid-career doing some of both. That is, having some postdocs in there who can help you with the training of the pre-docs, but always having some pre-docs in the program. It gives a freshness to the program, it gives a continuity to the program, it gives back to the field over and beyond the research. In some fields like psychology, they even bring in undergraduates extensively. They’re training them so they can go out and get the training as a PhD.

So, it’s investment in the present versus investment in the present and into the future. I can understand why people might stay away from pre-doc, because of the work involved, but I would encourage people to do that at least as part of their program because of the long-term positive contribution to both the PI — the professor — as well as to their program, as well as to their discipline.

What are some of the challenges in recruiting and mentoring PhD students in your lab?

Well, let me start off from the selection of the PhD student. When I was at Syracuse, there was a football coach by the name of Dick MacPherson and I really liked to hear this guy interviewed because he always had pearls of wisdom from his experience. One day, during the time they were selecting next year’s incoming football players, he was interviewed by a young, eager reporter. The reporter put the mike up to the front of his face and said, “Coach MacPherson, how are those athletes shaping up for next year’s program?” He gently put out his hand on the reporter’s arm and said, “Son, I’m not recruiting athletes. I’m recruiting football players.”

What does that mean relative to this question? I’m not recruiting rocket scientists — just people who are bright. Though intelligence is important. But I’m trying to recruit future professoriate. I’m trying to get people who will be good teacher/scholars. I’m looking for the following types of things as I talk to them. Yes, I’m looking for whether they have a certain floor, basement level of intellect. But I’m looking for things like: How well do they tolerate ambiguity? Because research by its very nature is ambiguous. If you insist on must have, always a cut-and-dried categorical response to things, perhaps research isn’t your calling.

Second, I’m looking for them to having a dedication to a lifetime of self-education. Do they seem to be reading broadly within and outside the profession? Are they reading fiction as well as non-fiction? Because there are many, many bon mots that one can collect from that. Because many of the people who write fiction know a lot about the human condition that scientists don’t necessarily know about. Since we’re studying in speech-language pathology, the human condition, knowing as much as you possibly can about it is a good idea.

I’m looking for evidence that they’re persistent. That they can face obstacles and persist in the face of difficulties, challenges, pushback, failure. Those are some of the core things I’m looking for. Once I have found that type of person, and it is apparent to me that they have a driving curiosity about the world around them and what they say they want to study, I will try to encourage them to come work with us. And I will do everything I can to help them develop themselves, at the raw platform of becoming a teacher/scholar.

The challenges in that process, they run everything from just getting them money to fund their work. To keep them on track. By that I mean, they’re making successful progress towards the completion of their degree. Many people have great grandiose ideas but they don’t have 15 years to study. They’ve got about five years, on the average. Keeping them on track, keeping them supported.

Giving them a sense of the whole. That is, while we’re working in a very narrow space, I want you to have a very wide perspective on that narrow space. That’s a very key thing. I want you to realize that you’re in a department, and you have to interact with people, and you have to learn how to get along with people, because that’s going to be exactly the same thing that you’re going to be faced with once you graduate. Those are some of the key, key items.

And there could be unique things. There could be a death in the family that you have to help them get over, if they can. I try to bring people in that don’t need hiatuses in their training, and I try to work with them on the front end to figure that out. By that I mean, they decide that this isn’t for them. Some people can take hiatuses and come back refreshed. But generally, it’s been my experience that when they take hiatuses, they probably are going to have trouble finishing. Certainly within the job, there’s not a lot of room for hiatuses. Although there are sabbaticals. Those are some of the challenges I have dealt with.

What is the most important advice and guidance you give to your PhD students?

First of all, I try to be what I want them to be. I try to model. Words that stop at words, that’s about all they impact. Your example, your model is crucial.

I try to model for them what I think they need to learn. The first thing they need to learn is time management. I’m sure you heard this on a number of occasions. But how can you train people to manage their time, when you can’t manage your time? You have to demonstrate a persistence. I was told once that some of the most famous of all scholars went to work every day like a green grocer. They’d get up, go to work, and come back in the evening. And I think that’s very true. Teaching them that this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And that it’s not necessarily the tortoise and the hare, but it’s a steadiness, it’s a seriousness. I talk to them about this.

I talk to them about the need to consult with other people on topics. And that can be hard because it takes time. It works against everything, I’m trying to get them to move forward with.

I try to meet with each of them one to sometimes three times a week. But generally at least once a week throughout the time they’re working for me. Whether it’s beginning a project, in the middle of a project, finishing a project. Keeping contact with them is very important.

Again, modeling what you say you want. If you want people to be persistent, if you don’t show up for work more than a day, day and a half per week, that’s not modeling what you’re trying to get across to them.

You want them to learn that working with other people, that’s crucial. Because that’s the only way they’re going to learn to develop a science team once they get out. You are trying to read broadly and encourage them to read broadly.

But you’re also trying, and this is important, you’re trying to get them to understand the difference between knowledge consumption (reading), knowledge dissemination (teaching), knowledge production (research), and knowledge application (clinical work). Some people get very confused between reading a lot and producing a lot. Or talking a lot and producing a lot. And I try to help them understand that. Talk is good. We require that and encourage that, but only up to a point. After that point, you need to start producing and putting things down on paper, presenting them — don’t confuse the presentation with the publication — and so following it from the very early stages of the inception of the idea, all the way through to the final point where it’s been accepted, that’s a persistence. That’s a long-term approach to things. Keeping their eye on the prize, which is being able to report that which they do. Because if that which they do sits in their file drawer, in their office, no one will know that which they’ve done. And they will have a very short career.

Some of them don’t believe they can do this. They’ve very bright and hard working, but they don’t believe they’ve got the wherewithal to take all these ideas, put them together and report them to their peers. I try to help them learn that they can do that. It’s a very satisfying thing.

Edward Conture
Vanderbilt University

The content of this page is based on selected clips from a video interview conducted at the ASHA National Office.

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