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Are Scientists Becoming Less Hands on

  • Thread starter Modey3
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Are Scientists Becoming Less "Hands on"

Hello,

I'm a graduate student who has been working in a surface analysis/modification lab (AES, XPS, SIMS, Ion Implantation) for the past three-years, and I have experience repairing, modifying, and operating equipment on top of doing my own research. My adviser is a very "old school" scientist who did a lot of instrument design/repair work in his day. Most other research groups in my department seemed to be focused on pure research: i.e. just running equipment. I find it astounding of the number of materials science graduate students who don't know how to use a multimeter or oscilloscope. It turns out that the only lab personnel who I can have a good electronics/vacuum-type discussion with are in the condensed matter physics labs in the building over.

What prompted me to write this post is that the lab-manager who ran my lab got an awesome job in industry. My adviser, who is the lab director, hired a replacement lab-manger who is a PhD in Materials Science, had 10+ publications, and several years of experience in industry/academia. The problem is that this guy had almost no practical skills with electronics and surface science instrumentation. Even after showing him, I still don't think he knows how to use our electronic analysis equipment for doing instrument repair. The only time when he will engage in instrument repair is when he has our electronics-shop technicians backing him up.

Have our fields of study become so compartmentalized that we losing the practical skills needed to do research on our own?

modey3
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
mgb_phys
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Have our fields of study become so compartmentalized that we losing the practical skills needed to do research on our own?
Possibly, on the other hand 100years ago someone was no doubt complaining that these new PhD chemists didn't know how to blow glass.

There is also a difference between sciences, with something like CERN, or a lot of astronomy you need to build almost everything yourself because there is no industrial market. But in materials science / biotech the research needs of industry are very similar to a university so you can use the same equipement. There is no sense in designing your own mass-spec or HPLC in order to do cutting edge research on a particular compound.
 
  • #3
ZapperZ
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Hello,

I'm a graduate student who has been working in a surface analysis/modification lab (AES, XPS, SIMS, Ion Implantation) for the past three-years, and I have experience repairing, modifying, and operating equipment on top of doing my own research. My adviser is a very "old school" scientist who did a lot of instrument design/repair work in his day. Most other research groups in my department seemed to be focused on pure research: i.e. just running equipment. I find it astounding of the number of materials science graduate students who don't know how to use a multimeter or oscilloscope. It turns out that the only lab personnel who I can have a good electronics/vacuum-type discussion with are in the condensed matter physics labs in the building over.

What prompted me to write this post is that the lab-manager who ran my lab got an awesome job in industry. My adviser, who is the lab director, hired a replacement lab-manger who is a PhD in Materials Science, had 10+ publications, and several years of experience in industry/academia. The problem is that this guy had almost no practical skills with electronics and surface science instrumentation. Even after showing him, I still don't think he knows how to use our electronic analysis equipment for doing instrument repair. The only time when he will engage in instrument repair is when he has our electronics-shop technicians backing him up.

Have our fields of study become so compartmentalized that we losing the practical skills needed to do research on our own?

modey3
But don't you think that this ONE person should also not be the source of your impression of "our fields of study"?

I can still work with several different vacuum pumps, set up a deposition chamber, build a fabrication system, etc.. etc.. And as far as I know, practically every student that went through our lab will also know how to assemble RF components, run and operate spectrum analyzers and bead-pull measurements, etc.

So no, I don't see that we are "losing practical skills" at all!

Zz.
 
  • #4
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Zapper,

I find that people in physics labs are more adept at building and repairing instruments so your experience may be different than other scientists from different fields.

modey3
 
  • #5
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Possibly, on the other hand 100years ago someone was no doubt complaining that these new PhD chemists didn't know how to blow glass.

There is also a difference between sciences, with something like CERN, or a lot of astronomy you need to build almost everything yourself because there is no industrial market. But in materials science / biotech the research needs of industry are very similar to a university so you can use the same equipement. There is no sense in designing your own mass-spec or HPLC in order to do cutting edge research on a particular compound.
Didn't chemists back in the day know how to fabricate their own glass tubes since most of their apparatuses were specialized?

Your right. The equipment for doing materials science research is readily through industrial market. So the more money you have the more equipment you can buy and you can readily send out equipment for repair. However, if you don't have sufficient funding, the repair work must be done by graduate students or electronics repair techs. This is where practical skills come into play.

modey3
 
  • #6
Andy Resnick
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Hello,

<snip>

Have our fields of study become so compartmentalized that we losing the practical skills needed to do research on our own?

modey3
I'm not really sure what you are asking. Yes, specialization tends to increase over time, meaning people have an increasingly narrow scope of ability. No, we are not losing practical skills needed to do research- the size of research groups (and the range of skills) tend to increase over time.

As others have pointed out, being proficient in a particular skill now may not be worth anything in 10 years. Best to continually acquire new skills.
 
  • #7
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I'm not really sure what you are asking. Yes, specialization tends to increase over time, meaning people have an increasingly narrow scope of ability. No, we are not losing practical skills needed to do research- the size of research groups (and the range of skills) tend to increase over time.

As others have pointed out, being proficient in a particular skill now may not be worth anything in 10 years. Best to continually acquire new skills.
So what you are saying is that research groups need to be large so that everyone contributes their narrow-band of skills, which will make that group productive. Do you think that it is necessary for students to be able to repair and modify their own equipment because obviously these skills will never get old.

modey3
 
  • #8
f95toli
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Do you think that it is necessary for students to be able to repair and modify their own equipment because obviously these skills will never get old.

modey3
It depends. Much of the equipment we use nowadays is so complicated that it simply CAN'T be repaired. I still use some old analogue equipment (preamps etc) which I can quite easily repair if it breaks, it is quite easy to replace a transistor or an op-amp. However, there is no way I (or anyone else) would be able to repair a modern circuit with tiny surface mounted components and multi-layer PCBs. When things like that break you simply replace the whole board.
So it really depends on what kind of equipment you are working with. But of course you should be able to perform routine repairs and maintenance, if nothing else simply because it save time.

Also, it is worth remembering that not even PhD-students work for free; most people are surprised when they learn how much their time is worth per hour.
Hence, it makes no sense whatsoever for a PhD student to spend say a week to repair a part that could be replaced for say $1000 or so (unless of course it would take SEVERAL weeks to get hold of the replacement part and you are in a hurry).
 
  • #9
Andy Resnick
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<snip>Do you think that it is necessary for students to be able to repair and modify their own equipment because obviously these skills will never get old.

modey3
In addition to what f95toli said, clearly there is value in troubleshooting. But more broadly, my skills learned in fixing equipment are now put to use in 'breadboarding'- slapping together *something* out of what's on hand to perform a new function. As an example, because I (intimately) know how a microscope works, I can try different optical paths (or make new ones) to perform certain functions not originally intended by the manufacturer.

I tell kids a big part of my job is playing with toys- and I'm serious.
 

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