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Writing and field skills found lacking

By Cindy Weiss

Botany grad students think they are strongest in skills that potential employees rank as their weakest, according to a study published in the February issue of BioScience.

The authors, among them Kent Holsinger, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, say the results could be extended to other sciences, mathematics, and engineering, too.

In what may be the first national survey of its kind, 10,000 people involved in plant science research, education, or natural resource management were asked to evaluate the training of botanists at U.S. colleges and how it meets the needs of public and private employers. More than 1,500 faculty, students, and employers responded.

Botany graduate students ranked written communication skills among their top five strengths. In contrast, government employers of botanists said written communication skills were their new employees’ worst deficiency. Private employers ranked students’ writing skills insufficient, just below what they saw as the top weakness – plant identification, which the students thought were among their top three skills.

“This survey revealed striking discrepancies between students’ perceived preparation and needed skills, ” the authors wrote.

“We weren’t at all surprised that the government and NGO (non-governmental organization) people we surveyed identified a shortage of trained botanists as a problem they were concerned with, ” says Holsinger, who is past president of the Botanical Society of America and of the American institute of Biological Sciences. Nearly all the employers – 91 percent — reported they did not have enough trained botanists to meet their management or research needs.

But the mismatch in perceptions of writing skills “was really striking and surprising, ” he says.

While graduate students learn to write dissertations and technical papers, employers want them to be able to communicate and collaborate with non-biologists in their agencies and with business leaders and the public.

“Communication skills have become as important as technical discipline-based skills, ” the authors wrote.

Yet, as scientists reach the frontier of their field, they narrow their focus and face pressure to communicate largely with others in their specialty, Holsinger says.

“It’s a challenge to be able to step back and talk to people elsewhere. ”

“A lot of what we’re talking about here are the liberal arts skills of empathy, understanding, and being able to put yourself in (another’s) place so that you can communicate your thoughts effectively to them, ” he says.

Plant identification and field skills that were deemed lacking by private employers may be the result of a shift in course content in recent years, the paper states. Fewer of the traditional “ology” courses are now offered to botanists – such as mycology (fungi), phycology (algae), bryology (mosses) and lichenology – in order to accommodate molecular and developmental biology courses.

That is not the case at UConn, Holsinger says. “We are unusual, in a good way, in maintaining those sorts of things. ” Molecular science is intellectually fascinating and has grown in importance as well, he says –two thirds of the soybean crop is now genetically engineered. It’s unfortunate, he says, that in many places, its growth has come at the expense of traditional core courses in the study of organisms.

The shortage of trained botanists comes at a time when nearly 60 percent of botanists currently employed by federal agencies are expected to retire in the next 15 years.

“Plant scientists are in particularly high demand given the scope and nature of the environmental problems we face, ” the paper states. Loss of biodiversity and habitat, control of invasive species, and modeling the effects of climate change on ecosystems are some of the issues that botanists need to address, the authors found.

The results of the survey have implications for other sciences and technical fields, they said, because they suggest that the direction of university training is not headed toward societal needs for scientists who can collaborate effectively with people from other disciplines in solving problems.

They recommended more seminars with discussion of broad impacts, more opportunities for science students to speak and present information, and more communication between universities and potential employers.

The study, part of the “U.S. Botanical Capacity Assessment Project, ” has 11 authors, led by Marshall D. Sundberg, Emporia State University. It is in the February 2011 issue of Bioscience: “Perceptions of Strengths and Deficiencies: Disconnects between Graduate Students and Prospective Employers.

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