Botany Today: Rethinking the Ph.D.

From the One Tree, One Planet website

In the herbarium community, Pamela Soltis and Doug Soltis are best known for their involvement in the iDigBio project and for their research in evolutionary and ecological systematics.  They are both at the Florida Museum of Natural History, part of the University of Florida, Gainesville.  With four university colleagues, they recently published a paper proposing a reexamination of the botany Ph.D., with the subtitle: “Widening the Circle.”  Their basic message is that botanists need to be better at communicating science to nonscientists, and this is something that shouldn’t be considered an expertise that’s easy to pick up on the job.  Instead, it involves a skill that could be developed within the Ph.D. program just as methods of thinking about and doing scientific research are.

To make their case Soltis et al. trace the origins of the Ph.D. back to medieval treatises produced as part of the education of scholars, and then on to European, particularly German, scientific programs begun in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  These were focused rather narrowly on particular areas of research and with the subsequent publication of the results.  This model hasn’t changed much since then.  There have been moves over the past 30 years to give greater emphasis to teaching because many with doctorates take posts in educational institutions.  However, learning how to teach does not necessarily mean learning how to communicate with nonscientists, because the assumption was often that these future professors would be teaching those planning careers in the field, thus future professionals. 

As someone who spent her life teaching nonscience majors, I can attest to the fact that communicating with nonscientists involves a different mindset.   I realized that the first time I attempted to teach protein synthesis to freshmen majoring in such diverse fields as criminal justice and telecommunications.  It was a jarring experience and one that affected what I did for the next 46 years.  I realized that rather than sitting on my biology perch and spouting technical terms like ribosome and transcriptase and amino acid, I had to draw in students by making protein synthesis relate to their lives of building muscles and having good hair.  Developing such skills led me into all kinds of unlikely places like learning about art and history and automobile engines.  I loved it, although I didn’t love the fact that those in my institution’s “real” biology department did not give me the time of day because I was just teaching “service” courses in the College of Professional Studies. 

It is this divide between high-brow and low-brow science that the Ph.D. article is attempting to break down.  It suggests revamping the dissertation to make it more about public engagement, and notes that the NSF has been considering the “broader impacts” of research and the need to communicate them from the 1960s, but more formally since the end of the last century.  Today engagement with the public is even more crucial, especially  in such fields as public health and dealing with climate change.  Soltis et al. argue that the standard elements of the dissertation could remain, but that there should be the inclusion of a “public engagement” segment, in other words, a presentation of the research in a form that would be both understandable and interesting to a nonscientist.     

The discussion lays out several forms this section could take including a comic book format for a formal poster presentation or in an activity for younger students.  For a number of years, students have been making videos of their research findings, often with clever ways of drawing in a viewer.  There is even a movement to dance your dissertation and also to write stories about it, perhaps as a form of creative nonfiction.  Now all this may seem frivolous, but remember the “solid” research that backs up these efforts, which are hardly trivial and can be very worthwhile experiences in themselves.  Even for those with an interest in drawing or videography or some other field, a great deal of thought has to go into translating or morphing scientific ideas into a different medium.  This is particularly true because science has its own rhetoric and conventions which are not familiar to the uninitiated.             

In other words, an engagement project has to be more than simply an afterthought, something tacked on to the end of a dissertation at the last minute.  In order for it to be integral to the experience of doctoral work, learning ways of communicating with nonscientists has to be built into the research plan.  To foster this, the authors suggest that faculty from art or education departments be included on doctoral committees.  Also, there could be assignments in science courses that include artistic or other creative elements.  Guest speakers who are involved in engagement projects is another approach.  What this amounts to is that not only the students but the faculty have to consider engagement more seriously.  The Soltis Lab has done just that by obtaining funding for and spearheading an art/science project One Tree, One Planet and an animated movie called Tree Tender.  These were assessed by how well they communicated principles of phylogeny and ecological interdependence to viewers (Valle et al., 2020).  In this article Soltis et al. specifically address botanical education because, as the authors indicate, it’s a field that is underfunded and therefore in particular need of more public support.  However, the proposals for doctoral reform presented here really apply across the sciences.


Soltis, D. E., Smocovitis, V. B., Pham, K. K., Cortez, M. B. S., Smith, A. L., & Soltis, P. S. (2023). Rethinking the Ph.D. dissertation in botany: Widening the circle. American Journal of Botany, 110(3), e16136.

Valle, N., Antonenko, P., Soltis, P. S., Soltis, D. E., Folk, R. A., Guralnick, R. P., Oliverio, J. C., Difato, T. T., Xu, Z., & Cheng, L. (2020). Informal multimedia biodiversity awareness event as a digital ecology for promoting culture of science. Education and Information Technologies, 25(4), 3275–3297.

One thought on “Botany Today: Rethinking the Ph.D.

  1. Pingback: Botany Today: Specimen Photographs | Herbarium World

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