Doctoral Conceptual Thresholds in Cellular and Molecular Biology

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International Journal of Science Education







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In the biological sciences, very little is known about the mechansims by which doctoral students acquire the skills they need to become independent scientists. In the postsecondary biology education literature, identification of specific skills and effective methods for helping students to acquire them are limited to undergraduate education. To establish a foundation from which to investigate the developmental trajectory of biologists' research skills, it is necessary to identify those skills which are integral to doctoral study and distinct from skills acquired earlier in students' educational pathways. In this context, the current study engages the framework of threshold concepts to identify candidate skills that are both obstacles and significant opportunities for developing proficiency in conducting research. Such threshold concepts are typically characterised as transformative, integrative, irreversible, and challenging. The results from interviews and focus groups with current and former doctoral students in cellular and molecular biology suggest two such treshold concepts relevant to their subfield: the first is an ability to effectively engage primary research literature from the biological sciences in a way that is critical without dismissing the value of its contributions. The second is the ability to conceptualise appropriate control conditions necessary to design and interpret the results of experiments in an efficient and effective manner for research in the biological sciences as a discipline. Implications for prioritising and sequencing graduate training experiences are discussed on the basis of the identified thersholds.