At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Jeanne earned her PhD in nutritional and metabolic biology from Columbia University and is currently studying how cholesterol moves inside of our cells as a postdoc at The Rockefeller University. In addition to her role as a scientist, Jeanne is a science blogger, writing for her personal blog, The Mother Geek, as well as for new and exciting science site for women and all those who like women, Double X Science. Tying together her research and blogging, Jeanne serves as co–organizer of Science Online NYC (SoNYC), which is a monthly meeting open to anyone who is interested in how science is conducted and discussed. If you want to know more, you can easily find Jeanne on Twitter, tweeting as @JeanneGarb.
Do you know what you are getting in to?
Classes. Lab rotations. Deciding on a mentor/project. Start doing science. Qualifying exams. Present data. Field questions. Write grants. Present more data. Thesis committee meeting. Write more grants. Do more science. Write paper. Go to meeting(s). Field more questions. Submit paper. Do even more science. Respond to reviewers. Another thesis committee meeting. Start writing thesis. Still going with the science. Fantasize about graduating. Discuss potential postdoc opportunities. Interview for postdoc. Prepare for defense. Defend. Do (most of) it again as a postdoc.
Above is a very non-descript summation of my PhD training, no doubt a general blueprint for many. Through these efforts, I have emerged with the ability to conduct solid basic science research, engage with others about basic science research, and think about basic science research in a way that helps to inspire more basic science research. However, the opportunity to continue with my studies as a tenure track investigator in basic science research – at least, without having to move house and home – is not a reality.
There is little comfort knowing that it isn’t just me. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates (summarized in this table), less than a quarter of all science PhDs hold a tenure track position after five years of earning their doctorate. When looking at individual disciplines, the statistics bodes the worst for those in the biological sciences, where only 14% hold tenure track positions after five years.
For reasons undoubtedly related to a perfect storm of economic duress and a saturated job market, it has become the norm for postdocs to receive 20-50 (if not more) rejection letters in response to applications for tenure track positions. Yet, even on a national level, we continue to promote basic science PhD programs that by and large enforce an underhanded expectation that anything less than academia is a failure. Speaking to this point is Katie Pratt (known on Twitter as @Katie_PhD), who defended her PhD in June of this year:
I don’t think they’re necessarily in the wrong, after all a PhD has traditionally been seen as the first step in a career in research and academia, so encouraging those skills is vital. But herein lies the issue. The PhD can no longer just be about a career in research because those careers just don’t exist… Then there’s the general atmosphere of academics looking down on so-called “alternative career paths.” To suggest something completely different, like starting a company, or a website, or a career in *gasp* communications is often seen as “dropping out” of academia. I’m even guilty of saying “I’m leaving academia” followed by an apologetic grimace. The prejudice is pretty deeply ingrained.
Should we simply be more transparent when promoting science research training (i.e. let prospective students know that academic positions are few and far between), or should we actually change the structure of science PhD programs to match the realities of the current job market?
A postdoctoral colleague at The Rockefeller University, Simona Giunta, makes a valid argument for the former, stating that while there is room for improvement within PhD and postdoctoral training programs, people who chose to pursue this course of study need to be realistic about their career goals:
While there is room for improvement regarding certain aspects of basic science training programs (lab head skills, organizational skills etc.), a PhD program [in science] is to prepare you to be a scientist. I feel people should be aware that, while a PhD program almost perfectly serves the purpose of training you to become a primary investigator, not everybody will be able to become one in the current job market (pretty obvious, right!). So, it is important to have a plan B and get some training/volunteering/additional experience on the CV.
I believe that it would be overshooting the scope of my training if I had media, communication, managerial skills, etc. included in my course load (except when they are strictly related to science). However, I also feel it’s my personal duty to have other interests beside science/academia. Combining the two side by side is more than possible, but mixing them I am not so sure about!
Jeffrey Lancaster, a chemistry PhD turned librarian at Columbia University, shares his take on deciding to get a PhD, and advice for considering job possibilities outside the academy:
I don’t think graduate school in the sciences – and getting a PhD in particular – is necessarily about ‘getting a job’ in the same way that business school is about getting a high-paying job in finance. Fundamentally, I think it’s about teaching people how to be problem-solvers, how to devise questions, how to approach a solution to that question, and how to carry out what needs to be done to get an answer. And those are the skills that make people trained as PhDs in the sciences so marketable to such a diverse array of positions when they finish.
I’m sure there are people who finish their PhD and don’t see a particular job vacancy for what they think they always wanted, but maybe they aren’t looking broadly enough at all the possibilities. There’s something to be said about programs exposing students to the myriad possibilities while they are in grad school, and in that regard, some departments/universities better than others.
In the end, programs could probably always do more, but short of placing people in jobs with no effort on the PhDs behalf (I don’t think that’s a worthwhile solution), inevitably it’ll be a challenge to find a job that you like that will also pay you to do what you want. My boss used to say grad school required a ‘high tolerance for frustration’, and maybe that’s the most useful thing any school can give its students to prepare them for the job market.
Arguments calling for a restructuring of PhD programs in science are much more common, with commentaries appearing in scientific journals, blogs, and even mainstream media, most notably a recent Washington Post article with over 3600 comments. While each of these articles speaks to different aspects of the PhD problem, there is one common thread running through them all, and that is the general feeling of disillusionment coming from graduate students and postdocs.
This feeling disillusionment can come in many forms – from the regret of putting dreams of having a family on hold only to find out that it might not have been worth it, to the realization that friends with just bachelors and masters degrees are housing you in terms of salary, retirement benefits, and job security.
Is the PhD worth the investment?
My experience is more aligned with the latter. My husband and I, both science majors in college, agreed that he would enter the work force and I would continue with my studies. He became a public high school chemistry teacher, and I entered a PhD program in the biomedical sciences. Now, twelve years later, we are on polar opposites of the career spectrum. He is tenured; I am not (I don’t even have a permanent position). He makes nearly twice the salary of mine. And, unlike me, he has had the opportunity to contribute to a very healthy retirement plan. With two young kids in tow, I can’t help but wonder if my waiting to enter the work force was the best decision for my family’s financial wellbeing.
As it stands right now, is the PhD worth the investment? I will not deny that I have been able, in many ways, satisfy an intense curiosity, but was it worth taking a gamble where the odds were clearly stacked against me? Again, there is the argument that I should have known what I was getting into in the first place, and in some ways, that is true. On the other hand, I have been conducting research for years that benefits both my PI and my university, and at a salary that is well below comparable positions in other fields. Shouldn’t there be some level of reciprocation? If this reciprocation cannot come in the form of pay, then it should come in the form of future career preparation. (Note: my PI is nothing short of supportive; I am speaking purely in terms of changing institutional norms.)
But, as Katie Pratt alluded to, the academic bias runs so strong that talk of pursuing any other career path is met with disappointment. Pascal Wallisch, PhD, a postdoc at the Center for Neural Science at New York University expresses what he considers a very common viewpoint:
Over the years, I have talked with many people – both faculty and students – about this issue. The existing culture in academia seems to consider aiming for anything but a faculty position “unworthy” or “less than serious”. The very fact that “alternative careers” are called “alternative” betrays the prevailing mindset, as it denies the stark realities of the current job market. The “alternative” career will be the *de facto* career of the vast majority of science PhDs, as the faculty positions to accommodate those aspiring to such a career – the career they trained for – simply don’t exist in sufficient enough quantities.
This might be due to the fact that we have been overproducing PhDs for more than 30 years, providing cheap labor at all levels of academia, first in PhD programs, then as postdocs. This has unfortunate consequences for all involved, as it leaves the PIs in a position of having to manage large labs full of perpetual “trainees.” This could be considered unfair to some who have bought into the scientific dream from an early age. I know friends who have postponed childbearing first as a graduate student, then in multiple post-docs until it was too late. For them, the pursuit of this dream might have turned into a nightmare. It is fine to train a large number of PhDs, and there are many societal benefits of doing so, but it might perhaps be better to be more honest about it and point out early on that faculty positions will be only available to a minority of degreeholders.
Tom McDonagh, a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, shares these sentiments, and speaks to why university heads are not putting career development at the top of the list:
There is a distinct lack of discussion about the very poor likelihood that a [science] PhD student will get a tenure track position. To get into graduate school you have to demonstrate your total dedication to science, and most students feel intense pressure to dedicate all their available resources towards their project. The competition is so highthat without total dedication you feel you don’t stand a fightingchance. Yet this same dedication prevents serious preparation for a plan B career outside of science. It is high stakes game of winner takes all, where the risk is borne by the graduate student rather than PI or university.
Perhaps PIs and graduate school Deans are not serious talking about jobs outside science for fear ofdemotivating or distracting students. When I first came to graduate school, I too looked down on student that had goals other that making a life in academia. I believed they were wasting opportunities for people truly passionate about science. However I feel now this culture of total science dedication leave students dangerously ill prepared to the realities of the job market.
But, it is often hard for laboratory heads to equally consider the future of all his or her graduate students and postdocs, mostly because their primary concern is to keep their lab afloat, and their publication record prolific. There will be those who are the driving forces behind laboratory progress, and there will be those who are not. Elaborating these points is a former postdoc, who wishes to remain anonymous:
I think the key thing for people to recognize at all levels of the process of being a scientist is that their mentors do not, and in most cases cannot, have their best interests in mind. They value themselves and their labs first. If that means giving more attention to their postdocs, they’ll do that. If that means valuing certain individuals over others, they’ll do that. If that means pitting people against one another, ignoring who originally came up with any idea, they’ll do that. This extends to preparation for the job market.
I think preparing for this job market was left up to me. I can say that there was plenty of time to do it. I read about companies and attended career fairs. I talked to family and friends. What really would have helped, though, would have been direct knowledge of what’s out there, and where I fit into it. That kind of information was never available, at all.
I’m skeptical that these things will ever change. I think there is enough stress, at all levels, and things are so tight, and yet so jammed with people, that there will never be enough incentive to change these things. All the way up the hierarchy, things seem very bad. People in industry are astounded even by the remuneration provided to PHD’s that have successfully escaped academia. It seems like, doing something interesting and meaningful in science, is very much negatively correlated with being rewarded in your career. It seems like, things improve the further you get from being a conventional scientist.
Knowing this from the outset might be helpful, maybe people could double up, and add something practical to their degree. Another option would be for people to not enter into the pathway at all. But at a minimum, they’d need the data, and more likely than not they’d do it anyway. I think of all those bright, optimistic, undergrads that are preparing themselves for it. You tell them how it is, and they’ll convince themselves they’re going to be the exception. You tell them even the exceptions have it bad, and they’ll say they’ll be the exception to that as well.
Diversify PhD training – Is this the answer?
The once recently expanding budget of national science agencies was clearly good for scientific progress, but little was done to consider where the increasing number of graduate and postdoc trainees would find a job after they completed their studies. And it is the academic bias that keeps administration and faculty from helping those who could just never rise to the academic top. When there are literally thousands of people who share a similar position, doesn’t it point to a fundamental problem with PhD and postdoc training programs?
The justifications for restructuring PhD programs are certainly many. And of course, the list includes an obliteration of the academic bias. Going hand in hand with this is increasing the breadth of opportunity. Mark Taylor, Columbia University professor and author of Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, writes, “One reason that many doctoral programmes do not adequately serve students is that they are overly specialized, with curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia” (read more of his Nature article here). And with the absolute requirement for interdisciplinary, and not just within scientific circles, increasing the breadth of training is essential for scientific success.
There are some efforts being made to help diversify PhD training. August Muench, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, has been following restructuring efforts from a variety of funding institutions and recently initiated an online discussion (archived here) about the “America Innovates Act of 2012,” which will increase funding for new patents, start-ups, and job creation for “eligible entities” in life sciences, medicine, computer sciences, communications, technology, physical sciences, engineering, and any other discipline that would lead to economic development. There is also the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), an NSF program that encourages a “collaborative spirit,” with the reasoning that a diverse training will better equip scientists and engineers for the future. Furthermore, NIH’s recent Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group report (PDF) centers on the development of a sustainable and diversified biomedical workforce, starting at the level of graduate training.
But diversification may not be the only strategy for fixing the PhD problem. There is also a clear need to shift the balance from quantity to quality when it comes to graduate student admissions. While capping graduate student admissions in the US may not really make a dent in the international number of PhDs awarded per year, especially given the emerging economic powerhouses of China and India, it will most definitely increase the pool of highly competent scientists coming out of American institutions. Wallisch further points out that “cutting federal funding of PhD programs will disincentivize schools to run programs full of delusional (not having yet figured out that there isn’t a job at the end of the tunnel) but ultimately hopeless people.”
This conversation is beyond important and needs to be ongoing, whether you believe that a PhD is meant for academia, or that it is time for change. I look forward to hearing some of the ideas at the next SoNYC meeting (scheduled for August 20th, in partnership with NYAS), and to the emergence of PhD 2.0.
Thanks to all who contributed to this article!
For further reading:
- Making New Plans, The Times Higher Education, 14 June 2012
- Education: Rethinking PhDs, Nature, 20 April 2011
- Education: The PhD Factory, Nature, 20 April 2011
- Fix the PhD, Nature, 20 April 2011
- Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement, PLoS, 1 February 2012
- Toward a Global PhD?: Changes in Doctoral Education Worldwide, by Maresi Nerad
- Ph.D. Students Losing Interest, BioTechniques, 10 May 2012
- Ph.D.s Should Be Trained for a Variety of Positions, Not Just Research, BioTechniques, 20 June 2012