At tonight’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 over on the nature.com guest blog Soapbox Science, we heard 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.
There has also been lots of talk online using the #PhDelta tag and thoughtful comments on the posts. Make sure you join in the conversation too.
In our series of 11 guest posts, we kicked off with an editorial piece from Alison McCook, a Comment Editor at Nature. Her report looks at How to Patch the PhD Problem, asking whether we should be tinkering with PhD training programmes:
“While evidence suggests that mixed training may give students special skills, and expose them to lucrative non-traditional careers, some experts worry that these students will sacrifice depth for breadth.”
Next, post-doc Jeanne Garbarino gave us a detailed personal account of her PhD experience, including comments from scientists on the PhD system. Her post raises some important questions: is there a feeling of disillusionment coming from PhDs and Postdocs? And is a PhD worth the investment?
“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?”
On Wednesday, the posts moved onto look at specific skills training offered by some PhD courses. In his contribution to the series, Rich Walker, a Science Executive at the Royal Society of Chemistry, looks at Doctoral Training Centres:
!Before 2000 Research Council-funded PhDs in the UK came in two main flavours: studentships were either given directly to a researcher for a specific project (by far the major route), or to a department for distribution to researchers as it saw fit. In the mid 2000s, however, the primary funder of physical sciences in the UK – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – began experimenting with a new model of studentship: Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs). Initially trialled on the life-science interface, DTCs brought a drastically different approach to the PhD experience.!
Following on from Rich’s post, Matt Allinson, a chemistry PhD student gave his personal account of studying at Imperial’s Centre for Doctoral Training:
“Finally, one of my favourite aspects of the DTC for my life outside of the lab has been the opportunities they provide. The DTCs at Imperial College (the CPE, to which I belong is one of 4) are great instigators for students to take the lead. Personally, I’ve found plenty of opportunities to take part in science outreach through contacts in the DTC, who work closely with the outreach office in the physics department.”
Thursday’s posts concentrated on whether science communication should become a compulsory part of the PhD process and how to gain other skills during training. Amanda Yoho’s contribution looked at why experiences outside of research and the classroom are important:
“Perhaps experiences like these need not be woven into the requirements for obtaining a PhD degree, but they definitely should not be discouraged (which they often are) by mentors. While students may not at that precise moment be producing science results, they are absolutely developing skills that will help them in future scientific careers when they must run labs or sit on university committees. Think of it as an early investment for the future of productive, efficient scientists.”
Heather Doran, a final year PhD student, continued the conversation, asking whether learning how to communicate your science as a PhD student should be part of the training and why these skills are crucial for future careers:
“An important thing to mention here is that learning to communicate your science well to others outside of your field can really help improve how you communicate your science with your peers and supervisors. Also, not everyone you apply to for grant money is necessarily an expert in your field, so this ability to change your communication style according to audience may be an even greater advantage.”
Following Heather’s post, Alejandro Grajales, a third year PhD student, explains why he is doing a PhD at a museum and discusses the diverse skill set he is acquiring:
“Diversity is also a key aspect to the course, as RGGS students are often studying very different organisms, ranging from fish, lizards, and insects to dinosaurs. As a result, you learn how to appeal to a diverse range of scientists, a depiction of a real panel you might see at a funding agency like the National Science Foundation (NSF). This process is complemented with weekly visits from science journalists, scientific journal editors, and other professionals in the science communication field who give the students their perspective on how to appeal to a non-scientific audience while still maintaining accuracy.”
Friday’s posts looked at the transferable skills you can gain from PhD training and how certain skills that should be developed, are often forgotten. Is leaving academia following a PhD the best path? asks Jerry Nguyen in the next post, reflecting on his own experiences after moving on from the research world:
The learning curve of these new skills was extremely steep and there were many times when I thought I wouldn’t make it. To this day, transitioning from academia to business was one of the most difficult things that I have done in my career. Looking back, I could have made things easier on myself. If my graduate student self would actually be willing to listen to my business self, I would have suggested taking an “Intro to Excel” course or even auditing a couple of MBA graduate classes.”
Daniel Tix argues in his post that project management skills should be better developed during a PhD:
“I feel the education I received in graduate school was excellent, though the coursework I was offered and the training I received was limited to a very narrow scope. My graduate program did not cover some of the important skills or provide me with all of the background that helps scientists excel in this field.”
Marcus D. Hanwell talks about the “road less travelled” – his career journey from a PhD into software development. He discusses how far his PhD training prepared him for this role:
“In all honesty, I am largely self-taught and my PhD did little to train me in the skills required to begin a career in software development. I did a couple of courses as an undergraduate in C++, and sat in on a class during my PhD for advanced C++ (the primary language I use develop code today). These courses were at such a basic level in terms of programming that I had already covered and moved beyond the material being taught, and they unfortunately chose to concentrate on the mathematical challenges rather than introducing graphics or interactivity.”
Finally, Audrey Richard explains in her post how you can acquire new skills and improve on old ones during your PhD:
“Current discussions may imply that the PhD training is not enough. If it’s so hard for us to find a job outside academia perhaps it’s because we don’t know how to promote the skills we already have. That’s why I believe we don’t necessarily need further diversification of skills during the PhD . What we do need to be able to do is to promote those skills we have learnt during the process. If you are a PhD and don’t even realize that you are more than a lab bench worker, a slides maker and a lecturer, then indeed, you won’t ever convince anybody that you can leave academia.”
We hope you have enjoyed the series. The full list of posts can be found here and listed below. We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments and make sure you join in online. Remember you don’t have to be in NYC to take part in tonight’s SoNYC – the event will be be live-streamed and live-tweeted, so do join us online and follow #SoNYC.
- How to Patch the PhD Problem – Alison McCook
- PhD2.0 and anecdotes from the trenches – Jeanne Garbarino
- Doctoral Training Centres or Bust – Rich Walker
- My DTC Experience – Matt Allinson
- Learning on the job – Amanda Yoho
- Science Communication in the PhD process – Heather Doran
- Why I’m Working Toward my Ph.D. at a Museum – Alejandro Grajales
- PhD what is it good for? #leavingacademia – Jerry Nguyen
- Reflections on my PhD – What About Project Management Skills? – Daniel Tix
- The Road Less Travelled – From PhD to Software Development – Marcus D. Hanwell
- Acquiring new skills and improving old ones during your PhD – Audrey Richard