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.
Alison McCook, a science writer based in Philadelphia, is a Comment editor at Nature. To find out more, visit her website.
At the moment, the state of the PhD system is somewhat unclear. Are we training too many young scientists, or too few? And are we preparing them for a long, lustrous career, or using them as primarily temporary, cheap labor?
Even without clear answers to these questions, some researchers and administrators are already taking action to try to tinker with the formula for training new scientists.
Out of fear that too many PhDs are being prepared solely for academic positions, of which too few exist, Animesh Ray decided to create an entirely new PhD program at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, California. “I was determined not to have to keep watching scientists struggle to find the jobs they were trained to do,” he told me. Here, the PhD in Applied Life Sciences trains students just to work in industry, not an academic environment – learning the basic techniques of original research, but also how to write a business plan, raise money, conduct market research, and understand patent law.
The program only started in 2006, so it’s too soon to tell if graduates have an easier time finding first-rate positions than typical PhDs. Still, Ray was inspired to create the PhD by the success of KGI’s Professional Science Master’s program, which provides a shorter window into industry life (two years) – and nearly all of its graduates have found jobs since it started in 2000, with a median starting salary of USD$70,000+.
Another concerned researcher is Michael Lenardo, a molecular immunologist at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) inBethesda, Maryland, who in 2001 created a new PhD program that he believes provides an elite group of students with a more thorough preparation to find an academic position. When too few jobs exist, he reasoned, PhD programs need to only admit students they believe will make it, and ensure that they do.
Programs in the UK give students independence early by allowing them to skip coursework, but don’t always require first-author papers to graduate; this is often a requirement at US schools, but it can take students nearly twice as long to graduate. To combine the best of both programs, Lenardo created the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program, which asks students to devise their own project, skip uniform coursework, and author papers – all within roughly 4 years. Students spend half their PhD in each country, and are therefore not controlled by any single advisor.
Oh, and the program admits just 12 of the 250–300 applicants per year.
In its first 10 years, more than 60 graduates published an average of 2.4 first-author papers from their research, and some were already working at principal investigators.
An increasing number of programs are also emphasizing the importance of blurring the lines between subjects – or going “transdisciplinary,” according to Maria Allison, dean of the graduate college at Arizona State University in Tempe, which offers degrees ranging from Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology, Biological Design, and Urban Ecology. A new Interdisciplinary Biology (iBIO) PhD course at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore,India, trains engineers, chemists, computer scientists and physicists to use the tools of physical science to tackle biological problems.
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. Richard Hetherington, a postgraduate-skills development coordinator at Newcastle University, UK, told me he worries that trainees exposed to so many fields will lack a “deep understanding of a specific area” – which is what a PhD is supposed to provide.
In the meantime, the vast majority of PhD students are still toiling away at traditional degrees. Time will tell if the few who are willing to tinker with the formula have a better future ahead of them.