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The Black Hole

Nature special articles: The future of the PhD

BY DAVID KENT | APR 26 2011

Last week, the Easter bunny dropped a sadistically timed present with a Nature special on The Future of the PhD.  Just when hordes of students graduate and many trainees leave to take time off with families for Easter, Nature launches a series of career-contemplating articles that will send many prospective, current and recent PhD students into a tailspin of “what should I do with life”?

While I think it is worth visiting the site to read the articles thoroughly and wade through the comments, I also recognize that most people won’t read through them all and thought that a short summary on this series would help guide you to the article that has the most relevance to your own situation:

  1. Fix the PhD
  2. Education:  The PhD factory
  3. Education: Rethinking PhDs
  4. Seven ages of the PhD
  5. Reform the PhD system or close it down
  6. What is a PhD really worth?

Fix the PhD
The Nature-authored summary of the whole series makes some excellent points about the current state of affairs in the academy, particularly concerning biomedical sciences which we have previously suggested as the canary in the coal mine for the changing resources in academia.  One of the most interesting comments is the thought that “the system is driven by the supply of research funding, not the demand of the job market” and we might do well to consider this in the design of graduate programs.  Perhaps the most saddening sentiment, however is that of the current situation in biomedical science:

Exceptionally bright science PhD holders from elite academic institutions are slogging through five or ten years of poorly paid postdoctoral studies, slowly becoming disillusioned by the ruthless and often fruitless fight for a permanent academic position.

Education:  The PhD factory
The most well-researched and informative article of the entire lot, this article offers a country by country analysis of policy and practice concerning PhD training from the crisis of over-production in Japan which resulted in the Ministry of Science and Education offering ~$47,000 each “to take on some of the country’s 18,000 unemployed postdoctoral students” to the rampant PhD production of China, Singapore, and Poland (each with differing successes and challenges).  The supply vs. demand section on the US also paints a gloomy picture concerning prospective academic employment:

In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured.

Education: Rethinking PhDs

In this article, Alison McCook discusses innovative programs that consider and try to address the deficiencies of current training regimens.  One such program is the National Institutes of Health’s Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program which ties to strike a balance between the speedy and independent British system which often falls flat on publication production and the comprehensive, but lengthy, American system which requires investment of the majority of one’s mid-late 20’s for an academic job that likely does not exist.  Other novel approaches are also presented around five tips for how to shake up the current system and encourage novel approaches to training.

Seven ages of the PhD
This one is a rather esoteric reflection piece by scientists who completed their PhD in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, and 10’s.  From a nice anecdote about scientists wearing ties underneath lab coats (I don’t think you see either worn very often in labs these days) to reflections from a soon-to-be-crowned PhD that was in high school when the human genome was completed, it makes an interesting puff piece, but the only tangible things I could find were:  1) Going abroad = good;  2) today’s student needs to be “policy aware” and 3) integrity is everything – others might just base their research on yours.

A requisite “booo” to Nature for keeping this one (arguably the most accessible for the lay person) from non-subscribers.

Reform the PhD system or close it down
Overall, I was not thrilled with this article, but I think it was mostly style based and I found it a tad close-minded with respect to what an educated mind can do outside of the academy ((I also wasn’t impressed with the author’s “solution” to the problem – axe departments and “outsource” some subjects)).  You can read the rather heated comments below the article.  In all fairness though, the author does make a critical point:

…in far too many cases, specialization has led to areas of research so narrow that they are of interest only to other people working in the same fields, subfields or sub-subfields. Many researchers struggle to talk to colleagues in the same department, and communication across departments and disciplines can be impossible.

This is something I witness every time I ask someone to join me in attending a lecture that is not completely in our sub-discipline and am met with “why would I go learn about that, it won’t help my project”.  To me, this is one of the cardinal sins that a researcher fortunate enough to be based in Cambridge can commit – why else would you come here?  I’m sure this level of blinder-induced drive to publication is not restricted to my institute, but I’m open to hearing from nay-sayers.

What is a PhD really worth?
This article takes a unique tack and discusses the recent troubles that graduates of professional programs (law school, medical school, etc) have had with finding jobs.  A fair point is made concerning the amount of debt that these programs force onto their graduates and how scientists, despite having their high levels of training complemented with poor salaries, are much better off than an unemployed law graduate.  However, the author fails to conjure any numbers to show how many people this affects or any backup for unilaterally applying to scientists and not medical/law students that “living frugally is better than amassing tens of thousands of dollars of debt”.

I will highlight my favourite quotation from this article which resists the culture of entitlement that is growing in the young cadre of researchers:

At best, a graduate programme in any discipline can provide its students with key skills, knowledge and abilities. How the graduates apply that learning is up to them.

Yes, graduate programs can focus on teaching skills other than research, yes we can have better career guidance for the 80% who will not become professors, but NO – you cannot expect to have your hand held throughout life and have to take the bull by the horns when it comes to finding out what YOU want to do.
Hope you enjoy reading these articles!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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