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Science is like Baking: The Rise of the Cookie Cutter PhD

In medical science, many of the protocols we use for bench work feel like recipes. To nobody’s surprise, it is often compared to baking – add component X, spin, add component Y, mix, “cook” in a gel, etc, etc – and I say fair enough. Many will argue, however, that such protocols are not the bread and butter of an academic scientist’s career which certainly relies on designing the experiments to answer novel questions about the particular system or situation being studied and interpreting an often confused picture to help make sense of that system. This blog entry contends that we are putting less emphasis on the latter and more on the former and our nation is going to pay a hefty price if we don’t turn the boat around – the PhD is becoming less focused on learning how to think, and more focused on learning how to do. This is a trend that I am labelling the rise of the cookie cutter PhD.

BY DAVID KENT | NOV 17 2009

Quick hit:

1. A friend of mine (Hana, @teachmescience) forwarded a review on a book that many of you who liked the Say NO to the Second PDF blog entry might also find to be interesting… the book appears to be a troubling, but insightful, commentary on how professors have illusions of grandeur that are causing major problems in the training environment.

2. Writing a research intensive blog entry is very time consuming, so in order to keep up the frequency of postings, I’ve decided to write in pairs: one fluffy opinion dominated piece followed by one that involves the research and information that we’ve collected over the years as more of a resource-rich entry. I hope you enjoy both and will continue to comment, spread the word about the blog, and email your suggestions, questions, etc.

Fluffy entry number one…

Science is like Baking: The Rise of the Cookie Cutter PhD

In medical science, many of the protocols we use for bench work feel like recipes. To nobody’s surprise, it is often compared to baking – add component X, spin, add component Y, mix, “cook” in a gel, etc, etc – and I say fair enough. Many will argue, however, that such protocols are not the bread and butter of an academic scientist’s career which certainly relies on designing the experiments to answer novel questions about the particular system or situation being studied and interpreting an often confused picture to help make sense of that system.

This blog entry contends that we are putting less emphasis on the latter and more on the former and our nation is going to pay a hefty price if we don’t turn the boat around – the PhD is becoming less focused on learning how to think, and more focused on learning how to do. This is a trend that I am labelling the rise of the cookie cutter PhD.

The driving forces of this trend are plentiful, but I’ve tried to highlight some key components:

One PhD = Three papers

It’s even come down to something called the manuscript based thesis (which is not inherently a bad thing, but it can border on the ridiculous) – this is where a general introduction and conclusion are almost literally stapled around 3 research findings chapters that comprise the productivity of one’s degree in the only currency that seems to have not been devalued in the economic crisis – publications.

Professor Production Stress

We’ve talked about the shift in human resources in the sciences. With this shift comes an amazingly tight competition to get the limited number of professor jobs and this means a pressure to produce papers and not the next generation of critically thinking scientists.

Shorter PhDs are Better

Many countries have limits on the number of years one can/should spend in a doctoral program (Britain and Australia are two that come to mind) – admittedly Canadian schools have started “skipping MScs” and requiring course work which certainly adds a year – but three years in medical research is SHORT… some great PhD projects are done in this time, but it certainly does encourage universities and professors to (help) design cookie cutter projects that will get an answer in the required amount of time.

Qualification Fetishes

Many different players in the game are guilty here… organizations who want to have “ten PhDs on staff that recommend X”, individuals who want to have a list of letters after their name to impress others and themselves, newspapers that want to have articles by “Julie Smith, PhD”, and the list goes on… this is great if it means there are more highly qualified thinkers out there in a panoply of careers – but what if they’re all cookie cutter PhDs???

Black Sky Thinking

When was the last time you shot the shit for a few days about where the field was going and what the “big questions” were… a PhD is not a box checking exercise of “did I complete the requisite number of experiments” – it’s an assessment of your thinking ability (maybe even your ability to have a philosophical discussion on your topic)….all too often we feel like it’s night time and we just have to finish that last paper, experiment, etc.

Value for Money

Someone else has paid for you to be here… they want a tangible outcome (a product, a solution, etc). Someone (too often) asks: “why are you spending your day reading or thinking – go cure cancer”. (This “product for money” sentiment is a problem that I also believe is at the heart of the gap in funding, and public support, for the humanities and social sciences – which often have far more to offer when it comes to producing (no pun intended) the next generation of critically thinking individuals – another blog entry for sure)

Together, these forces do what I think we should be very very scared of… they apply pressure to churn out PhDs faster, with more papers, with less flexibility in ideas and more rigid (read publishable) research project designs. So, in the end, little effort goes into helping the PhD students think critically about their field – and while I don’t believe this style of training is as far gone in the Humanities… I think it’s coming, so get yourself ready!

Possible solutions?

1. We need new value metrics to help assess someone’s ability to be a leading researcher. References go a long way, but can be biased or over-inflated. Clearly, publications are not going to go away as a tool to get in the door, but they shouldn’t be the only metric to judge academic prowess. Teaching and training by professors are often un-recognized quantities that have a huge impact on the future of science and our country’s “innovation culture” (which everyone loooovvvves to go on about) and we’re giving all the good positions to those who have sacrificed to be a publication machine first and a teacher later (I exaggerate, but you get the picture – and who dares to ask the question if this contributes to fewer women and more men in academia…) – we need to figure out a way to reverse this trend.

2. If someone enters an oral examination at the end of their PhD and it is clear that they’ve not written substantial portions of the thesis, do not understand how the methods or experiments work (or what they can actually tell us), cannot articulate why their research is relevant to the field, have not contributed anything novel, or any other major infraction that many claim “don’t really happen” – they should fail. And the committee approves passage to oral examination should also suffer consequences for letting it get to this stage.

I don’t have any more solutions right now, but this is a real brewing crisis in academic circles and needs much more discussion. What the heck is a PhD, anyway?

I submit to the firing squad…

PS: My PhD supervisor invested an enormous amount into making her students think… this is of critical importance and has certainly burned many of the hours that she could have spent on publishing, recruiting, grant writing, etc…I thank her deeply for this.

PPS: Brad… thanks for the “what the heck is a ____, anyway…” no one will ever forget that WIP.

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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  1. Mel / November 17, 2009 at 19:29

    To be fair, the “3 papers=PhD” and the “shorter=better” components you are talking about represent attitudes in different countries. I have yet to see a manuscript based, 3-year, North American PhD 🙂 Perhaps such things do exist where you are now?

  2. Rob / November 17, 2009 at 20:01

    Great post. I’m afraid I was quite naive when I started my PhD, and assumed that the PhD meant deep thought and unexpected insights. Alas, in science at least, you are expected to be married to the bench, hammering out experiment after experiment. The sad thing is how few PhD candidates see anything wrong with this. I saw too many students who would literally get a list of experiments from their supervisors, generate the data, deliver it for analysis, and then repeat. And yet, they didn’t complain, they liked it that way. It meant they didn’t “waste time” on unproductive avenues, they could get their papers and graduate.
    Very sad.

  3. Cathy / November 17, 2009 at 20:33

    Good post. I hate to say it but I had a 3 paper PhD in Canada. It wasn’t designed that way but it still happened. I think funding sources are moving more to the ‘tangible outcomes’ and it will push people more into the cookie cutter mentality. Basic research is needed to help find the next big questions (and answers).

  4. Rachel / November 17, 2009 at 21:00

    I know this site is about education and work in the sciences, but I think it is worth pointing out that the sciences have alot to learn from the social sciences, where I think we are challenged to think about big ideas. However, we could all benefit from more critical thinking. I think it all comes down to funding…in sciences you are most likely working as part of a large funded project that needs outcomes to get funded further…Alot of onus is on the supervisor – in many respects – right down to bringing a thesis to defense. Which is why I guess it’s good that the tenure process is so rigorous and faculty jobs aren’t a dime a dozen. I think we should actually accept and ‘train’- still hate that word, less PhDs and create more actual jobs for people with PhDs as members of research teams, instead of using students to pump out results for Faculty members.

  5. Dave / November 18, 2009 at 09:24

    Mel – yes, I’ve listed many trends from many countries on purpose because it’s important to recognize that they exist. There are definitely 3 papers per 3 yr PhD expectations put on people in England and in Holland… not sure about elsewhere. I don’t know what the correct “formula” is for a PhD, but I was simply advocating that we move away from “deliverables” and toward training individuals to be able to create the research questions and identify the gaps in the literature – which are skills that will make them better for any career they choose.