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.
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!
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.