Do as we say, not as we did

In the recent Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Washington Update, there is a letter to NIH director Francis Collins that supports recommendations from the Biomedical work force working group’s recent report. The report recommends, among other things, shortening the average Ph.D. training time to five years, while increasing training in skills targeting scientific careers outside of academia. How practical would it be to implement these recommendations?

Graduate school takes far too long. Ph.D.s are, generally, ill-equipped to do much more than academic bench work. But, I’m not convinced that the current system can be changed easily.

One reason Ph.D. takes so long is that a first author publication from your research is often a de facto requirement for graduation. These days, papers require increasingly complex experiments and reams of data, not to mention drawn out review processes. Unless publication requirements change, I don’t think a significant dent can be made in the average time to graduate number.

Increased training in the skills needed for pursuits outside of academic science may be moe daunting. Improving these skills will require time outside the lab and the support of PIs, who were indoctrinated with the traditional values of academic research. Time for this training must either come at the expense of less training in research skills or increased time in graduate school.

The recommendations do not really address the major role that PIs will play in making these changes happen. While I think that many investigators will support these recommendations, PIs are only familiar with the academic track may not equipped to mentor students through a shorter training period,while also facilitating career development. These and their previous experiences. Without training for mentors to match the increased training of students, this plan will be doomed to fail.

It is a multi-layered problem, but I’m glad that the NIH seems to be taking a look at the situation they fund. I’ve personally struggled with a lack of training in areas outside of academic benchwork and I hope that the system will be improved. To see what fellow blogger Mike thinks of this issue,  check out his post on the topic.

4 thoughts on “Do as we say, not as we did”

  1. I’m a big fan of alternate degree programs – more emphasis on Master’s w. business internships, like they do for engineering.

    If the PhD is going to remain a research degree, published work is key for career advancement, and it’s going to be limited by the typical time to get experiments working and results published.

  2. If your plan is to pursue a tenure track position, then a PhD with multiple first authors papers should be required. As a recent PhD graduate who is very certain a life in research is not for me (and I knew this early on in my PhD training), I would have loved the option for some sort of joint PhD (1/2 research, 1/2 science policy training, or science writing training etc). I agree a major problem with an approach like this is finding faculty willing to serve as advisors and where the funding will come from. Perhaps in the future the NIH will offer separate funding mechanism for students interested in alternative science careers. Additionally, joint mentorship may also be an option, a science mentor and then say a mentor who is in the political science department or journalism department etc. But at the very least, I too am encouraged that the NIH is beginning to investigate alternatives to the traditional PhD – postdoc – faculty trajectory that is no longer working for many young scientists.

  3. But in the UK, the typical PhD takes 4 years. I guess we don’t always get a first author paper, but then it means that those who want to follow the academic career can do the two or so post-docs necessary to get the first author papers. While my PhD did prepare me well for a scientific job in industry, I am learning things here (like discipline and structure) that would have helped during my PhD.

    1. Having done my PhD in the USA and my postdoc in the UK, I feel I am uniquely qualified to provide an entirely anecdotal opinion on this. My impression of our graduate students in the UK was they needed their first postdoc to learn to be independent scientists. PIs had to really guide the projects because of the time constraints. It was also very common to graduate without a first author paper. In contrast, they treated US PhDs like they had already done a postdoc due to the amount of time spent, which averages out to about the same for both countries.

      To me, the big advantage of spending so long on one project is that you have plenty of time to try new things and fail. That was much less of an option for our graduate students in the UK.

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