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The Black Hole

Career streams in academia: Who foots the bill?


After Jonathan’s last post on introducing career streams into academia, I was reminded of a question that a colleague of mine once asked: “If so many non-academic fields need highly trained PhDs, why don’t we ever see them pay for their training?” I replied with several examples of how biotechnology companies are starting to invest in internship programs, professorial chairs, etc; but he was not after this category of “alternative” careers. He was concerned with the not-so-obvious ones that end up attracting many PhD trained scientists.

On this site and numerous others, we wax lyrical about the vast multitude of careers available to people with a science-based PhD. The idea is that the PhD equips students with critical thinking and research skills required for careers outside of academia (science writing, science policy, consulting, etc) and we often cite this to counter concerns that we are training too many PhD scientists.

Not just the next step

I worry that we will begin to consider graduate school as the natural extension of undergraduate training. While I think most people have embraced secondary school and undergraduate/college training as staples in education, I am not convinced that the same is true of graduate school, nor should it be. Graduate school needs to be viewed in and of itself as a useful endeavor (the research produced) and those taking part in it should be thinking early about where their critical thinking and analysis skills can be applied should they not wish to continue academic research. The training of a PhD therefore cannot simply be viewed as the production of highly qualified personnel. In biomedical science, this is the cohort of people working well outside of normal working hours, performing overnight experiments and the like – they are the energy and enthusiasm that drive science and they do it all for a pittance.

Last autumn, founding CIHR president Alan Bernstein made some comments at our CSPC panel that rang true. As long as there are issues in this world that require clever solutions (climate change, regenerative medicine, over-population, etc), we need to keep producing university students with an arsenal of critical thinking and problem solving skills. The corollary to this, unless university faculty positions quadruple, is that most of them will need to find their eventual jobs in non-academic sectors. In theory, this provides great benefit to those companies and organizations, but they have virtually no role in helping to train them.

Engage before early onset apathy

From a medical standpoint, we often extol the virtues of identifying disease early to facilitate more successful treatments. I propose that the same strategy would work in graduate school – instead of waiting for graduate students to feel forced out of academia due to low availability of jobs, pique their interest prior to graduation. I would love to see leadership from sectors like finance, consulting, think tanks, libraries and NGOs to engage motivated PhD students. If your organization has ever hired a PhD scientist and see the benefits of hiring more, I encourage you consider creative ways of accomplishing this.

My next post will deal with the methods that some biotechnology companies and other organizations use – stay tuned.

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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