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The Black Hole

Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees


It seems that my last post created a bit of a stir and unfortunately I was away for a week and didn’t catch up to the comments right away. I think it’s important based on those comments to clarify a few things about my perspective on this before going into ways that we can manage the core issues.

First, I am not advocating for low postdoctoral salaries in Canada – far from it. I know there are many underpaid and undervalued highly educated people out there and the crisis is especially bad in the humanities (low to no funding) and life sciences (very lengthy doctoral and postdoctoral terms). The main point I was trying to make in the article was that we need to provide good sound reasoning why increases are needed and where the money should come from. I also would stress again that the idea of paying more grant dollars into salary will not be palatable without such a measured approach.

Second, I do not view academic research like a private-sector capitalist endeavour and find the comparison to coal mining unfair. To me, research is the stuff governments pay to get done for the public because the private sector won’t pay for it. Unfortunately, that gives academic researchers extraordinarily little bargaining power – if we stop doing academic research, few will notice the effect immediately. Moreover, coal miners worked in the 1800s because they had to in order to feed families. Despite the chronic undervaluing of postdoctoral fellows, these postdocs are not starving nor do they have “no other option” to make more money – they can (and do) leave. It doesn’t mean that academic researchers should be poorly paid, but it does again mean that the case for increases needs to be strongly argued and well justified.

One other point from the comments is the one that Erika made, SB and BP echoed and Paul delivered home strongly – the current system drives people out for the wrong reasons and we are losing excellent people by chronically undervaluing and failing to support them properly. I agree with you all and hope that I’m not ignoring the points in the proposal below (part 1) and in future posts on postdoctoral fellows (part 2) and early career investigators (part 3).

Part 1: Graduate training

The best way to reduce the strain on the system and still produce highly educated people is to have students enter and exit graduate programs with great speed and great motivation. The first step to this solution is that Master’s degrees that take 3+ years and PhDs that take 6+ years simply must stop. As the majority of students who obtain a PhD will not become professors, it is a terrible investment of their time, monies and energy to focus on highly specialized research for such a period. I constantly hear the argument that more years afford more opportunities to get more publications and I cannot deny the truth in that, but that is a metric for those pursuing academic careers and could easily be accomplished with 1-2 years of postdoctoral research in the same group for those that wish to finish up such projects. For the remainder of people, they should go off (actively!) to non-tenure track careers before becoming completely alienated by academia.

Aside from shortening the time to obtain degrees, there needs to be better management of the people being produced and the key to this is active and honest career guidance from thesis committees and departments. There are three big problems in the way we currently train:

  1. Students do not know what their options are.
  2. Non-academic careers are demonized.
  3. Students who lack the skills to become a tenure-track professor are not being told in an honest way. At a minimum, such weaknesses should be identified so they can be addressed throughout the PhD.

These problems are addressable, but solutions require some tough conversations and some even tougher shifts in mentality along with a modest amount of resources. The most effective route of ensuring these points are addressed at the graduate student level has to be through thesis committees, but institutions should also play a role.

Thesis committees should be mandated to enquire about and record (and possibly even assess) a student’s post-graduation intentions at annual meetings. This will not only force consideration of non-academic careers, but also show the student that professors value such careers and the individual student’s development. The skeptic will say that professors don’t value other careers and such advice will be lip service and, in some cases, I would agree. This is where the shift in mentality has to occur and these outcomes and records might need to be tied to funding, promotion, etc., in order to work. I suspect (and hope) that the latter could be avoided through good departmental record keeping and consistency in institutional graduate program training requirements.

Wedded to this active career management is the need for institutions to provide specialized career services for students. A great example of such programs is what my current institution does in the way of careers advice and professional skills training. Much of this is restricted to internal websites, but do click for an overview of careers and skills initiatives. The most promising programs that I have come across are private one-to-one career advice sessions, mock interview panels for academic and non-academic positions, and specialized workshops on communication skills for life scientists.

Point 3 is a little bit harder as it will be tough to tell clever people that they aren’t quite clever enough or cite poor oral, written, teaching, or supervision skills as insurmountable deficiencies to an academic career. The problem will be amplified by some students’ inability to receive criticism and this again stresses the need for committees to be involved with legitimate benchmarking exercises. If someone’s oral presentation skills are bad in year 1, tell them they need to improve them and support their attendance to workshops, conferences, etc. Check back in a year and ask “what have you done to improve your communication skills?” – if the answer is “nothing,” then students are digging their own grave.

Overall, we need to encourage active career management in order to avoid surprises for students about the chances of an academic career, the options outside of academic, and the utility of a PhD. This needs to be done by individual students primarily, but needs strong support from universities and supervisory committees.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll tackle the postdoctoral fellow cohort and finish off with solutions for early career researchers.

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. Sonja / March 25, 2013 at 10:57

    Agree with all of the above. For #3, I think I would prefer to focus on skills evaluation and development instead of judgement calls, especially early on – saying something like “if you want to be a TT prof you need to be able to do ABC to standard X and right now you are at level Z” instead of “you will never be a TT prof, period”. The latter is not constructive and extraordinarily susceptible to bias.

    I like the idea of having legitimate benchmarks and making it clear that the onus is on the student to build those skills and seek support where needed.

  2. Theresa / March 25, 2013 at 16:47

    Great post Dave. Re: #1 and #3, a relevant point is to make sure that students enter graduate school for the right reasons. Career exploration should happen as soon as possible – I have seen too many cases of PhD graduates not knowing what they want to do next (and some of these are very capable people – so not necessary that they cannot “make it” in academia, but more like late realization that this is not what they want). Some of such conversations will indeed be tough.

  3. kron3007 / April 1, 2013 at 09:21

    Long graduate studies may help students get more publications, but people looking at their CV will see the length of time they were enrolled. I was always told that what matters more than the total number of publications is the number of publications per year, and to show an upward trend. So, a 6 year PhD with 4 publications may not be as impressive to hiring committees as a 4 year PhD with 3 publications.

    The irony is that my department has suggested degree times of 2 and 3-4 years for MSc and PhD degrees respectively, but the average times to completion are significantly greater. For the most part I would blame the supervisors and committees; I see many students put on projects that can not be completed in this time frame and in many cases it is very obvious (ie. when field data need to be collected over multiple seasons). If we really want students to finish quickly we need to structure the programs to enable it, like what is done in most of Europe.

  4. JC / April 2, 2013 at 05:05

    Shorter PhD is total nonsense. What this will do is open the floodgates so that universities can start producing PhDs like widgets. We already have law schools (example UBC) giving out 3 year PhDs. Really? Can you do a PhD and fulfil all the requirements in 3 years? A good, comprehensive PhD takes at least 6 years to do. Anything else is a “flash in the pan” piece of work.
    The current Canadian model works. What needs to be done is for schools to start implementing a practical component into the course work. More importantly, every PhD student should collect original data and triangulate their results. Canada already has an over production of PhDs in certain disciplines.

  5. BS / April 24, 2013 at 19:54

    Nobody wants to see students struggle unnecessarily, but shorting graduate degrees doesn’t fix the problem. Enrollment in many MS/PhD programs is too high and this is where a ‘fix’ needs to happen. I agree with the point that supervisory committees should force discussion with there students on post-PhD endeavors because again, this doesn’t happen enough and many people are disillusioned. Just like JC above, I fear shortening graduate degrees will provoke universities to push even more students through.