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The Black Hole

Some good and bad ideas for restructuring the PhD


Last week, a series of articles came out in Nature that highlighted the need for urgent change in PhD education. This is not a new call, but in one of the articles, Julia Gould does an excellent job of drawing attention to some serious efforts that are underway to both understand and address the problem. Three main strategies emerge as possibilities: 1) collect and provide data on PhD outcomes; 2) modernize the PhD; and 3) cut the number of PhDs. These issues are close to our hearts of course and we are delighted that they are getting attention, but I’m not convinced that they will create real structural change in the timelines needed.

Data only goes so far

The first suggestion was to collect (and disseminate) data on PhD outcomes (e.g., to track the PhD). I agree that collecting the data is worthwhile and should help structure some solid efforts to direct doctoral students down particular (and more likely) career paths. However, I do not think this particular cohort of young people will benefit from outcomes information and this dissemination effort won’t even put a dent in the problem for one main reason: these students don’t believe that they are “average.”

In a previous article on the importance of leaving science on good terms, I tried to capture this sentiment:

“This is where the human element comes into play. Postdoctoral fellows are generally clever and successful people; they’ve finished at or near the top of their classes in high school and university and clearly like asking questions about things that have yet to be answered. The difficult disconnect comes when, for the first time in many of these people’s lives, they are being told, “No” – sorry, you’re not good enough to go down that path, just go figure something else out.”

If you tell young undergraduates at the top of their class that only 10% of people will “make it” in academia, they presume that you mean 10% of their current peers, not 10% of the top 5% of their class and other classes across the world. These students have always found success against their competition; they aren’t “average” and they know in their heart of hearts that they can get what they want despite poor odds. This is what the system is really up against.

The funny thing is, both sides are right. But, the system refuses to meet in the middle. PhD students are brighter than average and they should all be striving to contribute to making society a better place – universities, however, often fail to see students as the real product of their hallowed halls and instead push them to be data-production factories. What we really need to do is coax students to think more broadly, to leave academia with a PhD in an active manner.

Modernize the PhD

The claim that PhD training has changed little since the 1800s is a bit rich, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Two main suggestions come from Gould’s article: the first is to consider a broader training for doctoral students in an effort to better equip them for non-academic jobs, and the second is to create two streams of PhDs (the academic and the vocational).

I think efforts to increase the soft skills of PhD students is a laudable goal, but it is one that needs to be implemented very carefully – I don’t know that we want all PhD students attending mandatory marketing and finance courses as part of their doctoral studies. Many universities are doing a great job of providing researcher skills courses and career services. Cambridge has particularly strong programs although most students do not take advantage of them until they decide to leave academia.

As for the vocational PhD – this is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. First, it would create a hierarchy within doctoral students; second, and more importantly, this is what a master’s degree is supposed to be. I think the task on this side is to convince companies that they need to hire master’s students if they want people with solid research experience (many already do this quite successfully). While I cannot see a good reason for having a vocational PhD, I do see the need to have vocations for people with PhDs to move into – we’ve long campaigned for the creation of “staff scientist” positions at universities and this will have much more ink spilled on it in future.

Reduce PhD numbers

I often struggle with this one (and maybe I’m part of the problem for this reason), but to me it seems that as long as we have big unanswered questions in medicine, biotechnology, etc., we need people to educate themselves in the life sciences. Should they all become academics? God no. Should they all move into life sciences related industry positions – again, no. But should they acquire skills and knowledge to critically assess these areas – absolutely. I do have to agree with Bruce Alberts about encouraging more master’s degrees – I think these are excellent gateways into life sciences careers at the bench and in many other science-related areas (e..g, policy, law, etc.).

Cutting PhD numbers by making stiffer entrance requirements is a reasonable thought, but as pointed out in the article, these requirements will be difficult to establish. I shudder at the thought of having medical school style requirements for PhDs since this will almost certainly serve to cut off those who cannot “work the system” in the same way as others in more fortunate positions. If the PhD is meant to help people think laterally and differently than others to identify creative solutions to problems, then streamlining them through a standard process seems the opposite of what needs to be done.

In the end, I would agree with the sentiment that Julia Gould closes her article with: if young students know what they are getting into and still choose to do it, then so be it. Supporting their exit, however, is something we can make massive improvements on. Finally, I would strongly encourage our readers to help the Rescuing Biomedical Research website (run by heavy hitters in U.S. biomedical research Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, Harold Varmus) collect the very best ideas for reforming the system.

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. Nancy / December 10, 2015 at 07:20

    I find your rejection of the first suggestion odd and bordering on insulting. Certainly I considered outcomes for PhDs (and was, I believe, misled), as do my current undergraduates who ask about graduate school. We make the job prospects clear: there are extremely few jobs, not all good scholars get good jobs, and that a doctorate does not enhance employment prospects beyond the MA. Most students then choose to test out a master’s.
    Of course, this problem directly correlates with #3, which is that there are few (and ever decreasing) jobs, but many (and ever increasing) students, and we are being encouraged to accept more students, most of whom will not get jobs. This spiral is the real problem with graduate studies, at least in my humanities field.

  2. Asan / December 26, 2015 at 23:09

    I wish to comment on the thought in the last paragraph – that if young students know what they are getting into and still choose to do it, then so be it. I certainly did not know what I was getting into when I entered my PhD program.

    I believe that my story illustrates the difficulties in trying to get correct information about the reality of PhD studies. For example, I was not informed when I went into my PhD (initially as a part-time student) about funding for full-time graduate students. Then, once I finally had that figured out, I switched to full-time to take advantage of funding opportunities and scholarships. However, not once was I informed that the funding would run out at year 6. So, in year 6 I applied for a major scholarship and was awarded it! Then, I was informed by my institution that I could not accept it.Yes, there is fine print in some online manual somewhere that I apparently was supposed to have known by osmosis that I should read. But it is not that I did not seek the correct information – I was very proactive in making meetings with GPDs and with my committee members to discuss my options. I was encouraged to apply for scholarships, even in year 6 and I resent that not a single one of them warned me that I would be cut off from funding in year 6. The scholarship organization considered me eligible. It was just my home institution that stopped me from accept the award. A petition and an appeal proved to be a waste of my time.

    Had I been able to accept that scholarship, I would be finished my PhD by now. Instead, like many mature students who are trying to finish their PhDs while supporting young children, I now teach long hours on a part-time basis to make ends meet and it is difficult to make time to write my dissertation. Had I known about the year 6 cut off, I would have planned differently in terms of part-time or full-time studies, about whether to spend considerable time applying for a scholarship that I was not allowed to accept, and even whether to begin PhD studies in the first place.

    I now see the way recruitment works, and have observed full-time faculty taking potential PhD students out for lunch, offering to help them write their applications, and courting them in other ways. I am pretty certain that there are many out there who are considering PhD studies and not being given the full picture of what a PhD entails. From my experience and my observations of others, many of us often do NOT know what we are signing up for.