Monday, December 14, 2015

How to build a better PhD

“Since 1977, we've been recommending that graduate departments partake in birth control, but no one has been listening,” said Paula Stephan to more than 200 postdocs and PhD students at a symposium in Boston, Massachusetts, in October this year.

Stephan is a renowned labour economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who has spent much of her career trying to understand the relationships between economics and science, particularly biomedical science. And the symposium, 'Future of Research', discussed the issue to which Stephan finds so many people deaf: the academic research system is generating progeny at a startling rate. In biomedicine, said Stephan. “We are definitely producing many more PhDs than there is demand for them in research positions.”

The numbers show newly minted PhD students flooding out of the academic pipeline. In 2003, 21,343 science graduate students in the United States received a doctorate. By 2013, this had increased by almost 41% — and the life sciences showed the greatest growth. That trend is mirrored elsewhere. According to a 2014 report looking at the 34 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the proportion of people who leave tertiary education with a doctorate has doubled from 0.8% to 1.6% over the past 17 years.

Not all of these students want to pursue academic careers — but many do, and they find it tough because there has been no equivalent growth in secure academic positions. The growing gap between the numbers of PhD graduates and available jobs has attracted particular attention in the United States, where students increasingly end up stuck in lengthy, insecure postdoctoral research positions. Although the unemployment rate for people with science doctorates is relatively low, in 2013 some 42% of US life-sciences PhD students graduated without a job commitment of any kind, up from 28% a decade earlier. “But still students continue to enrol in PhD programmes,” Stephan wrote in her 2012 book How Economics Shapes Science. “Why? Why, given such bleak job prospects, do people continue to come to graduate school?”

One reason is that there is little institutional incentive to turn them away. Faculty members rely on cheap PhD students and postdocs because they are trying to get the most science out of stretched grants. Universities, in turn, know that PhD students help faculty members to produce the world-class research on which their reputations rest. “The biomedical research system is structured around a large workforce of graduate students and postdocs,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a labour economist at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Many find it awkward to talk about change.”

But there are signs that the issue is becoming less taboo. In September, a group of high-profile US scientists (Harold Varmus, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Bruce Alberts, colloquially known as 'the Quartet') launched Rescuing Biomedical Research, a website where scientists can make recommendations on how to 'fix' different aspects of the broken biomedical research system in the United States — the PhD among them. “How can we improve graduate education so as to produce a more effective scientific workforce, while also reducing the ever-expanding PhD workforce in search of biomedical research careers?” the site asks.

Nature put a similar question to 33 PhD students, scientists, postdocs and labour economists and uncovered a range of opinions on how to build a better PhD system, from small adjustments to major overhauls. All agreed on one thing: change is urgent. “Academia really is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century,” says Gary McDowell, a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and a leader of the group behind the Future of Research symposium. The renovation needs to happen now, says Jon Lorsch, director of the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. “We need to transform graduate education within five years. It's imperative. There's a lot at stake for scientists, and hence for science.”

by Julie Gould, Nature |  Read more:
Image: Oliver Munday