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Time to Assess the PhD

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In March, Genome Technology's cover story looked at the phenomenon we called "PhD overload" — the problem faced by the scientific community as institutions churn out more and more PhDs who are competing for fewer and fewer jobs. In its first week on our Web site, that story generated enough page views to make it the top-read article in recent memory. Clearly, the topic hit a nerve.

In the meantime, I was lucky enough to sit in on Ciara Curtin's cancer research roundtable last month, in which Web Cavanee, director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in San Diego, declared that it takes 20 years to train a scientist. "To get a scientist from the point where they were interested enough in science to go to classes or read textbooks to the point where they can be an actual practicing scientist ... is probably about 20 years," he said. That's a hefty investment.

To dig into this issue a little more, I called Hunter Rawlings, president-elect of the Association of American Universities. The topic came as no surprise to Rawlings, who is an advocate for both reducing the size of PhD programs and better educating graduate students about their job prospects.

He thinks that one way to stop this vicious cycle is to "put a much higher premium on high-quality incoming students." He notes that, especially in difficult economic times, it is common for PhD programs to admit students who might not normally be accepted, adding, "Unfortunately, then the students' level of expectations rises often beyond what is realistic."

For students who are accepted, Rawlings contends that universities should do a better job of educating them about their job prospects — in academia and outside of it. "Typically we're all in the business of, to some extent, cloning ourselves. So we tend to focus on academic employment for our PhDs," he says. Teaching students about what kinds of jobs they might find should begin early — preferably, during the PhD application process — and continue throughout the degree program, Rawlings says. "A little instruction during the early years of graduate school on the possibilities would be a healthy thing," he adds.

PhDs for all?

A different approach that comes to mind is to assess whether everyone in the field really needs a PhD. This will sound like heresy in some quarters, but why not have some kind of nurse-practitioner analogy for scientists? Sure, students can get a master's degree instead of a PhD right now, but that is usually seen as a consolation prize for people who couldn't finish the doctoral degree. However, there are plenty of positions in the research field for which a strong master's program would be exactly the right background — the main challenge is convincing scientists who grew up with the PhD-for-everyone mentality that there really is value in a different degree.

In the medical field, it took generations for doctors to come to terms with the idea that highly trained nurses could actually handle some of the physicians' responsibilities. Today, nurse practitioners are successful and in high demand — and from a cost/benefit standpoint, they make more sense in many situations than doctors do. Similarly, having someone who is well trained — but who didn't require 20 years of training to get up and running — could be more cost-effective in certain positions, and would also help ease the intense competition we see from PIs desperately fighting for a limited number of grants.

Clearly, a PhD program offers an incredibly valuable education. But it seems like it might be time to at least start the conversation about whether it is really the best path for all scientists.

Meredith Salisbury is editor in chief of GenomeWeb. Feel free to disagree with her at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Genome Technology.

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