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Tilghman: Time for NIH, Universities to Step Up

In a live chat hosted by Science Careers this week, US National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director's Biomedical Workforce Working Group co-chair Shirley Tilghman and Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology President Joseph LaManna addressed reader questions and comments as to whether the US is training too many PhDs.

Right away, Tilghman said yes, under the "view that PhDs should [be] engaged in research — either in academia, industry or government — or in a science-related position such as patent law, then we are training too many." However, she added, "If you argue that education — no matter the content — makes for a better citizen, then there is no such thing as too many."

Later, discussing how a tightening NIH budget might affect PhD training going forward, Tilghman said that "the enterprise [US biomedical workforce] will have to shrink, the growth in the number of trainees will shrink, and the growth in building of new laboratories will shrink."

FASEB's LaManna is not so sure the US is training too many PhDs. However, he did express with certainty that PhD "training programs have historically focused on preparing students for academic positions, the growth of which has not kept pace with the number of graduate students and postdocs."

When asked when NIH might limit the number of trainees any one PI might have working in his or her lab, Tilghman stressed that "it is unlikely that the NIH would limit the number of trainees that any one PI can have. After all some PIs are truly stellar mentors, and you would not want to limit their number of students," she said. Rather, she noted, the group suggested that the agency limit the length of time if would support a given trainee — to five years, she said — "as a way to encourage PIs to get their students through their PhDs in a reasonable length of time."

While Tilghman noted that NIH is limited in its abilities to encourage the employment of staff scientists rather than additional trainees, she did say that the agency "must … let study sections know that they should look favorably on such positions on grants."

Overall, she added, NIH can take steps to encourage timely completion of PhD studies. For their part, Tilghman said, "universities need to respond to the change in the biomedical workforce and develop training programs that reflect the employment landscape."

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