The Broken Graduate Education Experience

The Broken Graduate Education ExperienceThe life of a scientist can be very hard. Some of us find ourselves fighting through graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships, battling for jobs in a saturated job market, and then bootstrapping our way through the progression of our career trajectory. Regardless of that, obtaining a PhD is extraordinarily rewarding and impactful to society!

Let’s focus on the beginning: graduate school. Obtaining a PhD is hard and it should be. What I found was that graduate school was not impossibly difficult from an intellectual standpoint, but it was painfully hard from an emotional and physical standpoint. I felt as though faculty had the mentality of putting students (and postdocs) through, well, torture because that is how they went through graduate school and their postdoctoral fellowship…that is, at least, my perception. I also found it mentally frustrating that graduate education is narrowly focused on preparing students to eventually become faculty in major universities in which they would be running their own research programs. Looking back, I see the graduate education system as broken, but very fixable.

It is sad that PhD programs continue to focus on training future faculty researchers when, in fact, the majority of PhDs pursue careers outside of academia. I strongly believe that PhD programs are missing opportunities to better prepare PhDs for all the different career fields that are available. I believe that fixing the broken graduate education experience would require at least three main focus areas:

1. Culture change
Faculty must become accepting and supportive of career opportunities outside academia.

2. Coursework
PhD programs should integrate multi-disciplinary coursework into PhD curricula in order to specifically focus on providing the skills PhDs need to excel outside academia.

3. Work experience
PhD programs should provide opportunities for students/postdocs to participate in internships and other work experience-related activities so that they can obtain paid work experience in their area of interest. One of the biggest “complaints” that employers have about newly minted PhDs (students and postdocs) who are entering the non-academic job market is that they have no paid work experience. So, our education system should help fix this issue.

There is some rhetoric beginning at the NIH and NSF regarding a change to the graduate education system. Will this be enough? I’m not so sure. The biggest hurdle, I believe, is the way current faculty think. Adapting coursework and integrating work experience into PhD programs should be fairly easy, but it is really hard to change the way people think and feel.

I have witnessed very negative thinking regarding careers outside academia. This negative thinking and my feelings on the need to generally enhance the positive atmosphere of the graduate education system literally lead me to dedicate my dissertation “to all those who I will positively influence and encourage.” Over the last five years, I’ve been trying to do just that. I have written about these issues in The Scientist, Nature Biotechnology, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education. I recently also founded a company focusing on helping PhDs understand how best to integrate multiple disciplines alongside their PhD to ultimately excel at work they love. Current PhD students and recent graduates have responded very well to these initiatives, but not surprisingly, many senior faculty look at these activities as propaganda against graduate education and generally harmful to their academic mission.

Do you think graduate education needs revised? What do you think will help improve the system and process of educating and training PhDs? Do you think that change is possible? What will it take to change the culture? Let me know what you think!

Ultimately, graduate education will change. It has to in order to keep up with market demand (remember that I said above that most PhDs are already being employed outside academia). So, my goal is to help this change happen sooner and in a way that helps ease the heartache currently experience by so many graduate students and postdocs around the world.

Do you think graduate education needs to be revised?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Nathan holds a PhD in biochemistry and will complete an MBA (with a leadership and operations management focus) in May of 2013. He is an administrator, researcher, educator/consultant, writer/editor, and entrepreneur. He is founder of Integrative Academic Solutions which aims to integrate multiple disciplines to achieve innovative job performance.

 

8 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Karen

    wrote on April 12, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I agree with exactly the reforms you recommend: coursework and internships/work experience to prepare graduate students for careers other than "faculty member running own lab at major research institution." Furthermore, I think one of those careers should be teaching, either at the K-12 or college level or both. All graduate students should have the opportunity to get meaningful teaching experience that counts towards graduation, rather than being seen as just an impediment that takes away from their ability to conduct research in their advisors' labs. And, this teaching experience should include the opportunity to design and lead their own course, with advice and feedback from teaching mentors, not just to grade papers and/or labs for someone else's course.

    I agree that culture change would be nice too, but I don't think we should just wait for it. Those reforms would give the needed culture change a boost.

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on April 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I like the idea of having the option to learn to teach in a more meaningful way–beyond just the grading exams and running review sessions that most of us get stuck doing. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a majority of students view the teaching requirements as a hassle–who wants to grade exams for a living?

    I think an update to the curriculum should include more opportunities to pursue your career interests while in graduate school. If you want to be an academic, teaching should be an option. If you want to go into a company, maybe there is either an internship or a class that teaches people what life is like in a corporate research environment.

    I agree with Karen that a culture change is necessary, but is accomplished as a result of reforms and actions taken. If we make the right changes, the right cultural changes will follow.

  3. Pierre C.

    wrote on April 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Grad/PDF are very interested in knowing more about outside-academia jobs and how to better prepare themselves. And like Nathan, I am also experiencing a *cold* support senior faculty.

    Chances are that the education will change from bottom-up (option 1, student pushing faculty), or outside-in (option 2, job market on university), or a combination of both (option 3).

  4. @nlvanderford

    wrote on April 14, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Great comments! I agree that all options should be on the table for careers, thus all types of experience should be an option to pursue while in grad school. I also agree that the culture change can occur over time as everything else falls into place.

  5. Kara

    wrote on April 15, 2013 at 9:33 am

    While I think some advisors could benefit from being made aware that careers outside academia are still sucessful endpoints for their students, I think the ultimate road to sucess for a student is to identify an advisor is is open to their future plans and willing to allow them to engage in the activities they need to achieve their future goals. I know some students who REALLY want to spend their lives doing bench research, and they shouldn't be required to spend a lot of time on teaching or pursuing other experiences if they will be happy spending their lives at the bench. More flexibility in graduate school would be a good thing, but students shouldn't be required to do things other than benchwork if that is truly their passion.

  6. citizensci

    wrote on April 15, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Kara, I agree with you on the one hand. But a PhD shouldn't be about doing bench research alone. Doing benchwork alone is being a lab tech and being a phd is a Doctor of Philosophy in xyz…. Not a certification to do xyz techniques.

  7. citizensci

    wrote on April 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I think that it has to be a brave & innovative (probably young isn) department chair who is interested in overhauling the PhD program in his/her department. The success of the new model program will catch on if it succeeds. I don't see the major role that NIH/NSF would play in overhauling the PhD system. They don't set university guidelines, departmental requirements, or advisor/mentee interactions. The only way that NIH/NSF influences the PhD system is by providing fellowships, mainly in the form of research fellowships that de-emphasize teaching. The reviewers for these fellowships mainly (despite what they might be instructed to do) focus on the quality of research and publication track record of the advisor. I see this as being a shift in attitude that has to be faculty-driven if it's going to happen. It will require a generational shift in leadership, too. I don't know of any department chairs willing to rock the boat.

  8. @DoctorZen

    wrote on April 15, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    I'd flip it around. It's the job market after graduation that is the problem more so than the "grad experience." If there were not trends like universities increasingly moving towards non-tenure track adjuncts, declining funding, and so on, the "experience" wouldn't so much an issue.

Leave a comment

will not be published