What’s the point (of the Ph.D.)?

A fancy degree. A hefty book. If you’re lucky, a few journal articles under your name. And the title of “Doctor”. These are probably the most tangible deliverables of a Ph.D. in the sciences.

We talk about how Ph.D. programs and postdoctoral positions are “training phases”, preparing us for… science… and stuff. But for what exactly are these programs training us?

Some will say that Ph.D. and postdoc training are designed to prepare you to be a career in science and, more specifically, a career as principal investigator. If that’s the case, and given that 80% of Ph.D. recipients will not be on that career path 10 years after earning their degrees (see pg. 25 of NIH Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report), then programs are missing the mark by failing to train the vast majority of their wards for jobs they actually choose pursue.

But frankly, I don’t think the point of science training is, or really has ever been, to create a bunch of head lab honchos. The point is to train people to do science. That’s it. A Ph.D. program is meant to lay the foundation for a field of study, to teach concepts and theories, to develop critical thinking and analytical skills. When you finish a Ph.D., you should be able to form a hypothesis, design an experiment, analyze the data, and communicate the results to peers. Actually, I think NIGMS has a pretty good vision in its Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training, which outlines:

“… after training, well-prepared students:

  • are curious, intelligent and creative;
  • are critical, rational thinkers, capable of organizing and analyzing data;
  • have a deep knowledge in a specific field but are conversant in related fields;
  • are able to formulate significant, testable scientific questions and are technically proficient;
  • have the capacity to listen effectively as well as to write and speak cogently;
  • are tolerant of ambiguity and resilient in the face of setbacks;
  • are able to work effectively with people who have different perspectives, priorities or intellectual approaches; and
  • know and follow the standards, responsibilities and culture of the scientific community.”

That’s what you should get out of a Ph.D., and those are the training goals funding agencies should be concerned about. These elements are useful and important for any career track. Yet they’re not specific to any one career track.

So we say we need to do more to prepare young scientists for careers, especially for careers outside of academia. But what exactly do we need to do? How do you introduce additional training without detracting from the primary goals of a Ph.D.? How do you provide the variety of training required to cover myriad career paths? Or another way, how do you give someone skills s/he will need without burdening hir with unnecessary or irrelevant training? How do we move from crucial but rather soft training goals to preparing for actual careers? And what roles should each member – programs, PIs, trainees, funding agencies – play?

Tomorrow I’ll post a scheme floating in my brain, but in the meantime, leave your thoughts in the comments.

By the way, if you’re a grad student and think you have a good idea with “potential to improve STEM graduate education and professional development”, check out the National Science Foundation Graduate Education Challenge. You could pick up a cash prize for a 1000 words.

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8 Responses to What’s the point (of the Ph.D.)?

  1. chiat12 says:

    “then programs are missing the mark by failing to train the vast majority of their wards for jobs they actually choose pursue.”
    What you describe is exactly what PCDI deals with. Not only by offering additional training to ECR’s but also by organising discussions among ECR’s, PI and deans on how excellent research can be combined with personal development and other activities. You may want to check our site for your next post! http://www.pcdi.nl (postdoc career development initiative)

  2. cpickett325 says:

    I think exposure, not training, is key. As you state, the skills imparted to a successful grad student are applicable to a variety of fields. Scientists are often a self-motivated, independent and goal-oriented bunch. A program that shines the light on all of the possible career paths while giving some basic instructions on how to get to the trail head are all that is needed, IMO. This could be through an institutional program or an informal networking group with connections to a variety of fields.

    • biochembelle says:

      As you probably noted in the followup post, we have some similar ideas. I think the major points are raising awareness of opportunities and formalizing some activities that are in already in place at many institutions.

  3. If we accept that a Ph.D. is overkill for most of the jobs that doctoral recipients end up having, then perhaps we should start taking master’s programs seriously again. Federal science agencies spend a lot of money on Ph.D. programs, and very little on master’s programs. Master’s programs expose people to research, but don’t require the degree of commitment that a Ph.D. does.

    I like the approach of “Professional science master’s” programs, an idea supported by the Sloan Foundation (http://www.sciencemasters.com/). They were explicitly meant to train people to look outward, not just towards academia.

    • biochembelle says:

      Zen, you raise an excellent point. This keeps popping up time to time (and I keep meaning to post about it). Unfortunately there’s a major stigma in many fields re: master’s programs – something else that’s going to take some work.

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