Bugging The System

A blog about microbes, diseases and biomedical research advances. Posts in English or German.

The future of the PhD

Researchers review documents. By Rhoda Baer for the NIH National Cancer Institute.

A Nature News feature stirred some discussion today: What can we do about the growing numbers of postdocs that cannot keep working in research labs, even if they want to?
Today’s academic environment is a minefield for postdocs: Short term contracts pressure researchers to publish quickly AND with the highest possible impact to compete with a growing number of people in similar conditions for both grants and jobs – and the competition is fierce. Many postdocs are left in limbo after pursuing their passion and ambitions for too long, and after failing to get another grant or a contract extension they have to leave academia behind altogether. For more experienced researchers, opportunities to keep researching in a lab are lacking – ‘experienced’ often translates into ‘too expensive’, so recent graduates are generally preferred.

The Nature News piece discusses several possibilities to improve this situation: from 5 years postdoc limits to push researchers to move on quickly to creating permanent ‘super-postdoc’ positions for postdocs that prefer to stay in the lab rather than becoming a Principal Investigator. But there is an obvious limitation in these suggestions: they only focus on postdocs. What about the source of postdocs, the PhD grads?

A 2011 Nature News article makes the point that worldwide PhD positions and graduations are rising – and in many countries the supply of PhDs outstrips their demand. These increasing numbers of PhD graduates clearly result in increased competition for postdoc positions and should therefore be seen as part of the equation.

So, as this article suggests, is it time for us to stop the production of PhDs? We clearly have more than enough of them to fill all the spaces in academia and send off more than two thirds to positions outside universities. Still, a constant supply of high quality graduates is vital to research, not only because some of them will become the science stars of tomorrow, but also for economic reasons. PhD students are cheap workforces- academia flourishes at the expense of PhD students and postdocs. A suggested shift towards more senior staff would mean an increase in costs, as the first Nature News feature mentions.

Research is driven by an overly exploitative system. PhDs and postdocs are used and swapped for new ones once their time is over, without investing much into their development. Many research labs offer very limited training opportunities for their staff – particularly training that is not directly related to research activities. ‘Alternative careers’ are seldomly mentioned – everyone seems to close their eyes to the awful truth that only a fraction of the PhD students/postdocs working in the Institute are going to stay in academia permanently. If any change should happen, then it is here.

The key is PhD training. Many of us – including myself – are thrown into this world of academia and we try to find our ways to function here. Which mostly translates into working hard, getting results that will hopefully be published before our time is up, submitting abstracts for conferences and going to weekly seminars, lab meetings and journal clubs. It is a busy schedule, and it feels like there is just no time left to think of career development and a likely future outside science. It is always “no, I have no time for this yet, maybe after I sent of this paper”. Of course lab heads usually don’t push their students to investigate alternative careers- they are the ones that succeeded in the academia track, so they possibly never had to think of alternatives themselves. And from what I have experienced, Universities are not too pushy on the career development of their PhD students either – a few half-day courses at Uni and that’s it. Additionally, these courses mostly cover research-related content, such as research ethics or statistics, and seldomly aim to teach skills that are valuable –and asked for – outside research. PhD graduate opportunities outwith academia are rarely discussed – I am in my third year, and I am still waiting for a comprehensive introduction to job perspectives after my graduation.

Likely because of this lack of exposure to different opportunities, many PhD graduates go on to pursue a career in science –let’s be frank, that is all we ever heard of and often the most direct route to a career we see. And many fail and have to re-orientate after years of struggling and fighting to make a living. By increasing the awareness that other career paths exist and offering training to prepare graduates for different trajectories, many people could be spared this fate. What we really need to do now is starting to invest in our PhD students and postdocs: Helping them acquire transferrable skills as well as teaching them the value of their research skills and experiences for a variety of careers. Showing them all the opportunities they have within and outside academia. And preparing them for the fact that there is no one right way to go, but many different roads that PhD graduates can follow to find a fulfilling career.


2 comments on “The future of the PhD

  1. Liam
    April 12, 2015

    Important issue and good point. Problem is that there isn’t the will to train PhDs in other things. A funding body and group leader pay a PhD to research a particular topic. From their point of view, there is nothing to gain from increasing someone’s transferable skills. The onus has to be on universities. They are ultimately responsible for the education of a PhD. The question is how you get them to see it that way!


    • lifescientifique
      April 13, 2015

      I agree, and I think PhD students should also demand more training. After all, we are students, and we are supposed to acquire skills that will help us be successful in the future. Sometimes that extends beyond the things we can learn in the lab.


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This entry was posted on April 7, 2015 by in A Life in Science and tagged , , .


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