Unsurprisingly, PhD programs of the past looked and felt quite different than they do today, even as recently as the 1990s. It was assumed that essentially all PhD candidates wanted to become academic faculty members and therefore PhD students were trained and advised with this specific end-goal in mind. First developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, PhD training programs spread to the United States in the mid-19th century as research degrees gained international popularity. These programs center on the advisor-advisee relationship, encouraging experienced researchers to pass on the skills required to be a great researcher and faculty member.
Fast forward to 2016. The landscape looks a bit different.
In their 2015 piece, ‘The elephant in the lab’, the NatureJobs blog wrote that less than 8% of entering life sciences PhDs eventually land tenure-track positions. If you live in the UK, a measly 0.45% of STEM PhD holders in the UK become tenured professors.
Shockingly, in 2015 Slate published that “Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.”
I don’t share these stats to bum you out. In fact, I think that the changing landscape is, on the contrary, an opportunity. It remains clear that creative and well-trained scientists are extremely valuable to economies and societies in the US and abroad. So how do we restructure PhD programs to adequately train scientists for a variety of career paths? Because entrusting a single professor (many of whom have been in academia since they were 18 years old!) to do this training is irresponsible.
Although universities certainly provide opportunities for students to explore a variety of sectors and roles through extracurricular activities, I believe that PhD programs will soon be adopting a more formal training plan to meet the real needs of their graduates. This year, several pilot programs, including one at the University of Pennsylvania, are studying what will be most beneficial to their trainees.
I am participating in one of these pilot programs, Penn Pathfinders, for the next two years. Penn Pathfinders is a program that exposes PhD students to scientific career paths outside of academia and guides them in creating an action plan for obtaining information and experience in their paths of interest. Although we are only three months in to the program, going about career planning in a directed and formalized fashion has completely changed my perspective on post-PhD opportunities. Instead of assuming I will continue into a post-doc position (which is still a possibility…still exploring!), I am thinking about other paths that spark my interest and what would be required to actually do that type of work.
In October of 2015, NSF announced award winners of their Innovations in Graduate Education traineeship track (of which Penn Pathfinders is one). These are some innovative ideas that are currently being studied and may come soon to a PhD program near you:
- Partnerships between STEM PhD students and journalism majors, allowing for exchange of information and skills. In addition, training will include communication skills training in traditional, digital, and social media.
- Development of non-technical skills that are essential to the workplace, including leadership, conflict management, and adaptability. This program will provide graduate students a mental framework to practice non-technical skills and includes an online tool to facilitate and track development.
- Training in scientific writing beyond journal publications, including writing for the public and non-specialist audiences. The program is composed of a series of courses, workshops, and internships, the development of a Graduate Science Writing Center, and an emphasis on a variety of writing projects with the goal of making writing a habit.
- STEM graduate students earning an MS in Undergraduate STEM Education in addition to their chosen technical PhD to provide formal training in teaching. Additionally, this program will facilitate cross-university collaboration among STEM education and content faculty.
- Communication and collaborations between social and biological science PhD students, building skills that can be used in complex projects across sectors. Additionally, this will contribute to wider academic reflection about how knowledge is produced across disciplines.
- Formal training of graduate students to mentor undergraduate researchers. This program provides formal development of a transferable skills set, with an added benefit to the university of strong undergraduate engagement in research.
- Boot-camp summer program prior to the beginning of the PhD program and a first-semester Challenge Course in which they will work in small, multidisciplinary teams on a real problem identified in partnership with the local community. These activities will show students how scientific training can be used beyond the laboratory.
- Development of individualized development plans for PhD students during the first and second years of graduate work. The aim of the program will be to educate on possible career paths and provide training in workplace skills and career path-specific competencies.
Although it is not yet clear what will be most beneficial to PhD students, I think we can expect to see more change in PhD education in the next 5-10 years than occurred in the previous 50. Stay tuned and take advantage of these new opportunities!