Nathan L. Vanderford wrote a bold article in Nature Biotechnology last month. In it, he called out graduate education, saying that the system was broken but fixable. He made some statements that I think most graduate students, especially those from the sciences, can relate to. I know I sure can.
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) though, well, torture—because that’s how they went through graduate school and their postdoctoral fellowship.
And the quote that really spoke to me:
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.
There just isn’t enough room for every Ph.D. student to gain a faculty position. What’s more is that a lot of students don’t want faculty positions. I know I don’t.
Vanderford’s main areas of change focused on faculty supporting of alternative career paths, multidisciplinary course work, and active work experience (job work, not lab work).
As some of you (hi, mom) may know, I’m working toward a career in science communication. Although I’ve had to seek out opportunities and resources on my own (including finding a way to fund a trip to the National Association of Science Writers conference last November), my PI has been extremely supportive. When I first told him I wanted to go into science writing, he tried to convince me that academia would provide a better job. And, yes, I’d make more money in academia, but if I was in it for the money I’d have gone to business school. After he realized that my mind wouldn’t be swayed, he gave me a contact at the Materials Research Society (where I sometimes write articles for their website, shameless plug) and he lets me spend time working on my writing goals (as long as I have research results).
I love science. But I don’t love the culture in academia. I don’t love the isolation and the tedium and the ridiculously narrow focus. I want to know everything about science and I want to share that knowledge with others, so I’ve chosen an alternative career path that will let me do just that.
Judging from a poll on Benchfly.com, where the article originally appeared, a whopping 77% of people think graduate education “needs a complete overhaul.” Only 4% say it should stay the same. (The remaining 19% are wishy-washy about it.) I don’t think making the changes that Vanderford proposed would be too hard to implement. Many schools are already focusing on multidisciplinary research and coursework (I took a graduate level engineering course and it counted towards my requirements). I’ve also been told that taking an internship during my education is fully possible—structures are in place to handle a temporary leave—but I was offered no help in obtaining one (and ultimately didn’t). The most difficult change will be removing the mindset that academia is the be-all-end-all of doctoral education. A Ph.D. is no less of a Ph.D. if they choose to go into industry or work for a non-profit or go into science communication or do something else entirely. These academic biases may not so easily be removed, but if they are then graduate education would be infinitely more helpful to achieve what most of us are here for: to get a job.