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Cambridge University Science Magazine
As long as the world has complex problems to solve, we need to pursue creative and clever solutions. A doctoral education equips people with the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to imagine solutions, but there appears to be an acute sense of despair amongst graduate students when it comes to their training and prospective career options. This dissatisfaction is precipitated by two major trends that threaten to destabilize the foundation of good academic science. The first is that researchers begin their independent careers later in life and the second is the increase in cookie-cutter projects, that is, projects in which an established method is applied in a slightly different context to anything that has been done before. The cookie cutter approach is an easy way to do research but it is without the revolutionary innovation that used to be the trademark of a doctoral degree. These trends are particularly evident in the biomedical sciences, where the number of people involved and funding levels have risen sharply in the wake of major advances in genomics, stem cells and regenerative medicine.  Universities and policymakers would do well to take note of these trends and try to address them sooner rather than later.

In countries where the length of PhD programmes is flexible, times to graduation have been pushed further and further back.  Currently, over 13 per cent of PhD projects in the US take over ten years to complete.  This represents an enormous investment of one’s early career.  Consequently, students in three or four year programmes find themselves several years (and papers) behind, and they are often forced to undertake substantially more post-doctoral training to get to the same stage in an academic career.  This has a particular impact on those applying for fellowships with a ‘number of years post-PhD’ maximum, as is the case for many UK-based awards.  Furthermore, the average age to independence has been pushed back by the glut of highly trained candidates applying for academic jobs.  Again, US data are a worrisome beacon with the reported average age for obtaining a grant to start a lab being 42.
Along with increased age comes an increased number of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows who are parents, own houses and are generally less movable.  A 2009 survey of over 1200 Canadian postdocs reported that 80 per cent were over the age of 30, about half had a spouse, and nearly one-third had children.  This restricts possibilities even once one is able to gain independence.

In 1998, Professor Sir Ken Robinson of Warwick University famously accused the UK school system of killing creativity, leading to a reduction in invention and innovative thought.  Is this occurring in universities as well?  If so, keeping graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in a training stage for longer may make them less creative, less risky and less productive due to too many years underneath someone else’s wing.

A successful academic career relies on designing experiments to answer novel questions about the particular system being studied and interpreting the results of those experiments, something that is missing from ‘cookie-cutter’ projects.  Many Universities do not have formal requirements or metrics for measuring such skills, making it difficult to determine, from publication history, which graduates possess these skills and which projects are just part of a standard batch that was already guaranteed to work. A PhD is meant to teach the philosophy of a discipline.  This means not only being able to carry out experimental procedures, but also being trained to assess the literature and identify research that will impact the field.  Some professors take this job very seriously, but others see the PhD student as someone who simply carries out experiments.

While a PhD in the sciences should involve long hours and a certain amount of struggle, it needs to be focused on the question that is being asked and why it is being asked – in other words, it needs to be hypothesis-driven research.  Far too many PhD students do what their supervisor tells them to do without asking whether or not it is the best approach.  PhD students should be given ample time for figuring out where the field is going and what the ‘big questions’ are.  A PhD is not a box checking exercise of ‘did I complete the requisite number of experiments?’, but rather it is an assessment of critical thinking ability and the ability to have a philosophical discussion about the field.  All too often young researchers are pushed to feel like it is late evening and they just have to finish that last paper or last experiment.

The undeniable reality is that there are many more thousands of people undertaking PhDs than ever before.  In the United States alone, a steady climb between 1999 and 2009 resulted in a 17 per cent increase in the number of PhDs awarded (41,100 to 49,554, according to the National Science Foundation).  While academic job posts have grown in number, they have been far outstripped by PhD production.  If we hope to tackle the big issues facing society we still need more graduate students, not fewer. However, we need to put more effort into training the next generation, not just teaching them to do experiments but equipping them with the skills to invent their own.  There needs to be better recognition for supervisors who invest heavily into training their students and a significant reconsideration of the way in which PhD programmes are implemented.

Teaching and training are often under-recognized qualities that have a huge impact on the future of science, and it seems that the best positions are given to those who have opted to be a publication machine first and a teacher later.  This attracts the best students who will often find themselves in what is affectionately known as a ‘sink or swim’ environment. It is important for people to realise that no single supervisor produces work that eclipses the sum of the work of their trainees, and each student shipped out reflects (poorly or otherwise) the supervisor’s ability to train.  The rewards should be evident for supervisors: future collaborations, good international reputation and more productive students are among the benefits that make good training well worth the investment.

Many fields, especially the biomedical sciences, have created permanent positions for grant facilitators, project managers, human resources managers and accountants as essential components of the research enterprise.  But where are the scientists?

Respectable, well-compensated positions for PhDs who love bench work need to be created for those who love exploring new ideas and love academic lab environments but are simply not going to run their own lab.  This would leave postdoctoral fellow positions for those who are explicitly involved in a temporary training experience with the intention to move on to start their own group. To drive projects that fall outside of a technician’s role, hire a scientist, pay them well, keep them happy and watch the benefits roll in. Much thought must go into how universities can best equip the majority of trainees for non-academic careers and have them leave the academy as motivated young scientists.  This means refraining from demonizing non-academic careers, such as industry, law and journalism, and identifying good candidates for these alternatives early so that they can avoid suffering postdoctoral fellow apathy.

It is important to grapple with the reality of these trends instead of trying to reverse them.  By redeveloping academic training, providing well thought-out projects and accepting the reality of alternative career paths we can improve the quality of scientific research as a whole and ensure that nobody gets a PhD that’s half baked.

David Kent is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research