Petsko on the Ph.D. pipeline

Former ASBMB president weighs in on mentoring,
postdoctoral training and alternative careers in science

Gregory PetskoGregory Petsko, a structural biologist at Brandeis University and a former president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, sat down recently for a Google Hangout to answer questions from students and postdoctoral fellows regarding the Ph.D. pipeline, postdoctoral training, careers in science and funding issues. In his interview, which is archived online, he emphasizes the need to make major changes to Ph.D. and postdoctoral training programs in the U.S.
The conversation with Petsko was hosted by iBiology, an initiative started in 2006 to make scientific presentations available to the public. Petsko’s talk is one of more than 300 produced by iBiology.
Many audience members asked Petsko about careers beyond academic research. Petsko was cautious when describing those careers as “alternative” because, in fact, most Ph.D. graduates do something other than academic research. When asked about what needs to be done to familiarize Ph.D. students with careers outside of research, Petsko said that he believes that responsibility lies mainly with graduate schools, likely in the form of postdoctoral or career-training offices. He also said graduate schools should provide internship opportunities in nonacademic fields, such as in industry.
One audience member asked why many mentors are hesitant to support students pursuing careers outside of research. Petsko said this is not simply the single-mindedness of the mentor but rather “plain stupidity.”
He continued: “The idea that there can be no plan B is simply a failure on the part of the mentor to be a proper mentor. The job of the mentor is not to provide clones of him or herself. The job of the mentor is to help the person become the best that they can be.” To further stress his point, Petsko added that “If they don’t see that as the job, then they’ve got no business mentoring.”
Petsko said he does not think that Ph.D.s should do postdoctoral fellowships unless they plan to stay in academia, but if you are a postdoc who does not want to continue along the academic track, Petsko recommends that you “stay until you stop learning.” He also stressed that the point of a postdoctoral period was to provide advanced training – in research.
For postdoctoral fellows to obtain jobs outside of academia, Petsko indicated that the responsibility lies largely with the institution to provide proper career guidance. He also mentioned the importance of professional societies to host job fairs showcasing a variety of career types. If this is not happening, it is up to the young scientists to petition for it, he said.
“Every scientific society that I am aware of is scared to death about the fact that their membership tends to look like me: white, middle-aged males. If the young members of a society got together and made enough noise, societies would be responsive to what they want, because societies desperately need their young members right now.”
Meanwhile, Petsko said that fewer postdoctoral positions should exist in order to pay postdocs higher salaries. The goal is to not “make postdocs the default,” he says but rather to make it a desirable position that is competitive and that people pursue to stay in academia. “We need to have much (closer to) the correct number of graduate students becoming postdocs relative to the number of postdocs that find advanced positions,” says Petsko.
When asked about the most effective way for a postdoc to get the best mentoring, Petsko replied, “I think the best mentees are those that make sure I don’t forget them; they don’t fall between the cracks.” He also mentioned that what you get out of a postdoc is “highly individualistic” and that it is a research training position, so postdocs need to make sure they continue learning. To be successful, postdocs should be proactive and ask their mentors to let them help with paper review, proposal writing, teaching and so forth to further challenge themselves, he said.
Petsko also said that he is a firm believer that labs in the U.S. should take some pointers from European labs and create more nontenure track, permanent research positions. In Europe, people who obtain positions like that are “exceptionally well-trained to do high very high-powered research,” he said, adding that “it’s stupid to assume that the only way to do good science at an academic institution is being a faculty member.” Petsko admitted that funding those types of positions would be the main hurdle for creating them, but he said that he believes it would be possible.

Lymor RingerLymor Ringer Barnhard ( earned a Ph.D. in tumor biology from Georgetown University. She is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University.