September 2010

Too Many Ph.D. Trainees?

Suzanne PfefferThis year, overall biomedical research funding is sadly flat, and university growth has reached a plateau. State budgets are in crisis, and university endowments are still recovering from deep losses suffered during the economic downturn. Given the current circumstances, it would be impossible for all of our current Ph.D. students to move on to academic positions. In this respect, what might be viewed as good news is the fact that a large proportion of our graduate students apparently don’t want to pursue academic positions (1). But current circumstances have led some to suggest that we are training too many Ph.D. graduate students (2). Are we?

By definition, a Ph.D. is awarded to a scholar who has demonstrated expert command of his or her chosen field and contributed original and publishable research findings in that area. Graduate students are important contributors to the discoveries made in most of our laboratories, and they are invaluable participants in the current research enterprise worldwide. Moreover, having mastered graduate-level courses and passing qualifying examinations, Ph.D. biochemists and molecular biologists have acquired a broad range of expertise. Graduates also learn how to write papers, how to present their work orally, how to work as part of a team and, most importantly, how to use data to solve problems analytically. There is a continuing need to train a scientifically educated cadre that can contribute to our society at the highest level, as teachers, writers, policy analysts, consultants, lawyers and, of course, research scientists.

Given that most of our graduates will not pursue academic careers, why don’t our training programs acknowledge that fact adequately and inform students about career options at the outset of graduate training? Are we doing enough to give students teaching experience or asking our colleagues in biotech what we should add to our curricula to better train their future employees? Are our annual job fairs sufficient, or should our programs add more alumni visits and panel discussions? And, if a student wants to become a teacher or patent lawyer, why should a Ph.D. require longer than four years? A Ph.D. metric of two first-author papers is not unusual at many institutions but harder than ever to achieve. Publishing papers seems to have become a lot more difficult in recent years, in part because we can do so much more, more readily, and referees can ask for more as well. But separate from the challenges of publication, the time to degree issue is not being addressed adequately. (I will return to this topic in a future column.)

My colleague Paul Berg notes, “We convey the message that Ph.D. students should aim high in their ambitions and, for the right students, that’s a wonderful challenge. But, if you now admit students whose ambitions lean toward nonacademic careers, the goals of a major research contribution and two first-author papers in a high-impact journal are totally unrealistic. One thought is to encourage students to craft a first proposal that explores a problem related to possible career choice: analyze a Business School case study of an interesting biotech company or a study of some particular education experiment or even examine the basis for a prominent patent infringement case and follow the legal outcome and ramifications.” Sounds to me like a wonderful idea for an elective course to offer year one or year two Ph.D. students.

2010 ASBMB President's Address

Click HERE to watch a videocast in which ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer talks about the society and its activities and journals.

Another challenge to offering broader graduate student training experiences relates to the mechanisms by which we fund graduate study. Today, most graduate students are supported by research grants to individual investigators and by federally funded training grants. National Institutes of Health training grants were designed “to prepare qualified individuals for careers that have a significant impact on the health-related research needs of the Nation.” Optimally, it would be great for students to include a year of teaching or public policy or biotech as part of a training experience. But that can’t be justified with NIH grant support to a specific research project, or by most (but not all) predoctoral training programs. National Science Foundation graduate fellowships are more flexible, in that they permit recipients to acquire additional skills that will “more broadly prepare them for professional and scientific careers.” Unfortunately, not enough of our students are funded by this mechanism. Indeed, fellowships to cover one-year (post-Ph.D.) science teacher training or public policy internships would go a long way to support our graduates in postdegree transitions.

In an important and eloquent recent letter to the Wall Street Journal (July 9, 2010), Dr. John Lechleiter, chairman, president and CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, highlighted America’s growing innovation gap. “Unfortunately, America’s economy is in danger of losing what has always been our greatest competitive advantage: our genius for innovation…” Lechleiter noted that the U.S. is sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in terms of innovative competitiveness, but 40th out of 40 in terms of the “rate of change in innovation capacity” over the past decade. We also ranked last in terms of what we as a nation are doing to combat this trend. “Human beings— with their talent and energy, creativity and insights— are a priceless resource, but one that is woefully underdeveloped in this country… With our kids falling further behind on international comparisons in education, we’ve got to get serious about broad improvement in science and math instruction in our grade schools and high schools,” he wrote.

Similar conclusions were reached in 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, in their report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” (3). The committee was charged by Congress to address two questions: What are the top 10 actions that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States successfully can compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st century; and, what implementation strategy could be used for each of those actions? The committee’s highest priority recommendations include a proposal designed to increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education. They proposed to recruit 10,000 science and mathematics teachers annually by awarding four-year scholarships and, “thereby educating 10 million minds.” We obviously need more qualified science teachers, and many of our Ph.D. graduates would be wonderful in these roles.

"Given that most of our graduates will not pursue academic careers, why don’t our training programs acknowledge that fact adequately and inform students about career options at the outset of graduate training?"

Curriculum development also is important, and, earlier this year, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded $70 million to 50 research universities to “develop creative, research-based courses and curricula; to give more students vital experience working in the lab and to improve science teaching from elementary school through college.” Another approach, taken by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, supports science technology museums, notably “innovative programs and exhibits that will measurably increase scientific awareness and critical inquiry… including professional development for teachers.” Even the professional golfer Phil Mickelson has teamed up with ExxonMobil to create a Teachers Academy whose mission is to enhance third through fifth grade math and science education.

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members are active in K-12 educational activities and ASBMB’s Education and Professional Development Committee’s mission includes providing resources and direction for K-12 education. Perhaps we should be doing more to nurture the science teachers of the future. Should ASBMB be sponsoring enrichment programs for teachers to spend summers working in ASBMB member labs? Should our annual meeting include sessions on biochemistry and molecular biology curriculum development for teachers? It already has been suggested that ASBMB offer one-day registration to enable local teachers to attend at least part of our annual meeting, and we certainly can consider scholarships for local teacher participation. We aren’t the “American Society for Science Teachers,” but we do have an obligation to educate our youth, support K-12 teachers and maintain the pipeline for outstanding scientists for the decades ahead. Why aren’t more biochemistry departments offering joint degrees that enable students to earn a master’s degree in education (and teaching credential) co-terminal with a Ph.D.? We can help and encourage students to consider careers in teaching, where they can make a profound difference in educating scientists of the future and in developing an educated and sympathetic public. Lechleiter noted that innovation leadership requires “a society that understands and appreciates scientific inquiry.” This can start with our K-12 teachers.

There always will be individuals with a burning desire to do research who are willing to chance the perils of academia. It is our obligation to provide these trainees with the opportunity and encouragement to reach their goals. Ph.D.-trained scientists can make invaluable contributions to our society beyond academia, and I feel strongly that the scientific community should not decrease the number of graduate students we are training right now. This approach comes with added responsibility: We must all do much more to prepare students for, and inform them about, the wide variety of positions that await them.


1. Alberts, B. (2008) Hybrid Vigor in Science. Science 320, 155.
2. Benderley, B .L. (June 14, 2010) The Real Science Gap. Miller-McCune.
3. National Academies of Science (2007) Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. National Academies Press.

ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer ( is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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