September 2010

Too Many Ph.D. Trainees?

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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Dr. Petsko accurately defined the PhD scientist training as an apprenticeship program not too long ago in ASBMB Today. Now, Dr. Pfeffer clearly highlights the likelihood that we are training too many apprentices for research. Are there not federal regulations that govern the number of apprentices that can be trained for a profession? A quick check shows regulations regarding employability of apprentices (see I have long wondered whether universities are immune from the well-established and rigorous apprenticeship laws in the U.S. If not, these regulations should now help guide university policy on PhD training slots. Paul R. Gardner, PhD


The evolution of the academic environment for science professionals now places to much emphases on grant income rather than intellectual contribution.The current situation is more like that encountered in "piece work" by an independant contractor in rented space. Ken Mann Biochemistry Univ. Vermont



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