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.


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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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