Monday, February 15, 2016

A wake-up call for PhD education in biology

For some people, going to graduate school may be an important experience just for the opportunity to explore interesting and important questions, to satisfy an intrinsic and pressing curiosity about the world or about life, and/or how to make them better.  A percentage of these people, at the PhD level, manage to turn that quest into a lifetime research career similar to that of their grad school mentors — in academia.  

Today however, that percentage (in the life sciences at least), is very small and shrinking (as a few mouse clicks on Google search will quickly show).  Another percentage, also relatively small, will find employment as researchers in government or in the private sector (most of the latter positions require only MSc or Bachelor's qualifications).  Overall then, the news looks bad:  there is now a large oversupply of PhD students spending typically about five years of their lives as research apprentices within universities, training to be career researchers that the vast majority of them will never be.  And all while living below the poverty line.

Clearly undergraduates need to think twice and hard about what they can realistically expect to get from going on to graduate school, especially in doctoral studies.  But as the grad students in my own department have been asking lately: maybe universities should also think about how to change what they can expect to get.

This calls on universities to revisit the definitions of their ‘learning outcomes’ (LOs) for graduate education, particularly for PhDs.  Traditionally, these LOs (at least in my own field of Biology) are virtually all about preparing students to become frontline researchers: asking good questions, collecting good data, making important discoveries, and publishing them vigorously.  Recognizing that most of them will never be directly involved with these activities after graduation (and will consequently soon thereafter be largely out of touch and inexperienced with the latest advances in methodology), PhD students are now asking (and doubting) whether — after five or more years of getting groceries from the food bank — they will at least have good LOs associated with other kinds of broader and peripheral expertise (e.g. in networking, collaboration and interpersonal skills, teaching, budget management, grantsmanship, people management, and other workplace ‘smarts’) that will equip them (and make them competitive) for other kinds of employment, e.g. as corporate executives, teachers, university/college administrators, supervisors in government, and managers in industry — positions in which they will inevitably not be called ‘researchers’.   

Universities then need to address an important question:  Does the ordinary working environment of grad school not already include sufficient opportunity for students to get these ‘broader skills’ LOs simply by ‘watching, asking, and doing’ in the course of routine research activities and interactions with colleagues and supervisors?  If the answer is no, then there is a second and tougher question to address:  How can universities do a better job of delivering these ‘broader skills’ LOs for PhD students, without compromising other things that universities aim to do?

An important consideration here is the perspective of the faculty supervisor.  Recruiting graduate students is part of the employment obligation of faculty, but only secondarily.  Faculty have graduate students mainly because they need them to fulfil one of their more primary employment obligations (and career goals):  to publish research (a lot of it).  Usually this involves competing successfully as a PI ('Principle Investigator') for research grants (especially NSERC, in Canada) that will pay for research costs.  And in order to accomplish the latter they need a team of research collaborators to spend the grant money on and thus generate publishable research.  And in order to win these grants, NSERC requires that the team consists mostly of members that will receive training as HQP (‘Highly Qualified Personnel’) — particularly, graduate students, and particularly with evidence that publication success for PhD students has been effective for their success in landing university postdoctoral and tenure-track jobs.  

The expected training involved here will normally include, in varying degrees, the ‘broader skills’ LOs mentioned above.  But one thing is certain:  the priorities and motivations of most supervisors will necessarily be driven to a very large extent by the accomplishment that is most rewarded by the university employer (and of course is also most important to the supervisor’s reputation) — i.e. whatever it takes to generate a high quantity and/or quality of published research.  This product is probably correlated to some extent with good mentoring of ‘broader skills’ for the grad students within a lab.  But it need not be, and probably isn’t strongly correlated.  Instead, publication success, and hence the employer reward to the faculty member (tenure, promotion, salary increases) will be strongly correlated with the number of graduate students that he/she has supervised, and the proportion that go on to obtain academic positions. 

This necessarily means that the most conspicuous LOs that grad students can presently expect to get will be as research apprentices — essentially, to become career researchers like their supervisors — with some ‘broader skills’ of course thrown in (including from grad courses, or by ordinary osmosis) — but only as time permits, and to the extent that they do not compromise the reputational and employer rewards to the supervisor. 

The current PhD graduate education experience then — as with the faculty job experience — is a product of the culture of academia.  Changing the first will require changing the second, and neither can be changed without changing the culture. 

If change is needed, and if it is going to happen, two things will be required from universities: (1) consultation with graduate students to better define, and/or revise (and publish) the expected learning outcomes of a PhD graduate education; and (2) ensuring that these LOs have substance and are taken seriously, by finding a way to make faculty supervisors accountable for delivering them.  But these measures will never get off the ground as long as granting agencies, like NSERC, continue — as part of the adjudication criteria for grant applications — to count how many graduate students an applicant has supervised, and how many have gone on to post-doctoral or tenure-track positions in academia.