Rethinking the PhD

The Ph.D.’s structure has changed very little since American universities began awarding the degree late in the 19th century. Students still take courses, followed by exams that demonstrate their mastery and a dissertation judged to be an original and substantial contribution to the discipline. Circumstances, however, have changed markedly. In decades gone by, students generally earned a doctorate in about 4 years then moved on to careers on college or university faculties. Today, the average aspirant spends nearly 8 years working toward a Ph.D.—then finds work outside the academy.

Consequently, many voices are calling for reforms to help the degree meet 21st century needs. Those voices include, as this column noted in early July, two recently published reports: , from the U.S. National Academies, which urges universities to “restructure doctoral education …, shorten time-to-degree and strengthen the preparation of graduates for careers both in and beyond the academy,” and the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group , from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which advocates “additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.”

Both the aforementioned reports agree that financial support unrelated to professors’ research grants is the most effective way of keeping students at the center of their own training experience.

Neither document explains how to achieve these goals. However, at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 in Dublin later in July, I learned about two Ph.D. programs that are trying to do just that. (I was fortunate to attend the biennial meeting, which brings together top researchers and policy experts from across Europe and beyond, as a journalism fellow of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, one of five foundations that provide support to ESOF and to the meeting’s organizer, the nonprofit organization Euroscience.) Though different in methods and objectives, each has features designed to help students move toward a clear goal at an acceptable pace, without becoming bogged down (as many American graduate students do) in meeting the demands of professors and their research projects.

Speeding up the Ph.D.

At ESOF, NIH’s Michael Lenardo described an unusual international collaboration aimed at sharply cutting the time it takes Americans to earn a Ph.D. in a biomedical discipline. Graduates of the NIH-Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program (NIH OxCam), which he directs, receive doctorates from either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in an average of 4 years, “just over half the time it takes to complete a biomedical Ph.D. in the United States,” according to the program’s Web site.

A scholar’s doctoral research is guided by two mentors, one from one of the British universities and the other from NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. Dividing their time between two countries and two campuses, the students work in both mentors’ laboratories and also, if relevant to their research, in other places. Following the British model, the program has no course requirements, but students may choose to take courses that contribute to their research goals. Most move directly into research projects designed, with the help of NIH program supervisors, to draw on the resources of both research mentors’ laboratories.

The 60-plus alumni the program has produced since it began in 2001 show that the approach is effective in speeding students to the Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time. Small and highly select, the program aims to produce scientists seeking academic research careers and recruits “outstanding science students committed to biomedical research careers” who already have a “sophisticated scientific background” and substantial research experience, the Web site says. Some scholars enter directly from undergraduate school, but most have post–bachelor’s degree research experience. With “an average of 2.4 first-author papers from their Ph.D. research,” often in very prestigious journals, these presumed scientific stars appear equipped to compete for those scarce faculty posts in the upper reaches of academe.

Preparing for available careers

For the majority of scientists who won’t get tenure-track positions—and may not want them—Research Universities states that the great need is to “better position new PhDs for the careers they will have by providing more information about career options and by providing opportunities to acquire, in addition to the knowledge of one’s field, skills that are useful for academic positions (teaching, grant writing, publishing, presentations) and positions in government, business and non-profits (oral and written communication, project management, regulatory compliance, business ethics and innovation.)” The Biomedical Workforce suggests “including multiple types of training (e.g., project management or business entrepreneurship skills)” within graduate training programs.

The structured Ph.D. offered at the Dublin Institute of Technology and a number of other Irish institutions aims to meet that need. Designed for completion with 4 years of full-time study, it tries to prepare students for available careers at a time when “less than half of Ph.D. graduates are employed in academe,” said Mary McNamara, head of graduate research at the Dublin Institute of Technology, at the ESOF meeting. The program has four required components, of which original research leading to a dissertation and oral defense is the largest. A second is creating and monitoring a research plan and a professional development plan. The other components are training in skills specific to the student’s discipline and in “generic” skills applicable to many occupations inside and outside the academy.

In conjunction with academic advisers, students assess the skills needed to do the research and develop specific timelines and measurable outcomes to guide work in both the training program and the research. Regular, required progress reviews are intended to keep students on track toward the degree in the expected 4 years. The required “generic” skills include communication, ethics, pedagogy, leadership and teamwork, innovation and entrepreneurship, and career management. Students can avail themselves of internship opportunities in companies or organizations relevant to various careers, McNamara added.

Shifting the focus

NIH OxCam scholars have a high degree of independence and control, Lenardo said, in part because they work with two research mentors and in two labs. This keeps the student in charge and prevents either professor—or the needs of a professor’s research program—from becoming dominant. In the structured Ph.D. program, career-oriented skills training unrelated to the research project, combined with serious attention to planning for the student’s career, should strengthen the focus on the student’s prospects and progress.

As Lenardo also mentioned, another key to the NIH OxCam scholars’ independence is that their programs are fully funded from the outset. Both the aforementioned reports agree that financial support unrelated to professors’ research grants is the most effective way of keeping students at the center of their own training experience. “The shift from traineeships and fellowships to research assistantships began in the mid-1980s and increased rapidly in the early part of this century with the doubling of the NIH budget,” Research Universities says. The “primary objective,” it adds, was “providing low-cost support for the teaching and research enterprise.”

These programs demonstrate that removing the impediments to Ph.D. students’ progress toward the degree is not conceptually difficult. Somewhere on its campus, every U.S. university already teaches the “generic” skills required in the Dublin Institute of Technology structured curriculum, so making them available to Ph.D. students should not be hard.

Making these changes, however, is not without cost. Universities’ dependence on cheap graduate student labor inherently conflicts with focusing on providing what students need to build their own sustainable futures.

True reform will require developing ways to support the research and teaching functions critical to society without subordinating graduate students’ interests. Making such changes in an era of tight budgets could, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, cut into senior faculty members’ accustomed prerogatives. For the good of the young scientists who have not yet built their futures—and of the future of science—it’s time to make them anyway.

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