No sweet outcome for PhD worker bees

Science conference hears that many students are 'mis-sold' an academic career

July 19, 2012

Credit: Alamy
The sting: PhD students are often led to believe they will end up running a lab yet most will not end up in pure research

Students are frequently mis-sold an academic career when they undertake a PhD, a senior academic has told a major international science conference.

Michael Lenardo, senior investigator at the US National Institutes of Health, added that many institutions were unwilling to stop creating such an "illusion" given the need to fill places.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum 2012 in Dublin on 13 July, Professor Lenardo said universities "paint a picture" that students are "going to be a Nobel laureate and run a great lab".

But, as he told the conference, the numbers show that "most are not going to have that fate when they complete their PhD".

Professor Lenardo, who is founder of the NIH Global Doctoral Program, said the knowledge economy's need for "the cheapest form of skilled labour" may be behind the proliferation of PhD programmes.

"You have a huge number of graduate students with very little attention being paid to what will happen when they leave. They're the worker bees in the lab."

He later told Times Higher Education that institutional metrics may also be behind the drive to create more PhD students. "It's absolutely true that institutions' goals are serviced by PhD programmes...Naturally, a lot of the time institutional goals are coming before students," he said.

Maresi Nerad, founding director of the US Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education, told the same session that the doctoral system could be improved with the introduction of more structured PhDs that break the "one student, one mentor" model and broaden training.

"There's a paradigm shift [happening] from the concept of you and your doctoral student to a multilevel mentoring system," she said. "I call this the global village approach, making use of the Nigerian proverb that it takes a village to create a child."

But Professor Lenardo called for a more radical approach: a new qualification that would serve the needs of the majority of students who end up not doing pure research.

"Maybe we need to construct a doctorate of technology. A doctorate, but with less emphasis on doing lab work or running a research group and [tailored] more for the jobs in a skilled economy that require doctoral-level training," he told the session.

Mary McNamara, head of the graduate research school at the Dublin Institute of Technology, stressed that industry surveys indicated basic discipline knowledge remained the most important factor in recruiting PhD students.

"I think this tells us that if we are changing the model of PhD education, while transferable skills are important, we shouldn't address transferable skills training at the risk of training in the fundamentals of the discipline," she said.

At the meeting, delegates were able to trial Voice of the Researchers, an interactive website being set up by the European Commission.

The site, set to launch in the autumn, is intended to provide a forum for discussing problems relating to academic careers in Europe and to give researchers a direct route for lobbying policymakers.

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