PhDs in industry aren't failures, says Blakemore

The perception among science, technology, engineering and maths PhD students that any career outside academia is akin to failure is denying industry access to high-quality, PhD-educated employees, a leading neuroscientist has claimed.

December 13, 2012

Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study and emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said that too many postgraduate STEM students were “desperately clinging to what they see as the only honourable career after that training”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after addressing a Westminster Higher Education Forum in London on 6 December, Professor Blakemore said: “Everybody at the moment has a view that those PhD students who don’t continue into an academic career are in a sense a failure, and I think we have to change that attitude both among students and among supervisors and teachers.”

He said that the only way to do this was to ensure that universities were giving the correct advice to postgraduate students and to those approaching the end of their undergraduate study.

“There’s much less advice available to graduates about the potential outcome of postgraduate training and in PhDs. We need to focus a bit on emphasising the range of other opportunities that are available,” he said.

One problem, Professor Blakemore said, was that many PhD supervisors see it as their role to nurture students for academia and are not concerned about what happens to those who decide against this path. “That might be a matter of educating the educators,” he said, adding that many supervisors give “very biased advice” to encourage their charges to pursue academic careers.

Professor Blakemore expressed concern about a lack of research into industry’s demand for people educated to postgraduate level in STEM subjects, claiming that more detailed information might push the government towards a reassessment of its funding model.

“[We need] more money for post-grad teaching, but that requires…a real evaluation, a critical evaluation of demand (that) would have to be government-led.

“[If we knew] what would be the needs of industry for people trained in taught master’s courses, research master’s courses, PhD courses in the future…then perhaps that would move the government to become serious about proper funding for postgraduate education.”

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