Monday, May 23, 2011

PhD Revisions

A couple posts ago, I laid out how I think the PhD system currently works, and linked to a couple recent Nature articles about reforming the PhD system. I want to comment on one of those articles which lays out a few fixes to the system, but before I do so I want to briefly state what I think are some of the major problems are:

1.) The cost benefit ratio is off.  Spending six years in the prime of life should yield a tremendous payoff, and right now the reward for getting a science PhD is a post-doc or leaving academia. The payoff would be fine for three years work, but for six it isn't close.

2.) It's uncertain.  You graduate when your committee lets you, but ambiguous deadlines are soulcrushing.

3.) The training is spotty. All too often students get stuck in labs with little to no mentoring, and have no recourse but to quit or bear down. Rather than preventing those PIs from getting students, they are typically rewarded with more funding.

This list is non-exhaustive, but let's see if the solutions proposed by the article will address any of them.

1. Jump in at the deep end aka Let the Right Ones In

Michael Lenardo at the NIH is given credit for this idea:
When too many scientists are looking for too few academic positions, PhD programmes need to admit the students most likely to succeed, and provide them with all the skills they'll need...In 2001, Lenardo created a new degree programme...for a cadre of truly elite students. It admits just 12 of the 250–300 applicants per year. Independence is stressed — students devise and write their own project plan, begin their thesis work immediately, and skip the uniform coursework — but they must meet requirements such as authoring papers.
Basically, his idea is to treat PhD students like post-docs: give them minimal training, and let them work independently.  How did it turn out?

In the ten years since the programme's inception, more than 60 students have graduated, taking slightly more than 4 years apiece. They published an average of 2.4 first-author papers out of their PhD research...Half a dozen are already working as principal investigators.
Pretty well apparently.  To be frank, this is a non-solution.  The very best people are going to survive no matter how little training you provide, but that cadre is uselessly small.  A vibrant scientific community needs more than a couple hundred people to be useful.  The rest of us actually need a little bit of love to become productive and independent.

2. Forget academia 

From Animesh Ray:
To complete a PhD in Applied Life Sciences at KGI, students must complete the master's course there, then... [do] original research, with at least one adviser from industry.... [Students learn] not only the scientific method, but also how to write a business plan and present it to venture capitalists, how to carry out market research and the ins and outs of patent legislation.
I like this idea.  Duke was single-minded about the future of its graduate students: they were to become resarch professors, and anything less would be disappointing.  Industry and teaching opportunities were not discussed.

In talking to professors from other universities, though, I found they often run start-ups, or do consulting.  Including straight-up business classes would help ensure people are exposed to non-academic careers, validate them as viable, and increase the job prospects of graduate students.  Any management courses would be  helpful for future PIs. The downside may be that graduate education loses singularity of vision, but that is kinda the point.

3.  Trample the boundaries
Jacofsky did study monkeys — but also engineering, mathematics, computer science, kinesiology and neurophysiology... Nearly every new PhD programme at ASU is designed to be "transdisciplinary", says Maria Allison, dean of the graduate college. Other examples include Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology, Biological Design and Urban Ecology.
There has been a lot of talk this millenium about interdisciplinary research, and Duke recently started the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS; these institutes tend to have hilarious names, like Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology or Institute for Brain, Mind, Genes and Behavior (... and life, man)). These institutes seem to be formally recognizing what is happening anyway: that to do good research you need to draw from multiple skillsets, like how neuroscientists now are computer scientists.

Yet, talking about how universities organize their faculty seems tangential to the larger issue of how to improve graduate education.  Even if students get degrees from umbrella programs rather than departments, the graduate experience is still going to have the same problems listed above. It may be even easier to get caught between advisors with weak mentoring, and an uncertain future.

The end of the article provided some upside:
Broadening the scope of a programme has advantages, however. It teaches students about their options. Jacofsky had entered his degree thinking he would one day teach university-level anthropology. Instead, he is vice-president of research and development at the at the Center for Orthopedic Research and Education, or CORE Institute.
Part of the downside of a PhD is that it's easy to get pigeonholed into a small subspecialty, and if interdisciplinary/non-departmental degrees helps alleviate that, it could improve the cost/benefit ratio.

4. Get it online

This could work well in fields without physical work, like genomics, theoretical physics, or computational biology. It could be useful at the masters level to train smart people who have a life.  But the science I know requires working with animals, so online courses are a non-starter.

5. Skip the PhD

Rather than quote this section, I would recommend reading it in full. The basic gist is that people who want to do science immediately should be able to do so, and all that is really holding them back is employers requiring the PhD credential for hiring and promotion.

This gets back to the idea of credentialism from my previous post; that having a PhD makes you more easy to justify as a hire, but does not vouch for your intelligence. An undergraduate fresh out of college is just as smart (or smarter, given intelligence declines with age) as a PhD.  Theoretically, if this is true, companies that hired non-PhDs would outcompete the others, then potential grad students would work for them, and the whole system would come crumbling down.  The most successful software companies aren't obsessed with credentials, so there is no reason science needs to be the same way.


After reading this article, I think these solutions don't seem that interesting.  Some of them don't address the fundamental issues of graduate school (being selective, or dismantling it entirely), and aren't applicable to experimental science (going online).  The idea of folding in business education with science could increase opportunities, and improve the cost/benefit ratio. But that does not help people who want to actually perform pure science.  And while going "transdisciplinary" could also yield opportunities, it seems like it would increase the risk of mismanagement.  Unfortunately, I don't have any better specific ideas at the moment.

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