Over the past week I’ve read three articles in Nature all focused on the plight of “Phdicus americanus”– that species of highly trained scientist produced by academic institutions in the US. Those three articles, “Fix the PhD,” “Education: The PhD Factory,” and “Reform the PhD or close it down” all have a common theme. There is a complete disconnection between the numbers of PhDs being awarded and being competitive for jobs in academia, government, or industry. That disconnection manifests itself somewhat differently in those different job sectors.
In academia, the problem is the stagnation in the creation of new jobs relative to the continued expansion of postdocs. That postdoc glut provides a terrific resource for existing Principle Investigators. As research continues to get funded, principle investigators are using that funding as a source for hiring cheap labor to generate their data and publications. That cheap labor is– you guessed it, the graduate student and the postdoc. This has also contributed to the increasing average duration of PhD programs, which commonly can be five to seven years now, followed by multiple postdoctoral positions. This may be good for the PI, but it’s not good for the aspiring postdoc. The not-too-surprising consequence is that those few lucky enough to get professorships have an average age over 40 years old when they get their first R01 grant.
With respect to the disconnection between PhD education and industry, the situation is compounded. More and more postdocs are being generated each year, which drives up competition for the available jobs in industry, but the training doesn’t match the job requirements. That’s because the practical requirements in industry go beyond the scientific/technical skills that are the exclusive focus of most graduate programs.
In order to effectively adjust to industry positions, scientists must be able to work and communicate not just with other scientists, but also with marketing managers, project managers, sales teams, senior executives, and business development folks. Succeeding in this environment requires leadership, communications, project management, and basic finance skills that very few programs teach postdocs. That is the central message of all three articles that just appeared this past week and is consistent with my own experience as I give workshops around the country educating grad students and postdocs about the realities of preparing for industry careers.
There are programs that are successfully addressing these issues. For undergraduates, the Professional Science Masters Program (PSM) is a two year integrated program that teaches scientific technical skills for a particular specialty, as well as the transferrable business skills necessary to succeed in industry. There are over 200 of these programs in more than 110 universities across the country.
Less prevalent, but also addressing this same reality is the Postdoctoral Professional Masters program (PPM) such as that offered at the Keck Graduate Institute. This is a nine month to one year program for postdocs that focuses less on the scientific/technical skills (as presumably those have already been acquired in graduate school), but emphasizes those same transferrable soft-skills.
I’ve been giving SciPhD workshops at universities and conferences across the country, which can be another good first step in educating academic scientists on the realities of landing industry jobs and succeeding in those jobs, and I’ve gained some valuable insights from these activities. What’s become clear to me based on that experience is that the real solution is going to involve cooperative partnerships that are set up between universities and area companies who would benefit from highly skilled new talent– meaning highly trained scientists who have also learned the rudimentary transferrable soft skills.
The PSM and PPM programs use this approach. Developing programs that start at the graduate and postgraduate level like the SciPhD, PSM, and PPM programs do will be even more effective if companies adopt similar programs as part of their on-boarding strategies and career development programs. Keeping a consistent philosophy and vernacular from academic training through to industry experience should maximize user adoption.
Postdoctoral Associations can take the lead in establishing relationships between universities and area companies. Some of that is already happening, and this should be pursued and expanded. The end result should be better prepared scientists having more job options available, a higher likelihood of success in those jobs, companies finding better trained talent that can have a positive impact on their bottom line by performing better, and retaining that highly skilled talent longer.