The missing piece to changing the university culture

Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis:

As graduate students, we have become disillusioned with our academic training. We began graduate school full of ambition, drive and optimism but have long since come to realize that we have joined a system that does not meet our diverse interests. We yearn for a community that supports creativity and the expression of future career goals instead of one with a narrow, focused interest.

Current PhD training programs are focused primarily on the academic career track despite its disheartening outlook: the number of awarded PhDs is significantly outpacing the available positions1, 2, fiscal pressures have slowed the growth of available independent research jobs3 and the time it takes to earn a PhD has not improved over the past two decades4. Each year, there are seven times more PhDs awarded in science and engineering than there are newly available faculty positions (Fig. 1). As a result, only about 25% of biomedical sciences PhD recipients are in tenure-track positions five years after earning their degree4, 5. The percent of PhDs starting postdoctoral fellowships, however, has not changed, with close to 70% of life science PhDs pursuing a postdoc after graduation in 2010 (ref. 4), which suggests that PhD students are unsure of their career goals or unequipped for a nonacademic career. In addition to the discouraging job prospects, the time required to complete a PhD adds to the bleak outlook. Despite a downward trend, the average time to degree in life sciences and engineering is still high, with half of PhD candidates requiring seven years or more to complete their degree; one-third of candidates who begin will never finish1, 4. With over 40% of graduate students indifferent or unsatisfied to some degree with their graduate school experience6, it is clear that initiatives must be taken to revamp the research training paradigm.