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Next generation PhD program?

Whether you admit it or not, the PhD program is heading slowly but steadily toward a major crisis. The recent series by Nature have prompted me to re-think about the system PhD graduation. I know; nobody likes changes, especially not the academia profs, but believe me, it will hurt twice as much if the system will not be revolutionized.

The system

It’s a known fact that tradition has the tendency to survive the passage of time and in this regard, the PhD program differs not. The doctorate qualification, appearing around medieval days, was aimed initially at licensing applicants for teaching purposes in the university (see wiki entry). Since then, research experience was an additional requirement and over time it was inflated to acquiring no less than 12 years of higher education, depending on the length of the doctorate and/or the post-doc periods. While in the past doctorate graduates were regarded the top scholars of society (a few), today an overwhelming mass of students receive their diploma after sweating more or less for 3-7 years of research behind the bench. Many factors lead to this booming of higher education in the science fields, among others are the rapidly evolving technological era and the requirement of universities for cheap labor in order to acquire additional funding and publications.

A path to PhD program revolution

Reading the articles in Nature, I realized that it’s time to stop whining on the current (lack of) job opportunities

 of graduate students, specifically in the life science niche. It’s time to make a move or at least conjure one.

First of all, it is clear that undergrads pursue a PhD because (a) they know they want to become scientists in the academy or in the industry, or (b) they couldn’t find a job in the industry with their current education state or (c) they don’t have a real clue what they want to do but the academy is a cozy place to pass some 5 years of your life. Whatever the reason, people do a PhD to have job security sometime in the future.

However, currently the only goal that is defined at the start of one’s PhD program is the research goal without thinking on its post-graduate plans. Thus, the first conception that needs to be introduced is the specific profession the new PhD candidate aims at; once we have a specific goal which is oriented toward the professional future of the candidate, we can focus on the tools that this prospective PhD candidate should acquire to be professional adept. These tools will be according to the end product (Academy or industry) and in full co-operation with professionals from related sector, academics and industry alike. The final element that will increase the success of the graduate is an “internship” period, which is a necessity when it comes to getting a position in the academy (the post-doctoral period). This is also true for industry-oriented graduates which in many cases are overlooked by human resource departments due to lack of industrial experience. A period of internship within a biotech company will change this situation by (a) allowing the company to evaluate the graduate for self-recruitment or (b) collapse the walls of “industrial inexperience” and open up additional position within the industry.

The caveats of the (new) program

However, this additional qualification and curriculum comes with a price. Here’s some of the expected challenges of such a program:

  • High workload – Applicants should be highly motivated as workload is expected to be high (program length should be kept at 4-5 years max).
  • Cooperation – The cooperation of both academy and industry professionals is a must. PI might not favor this program due to lower bench time on the part of the student.
  • Selection – The program should select students for the different routes according to their aspiration and their fit. This means that a panel of professionals from academia (for PI track) or academia and industry (for industry related) should interview applicants and accept only a handful of them. The selection for the best fit (not the best graded!) will make this program highly prestigious especially if it will successfully generate employment opportunities and securities.

No doubt, this multidisciplinary program will require many adaptations and fine tuning while producing few graduates each year, BUT these graduate will be better educated and equipped with transferable skills which could be utilized in a wider set of organizations. The high workload will definitely require these students to acquire increased productivity techniques and tools that will enable them to maintain quality research output.

How this program can enhance the efficiency of the graduate student will be discussed in another post. Stay tuned!

CG

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