Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Should we Patch the Leaky PhD Pipeline?

Simon Hazelwood-Smith
Image courtesy of Simon Hazelwood-Smith
by Julie Gould, Nature Jobs:

Introducing Simon Hazelwood-Smith, one of the winners of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition

Simon is an MSc student studying science and technology policy at the University of Sussex. 

He has a background in genetics, having previously worked as a research assistant in the Division of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at King’s College London. Outside of work he likes to keep active and enjoys rock climbing, playing football, cycling and skiing. 
What would it mean for there to be too many PhDs? An obvious answer might be when the number of PhD studentships far outweigh postdoctoral positions. This is indeed where the current ratio lies (need to register with Vitae to read).

However in my view this answer is inadequate; does it mean that there are too many PhDs, or too few postdocs? And is there inherently a problem with some students electing, or even being pushed, to leave academia and pursue other careers?

Science has for some time had a brutally pyramidal shaped career path with some comparing it, perhaps a little harshly, to a Ponzi scheme. For scientists, the reality of short contracts, relatively low pay and highly competitive progression into more senior positions is, in general, well acknowledged.

In truth the idea that there is an issue only at PhD level is short sighted; scientists leave in high numbers at each stage of the possible academic career.

Many efforts have been made to stem the ‘leaky pipeline’ from PhD to Principal Investigator. But for those who believe in the scientific method, could it not be seen as a positive thing, that former researchers are entering other sectors?

Evidence-based decision-making as a way of forming policies is becoming more and more popular in both governments and industries. A workforce that contains employees with formal scientific training is, to me, no bad thing.

It is often said that a PhD programme is an apprenticeship into the world of academia. However with around 50% of students leaving science following the end of their PhD, it is no longer sufficient to only train for a life of research. The opportunity to learn transferable skills should be provided by universities to all students.

For those who stay in academia, it is pertinent for them to be aware of the political and social impacts of their work and to be prepared for interactions with the media and the public. For those that leave, the transition to other roles should be eased by these complementary skills.

Direct comparison between PhDs can be problematic, especially given the fact that PhD studentships are not a homogenous group. Even within the life sciences in the UK, in which I currently work, there is great disparity in the requirements of each programme. Stipends, introductory years, time to upgrade (from Mphil to PhD), taught aspects, and more all vary massively.

If we truly want to understand these issues we must record comprehensive information on career destinations, including different sorts of PhD. Qualitative data on the reasons for leaving (or staying!) and how many students are willingly switching careers are particularly useful for those choosing future pathways, and should also influence the design of any changes to the PhD systems.

An attitude shift is needed by both students and their mentors towards a more honest perspective on the career prospects of PhDs.

This may be challenging, especially as PI’s are those select few scientists that avoided the ‘leak’, and so may not always be receptive to mandatory teaching outside of the fundamental research of the studentship. However, to not acknowledge the fact that a student may leave academia seems potentially damaging.

I myself, currently a research assistant in a genetics laboratory, have decided against a PhD to pursue a career in science policy. Nevertheless I have a great respect for PhD students, and there is certainly much value to be gained from them, not least in the research itself.

However for those embarking on PhDs, whatever their ambitions, pushing to learn transferable skills seems the most pragmatic way of ensuring employment following the end of the project, whether you stay in the world of academia or not.

Find out more about the conference delegates, exhibitors and workshop sessions at the Naturejobs Career Expo in London here, and you can follow the action on Twitter using the #NJCE14 hashtag.

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