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Why Scientific Training Urgently Needs Reform

Posted in Biotech, Careers, Education, and Scientists

PhD degrees were originally granted to train students to conduct research in a specific field of study.  Postdoctoral fellowships were instituted to help the PhD graduate go deeper into an area of research, under the mentorship of a senior investigator.  In life and biomedical science, universities and medical schools considered their job done when competent, scholarly experimentalists graduated from their programs.  These young scientists had the credentials to conduct research in a university, medical school, or research-based company.

Compared to today, research was fairly simple and cheap. Much of the work was done by small, highly specialized groups. Publishing one’s findings was a fairly straighforward enterprise, and peer review was far easier. Funding was increasingly available for graduates at universities and industry, thanks to the growth in government sponsorship of research and the booming knowledge economy.

Enter the world of Big Science. In this brave new world, postdocs and doctoral students are increasingly viewed as cheap labor by Principal Investigators, who have little incentive to do proper mentoring – not just scientific mentoring, but teaching all of the skills required to succeed as a Principal Investigator. Consequently, young scientists emerge from their training woefully unprepared for their careers.

What exactly do Principal Investigators do today?  Many spend the majority of their time doing work that has little to do with actual bench science.  They write grant proposals and articles, and they oversee people, projects and budgets.  They review articles and grant proposals, give presentations, and make various efforts to obtain a piece of the shrinking research funding pie.  Good scientific results often come from interdisciplinary teams working with highly specialized equipment and techniques. Senior PIs, didn’t grow up in this world.  It’s no wonder that PhDs and postdocs don’t get the preparation they need.  The teachers were never taught.

In fact, successful PIs in academia, like their counterparts in industry, need to be good leaders, managers, writers and speakers.  They need to interact and communicate not just with others in their own subspecialty, but across multiple disciplines. These are not auxiliary skills that can be adequately addressed by a few optional seminars and workshops, or by reading books and manuals.  It’s at the heart of the profession.  Learning these skills should become part of the core curriculum at graduate school and should be enhanced at the postdoctoral level by attentive PIs.  Students, postdocs, and faculty need to have this professional training considered in grading, evaluations and promotions.

Why isn’t such training taking place now?  PIs, along with deans and other administrators, often see few or no incentives for implementing such changes. Success in science is largely measured by the ability to get grants and publish in top-tier journals.

Meanwhile, PhD’s in the life and biomedical sciences are finishing their programs with dismal academic job prospects; only about 30% of postdocs get positions in academia. And many of these job seekers lack the skills required to step into projects in industry.  When they finish, they should be qualified to manage every aspect of a lab, either as a PI in academia or as a project manager in industry.  Vast sums of money are wasted in training cadres of unemployable scientists at a time when jobs are scarce in the Academy and Industry desperately needs good science managers.

A courageous university could see opportunity in this sad situation.  An institution that grooms its postgraduates and postdocs to be highly employable, successful leaders, managers and scientific team-builders could attract better students and enjoy more substantial support from industry. It could pioneer the transformation of the curriculum and laboratory into an environment that trains scientists as full professionals, not just experimentalists. Accordingly, this school would have great bragging rights, which attracts additional funding.

Initiating these needed reforms would not be easy.   The changes need to take place from the Presidents and Deans on down.  PhD candidates and postdocs also need to pressure their institutions from the bottom up, insisting that they get the full training they need to succeed in their profession.  Investing in this type of reform, which would entail fundamental changes in expectations about PIs and their lab members, is a courageous choice, one that would improve the productivity of our universities, medical schools, pharmaceutical companies and the national economy.


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