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What’s the point of doing a PhD?

exitWe are churning out far too many PhDs in the life sciences: a recent article by Harold Varmus and colleagues entitled “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws” describes a situation that has been all to obvious for a number of years to those a little lower down the pecking order. There aren’t enough faculty jobs to go round – in the US, fewer than 8% of PhD students will become tenure-track faculty, and this is broadly true for many other countries, including the UK. Although we shouldn’t ever forget that academic research is an elitist career, with an inevitably high failure rate, 11 out of every 12 students is too high; biosciences research is no longer expanding, and we should stop pretending that it is.

What should be done? Varmus and colleagues suggest some wholesale reforms: upping the quality and reducing the numbers of PhD students;  cutting postdoc numbers and paying them a decent salary; employing more staff scientists; and making the decision to move outside academia an informed choice and not a failure. A PhD degree needs to be seen as a potential route into many science-related careers, but we mustn’t waste money training people who are simply not good enough.

This rebalancing needs to take account of another huge problem: that the number of women making it to professorial level in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects is wholly inadequate. Unfortunately, the reasons for this have been obvious for many years, but the solutions have been unforgiveably slow in coming; as a recent House of Commons report on women in scientific careers concluded:

“Our inquiry has not uncovered any new issues on the topic of gender diversity in STEM subjects. This indicates that the problems and solutions have long been identified, yet not enough is being done to actively improve the situation … It is astonishing that despite clear imperatives and multiple initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, women still remain under-represented at senior levels across every discipline.”

 So, for what it’s worth, here’s my two penn’orth* on these vexed topics:

1. Undergraduates: why do you want to do a PhD? Good reasons are (a) you are insatiably curious about the world and see research as the only thing worth doing; (b) you are smart, motivated, self-disciplined, and prepared to work extremely hard; (c) you really need a PhD degree for whatever you plan to do afterwards. Bad reasons are: (a) you can’t think of anything else to do; (b) you don’t know if you’ll need a PhD later, but hey, you have a decent degree, so why not? (c) you want an easy student life for a bit longer and a PhD looks like fun and would really impress your grandma (unless she’s like my grandma, who wanted me to be a vicar).

2. PhD students: why do you want to do a postdoc? Are you good enough to run a lab, or is your next career move going to require postdoc experience? Have you any idea what interests you, or are you just looking in the back of Nature and Science for jobs in nice places? Have you asked someone if they think you should carry on in academia? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then go for it, but don’t expect it to be easy. If the answer is no, you HAVE NOT FAILED! You just need to do something better suited to your undoubted talents – if you’ve got yourself this far, you must be pretty good, let’s face it.

3. Postdocs: are you good enough to replace your boss (or at least somebody you respect)? If not, stop now and do something else – there’s a lot of stuff on the web telling you how to market all those lovely transferable skills you’ve amassed. Make sure you’re not underestimating yourself (rather common for women), or conversely, that your ambition does not outstrip your talent, by finding someone you trust, and checking that their opinion of your abilities coincides with yours.

4. Thinking of taking your nth postdoc position? Don’t. Don’t allow the system to use your skills for a pittance and give you nothing back. Find a staff scientist position, or think very hard about alternative careers, however much your heart was set on running a lab. It’s not nearly as nice as being a postdoc, believe me.

5. Junior faculty: If you haven’t already done so, find yourself a mentor. If you’re not doing well, ask why and take some concrete steps to fix the problem(s). If that doesn’t work, there’s a whole world of jobs outside the lab. Please take a look.

6. Tenured faculty: Take a long, hard look at yourself on a regular basis. Please don’t turn into the dreaded deadwood, clogging up the system and marking time until you retire because it’s easy and you can. Do the decent thing. It’s actually quite fun not being an academic once you’ve got over the shock (K. Weston, personal communication).

7. Anybody who employs PhDs and postdocs: Don’t perpetuate the problem by hiring mediocre people. Not even if you’re desperate. Frankly, nobody would be better. If you accidentally employ someone who will never cut the mustard, please tell them not to carry on.

8. Women: Campaign for a STEM career structure that doesn’t regard the propagation of humanity as a “lifestyle choice”. Don’t let your partner’s career trump yours. Point out to men that working part time is what most of the world’s top male scientists do – they juggle multiple jobs without people blinking an eye; if you want to work part time too, why the hell shouldn’t you? If you want to job share, why not? Just try to make sure it works, so everyone realises it’s a viable idea. If you’ve made it up the greasy pole, be a mentor to younger female scientists, but please, please don’t expect them to put up with the status quo; help them change the academic world into a place fit for the whole human race.


*two penn’orth: contraction of “two pennies’ worth” – equivalent to about 1p in current British decimal currency, or, if you happen to have two US 1944 Steel Wheat pennies, about $200,000. I give no estimate of which of these pricetags is most relevant to this post.


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