Tuesday, April 23, 2013

EB2013 ASPET Blogging: PhD Training in the US: How to Improve the System

Discussion on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and in "real life" has increasingly focused on the “broken system” of science in the US. According to the National Science Foundation, only 25-30% of people with PhDs in the Life Sciences have an academic research position after graduation. A working group for the NIH last year stated that “graduate training continues to be aimed almost exclusively at preparing people for academic positions”. However, academic positions have declined 8% since 1993, a third of biomedical science PhD holders work in biotech or the pharmaceutical industry, and another subset work in other non-research careers. So how can we better align PhD training with the eventual careers the trainees will pursue? Dr. Joey Barnett is hoping to address these questions in his session today at 9:30 am.

Dr. Joey Barnett is a Professor and Acting Chair at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and director of the National Directors of Graduate Studies (NDGS) association. NDGS is an informal group of graduate program directors. In speaking with Dr. Barnett, I could tell he is passionate about ensuring predoctoral pharmacology and physiology students have the best possible experiences in the US. The NDGS meets every other year to assess the current state of pharmacology and physiology graduate programs in the US and make recommendations for improvement.  

Dr. Barnett will be giving a talk Tuesday morning at 9:30 am at Experimental Biology (4/23/13)* on PhD Training in the US, where he will present graduate training models and best practices. Several areas will be addressed: 1) communication about career opportunities between mentors and trainees, 2) the importance of careers “away from the bench”, 3) trainee responsibilities for their career development, and 4) the PhD-postdoc-career process as a continuum of training.

Communication with trainees about career opportunities. It is imperative for graduate programs and graduate student advisors to communicate with their trainees about careers. Doing so requires that mentors learn about the opportunities available for their students but doesn’t mean they need to be experts in each area (examples: policy, communication, industry). Connecting students with people already working in those areas is a great way!  Advisors can can cast a net in their networking pool and find people working in the fields their students are interested in.  The NDGS is also a resource for advisors to help connect students.

Scientists who choose careers away from the bench are just as important as scientists who stay at the bench. Communicating science to non-scientists, for example, is vital for continuation of science funding. Scientists at the bench, , work long hours and often have difficulty finding time to reach out to the public paying for their salary, equipment, and supplies. This means that science communicators, such as science journalists, are the main conduit for bringing scientific research to the public. Science policy is also important: Congresspersons are not able to be experts in every single area that laws and policies are based on. They depend on scientists to distill the message for them so they are well-informed to make important decisions.

The process leading to a career in science should be thought of as a continuum rather than discrete points. Dr. Barnett believes that we could do better in continuing training of scientists past the predoctoral stage. In medical programs, trainees are required to work in several specialty areas before they come to their final choice. For scientists, the postdoc experience is almost exclusively research-based… which is great if the postdoc is planning to continue performing research. However, there are many other career options available for scientists, and research-based positions are becoming highly competitive. Instead of solely performing research as a postdoc, the positions could be more flexible and allow the trainees to branch out. An example of this is the IRACDA NIGMS program (K12). IRACDA stands for Institutional Research and Career Development Awards and is a grant program in the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) branch of the National Institute of Health (NIH).  (Is that enough acronyms for you for today? Me too.) There are currently participating universities in 15 states but the list is expected to grow in coming years.

In the IRACDA program, postdocs spend 70% of their time performing research and 30% focusing on learning how to teach. In the first year of their postdoc, they use the 30% time to take courses in education theory. In year 2, they teach part of a course, possibly in combination with other student teachers. In year 3, they have the opportunity to develop and teach an entire course on their own. The experience gives awardees a huge leg up when applying for teaching positions. Focusing the postdoc position in this way would strengthen the skill sets needed for future careers.

Trainees are responsible for their own career development. It’s true, trainees need to grab life by the horns and seek out as much career information as possible. Up to the PhD point, there is a lot of hand holding in career development: in high school, there are interest and skill assessments to help match students to the right career for them, and at university there is the opportunity to take additional assessments which also take personality into account. When beginning a PhD program, the department should bring in speakers to talk about career options but the decision is ultimately the trainees’ so they need to be active in the process. We live in the information age so Google it up! Want a job in industry? Want to know what in the world a career in science policy would look like? It’s all there! And don’t forget your advisor and faculty members, they have large networking pools and can help connect you to people in other careers to help you decide if it’s for you. Sometimes students are worried to tell their advisor that they don’t want to follow in their footsteps and become a research-based scientist but they won’t shrivel with disappointment. They may see the potential for you to be a great researcher but their number one priority is for you to be happy. 

The session Tuesday morning promises to be informative and exciting! There will be presentations by Dr. Goulding about PhD education in the UK as well as information regarding the ORPHEUS initiative by Dr. Mulvany. I know I said no more acronyms but, well, I lied. ORPHEUS is the ORganization of PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in the EUropean System. ORPHEUS was created to help standardize PhD education across countries and universities after the European Union was formed. The last speaker will be Dr. Poundry from the NIGMS at NIH giving the future needs for PhD training from the funder’s perspective.

Please join them for what will be a great session!

*394.     Pharmacology Education Division: The Future of PhD Education in Biomedicine: U.S. and European Perspectives
Discipline: Pharmacology/Experimental Therapeutics

Tuesday April 23, 2013
9:30 AM-12:00 PM Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, Grand Ballroom E
Chair: J.A. Mitchell
Track: (Across Societies) Education

9:30 AM      PhD training in the USA: present and future.  J. V. Barnett. Vanderbilt Univ. Med. Ctr.
10:00 AM      PhD education in the U.K.: why change? N. J. Goulding. Barts and The London Sch. of Med. and Dent.
10:30 AM      Standards of PhD education: the ORPHEUS perspective. M. J. Mulvany. Aarhus Univ. Grad. Sch. of Hlth. Sci., Denmark
11:00 AM      Research funder perspective: PhD graduate attributes – future needs. C. A. Poudry. NIGMS, NIH

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