The purpose of this FOA is to seek, identify and support bold and innovative approaches to broaden graduate and postdoctoral training, such that training programs reflect the range of career options that trainees (regardless of funding source) ultimately may pursue and that are required for a robust biomedical, behavioral, social and clinical research enterprise. Collaborations with non-academic partners are encouraged to ensure that experts from a broad spectrum of research and research-related careers contribute to coursework, rotations, internships or other forms of exposure. This program will establish a new paradigm for graduate and postdoctoral training; awardee institutions will work together to define needs and share best practices.Helping students find a career they love and can actually, you know, be hired for is great! And yes, people with PhDs have transferable skills and will kick ass at these jobs because of their PhD experience! But I agree with DrugMonkey and rxnm on this one: the NIH is really just covering it's ass and trying to get the most bang for their buck. "Let's keep accepting tons of students (who are cheaper than staff scientists) to graduate programs even though they won't end up in research careers! Use them while we can and don't provide the data, like other graduate programs do, on how many will actually get their dream job!"
Changing PhD programs to provide more information and opportunities for students to explore "alternative" careers is great for the current crop of PhD students. We need to know early what's out there and what we can do DURING our PhD studies to be competitive for those positions. The earlier in our programs the better.
But I don't think programs like BEST are a long-term solution to the PhD pipeline problem. Frankly, as a taxpayer, I think there are better ways to train people for "alternative" careers than using research grant dollars to train people who won't end up doing research. The argument I always see is the transferable skills thing. Yeah, of COURSE people with a PhD have great transferable skills that make them competitive for a whole host of careers other than "academic professor". But I like to daydream about a program for undergraduates or those recently graduated to explore their options and choose a program most specific to what they want BEFORE they commit to a PhD program. Imagine a few months where you broadly explore science careers. I tried to explain the breadth of careers in science in one of my xBio posts back in April.
The most common career sectors include academia, industry, government, and non-profits. Each has advantages and disadvantages which Google can help you explore. Within these sectors, there's a plethora of sub-categories: teaching, benchwork, science writing, science policy, consulting, etc. And within each of those, there is a ton of variation.
For example, in academia, there are universities, medical schools, and small liberal arts colleges, and as a faculty member your focus would be different at each venue. Industry has bench positions, lab manager/research coordinators, medical liaisons, marketing, writing, and more. Science writing can be freelance, for a society, the government, companies, members of congress, scientists, or for the public. Policy positions can be interacting directly with politicians, writing summaries of research for politicians to understand current science to inform policy, outreach to the general public, or positions at the state or local level.In my mythical program, you would spend a couple months learning about the broad areas, do some assignments similar to real projects you would do if you were in that career: translating current scientific findings into a newspaper article for the lay public (7th grade reading level), do a lit review and writing up a short summary of the state of a field for a politician without bias, or some activity that administrators at universities and medical schools do (coordinate and chair mock meetings related to curriculum maybe?). Then you get to specialize and enter a program (Masters?) where you learn how to interpret science in the context of the career you want to be in. Sure, the skills we learn in a PhD program are transferable but can you imagine starting a position in science policy having been in a program that taught you both about science AND about politics? How awesome would that be for our country in terms of getting politicians and the public to be more supportive of science funding?
As some of us were discussing this week, and Scicurious talked about a long time ago, it's hard to find/make the time to explore "alt" careers while in grad school and many of our PIs don't want us to do it. In most labs we're expected to work more than 40 hours per week and pump out as many papers as possible while we're there (and the bar for what papers get accepted keeps rising*). I said in a comment the other day that these papers won't necessarily help us when we go searching for "alt" careers. People disagreed. I understand that skills learned in a PhD program are transferable but I can't help but think, as a 4th year grad student and a taxpayer, that it's a bit overkill for the types of jobs we'll end up in where we'll have to learn as we go anyway. (Yes, I realize the academic track is also very "learn as you go" but it's not quite the same thing as suddenly jumping into politics, for example.)
I won't even get into the discussion about low stipend levels for grad students, low starting pay for post-docs, delayed saving for retirement, delay of starting a family, etc, etc for people pursuing PhDs. All of these discussions are connected. The writing has been on the wall for a Long Time and many people have proposed solutions but the institutions that could make the most difference (NIH and universities) are too invested in propagating the current pyramid scheme. Graduate programs, especially in the biomedical sciences, are still growing their programs and bright-eyed busy-tailed applicants to these programs are still told they're special snowflakes who will "be the ones" to get that academic job. By year three, some of us (not all, unfortunately) learn the reality of the situation and can't help but feel sick when we think about our future. Change our career plan completely during one of the most stressful times in our lives?? Thanks, universities, for not being straight with us from the start.
* There was an opinion piece a few years ago from a big name or nobel laureate who explained this very well but I can't find it. Essentially, publishing your work today requires more data and thus more figures per paper sometimes including years of work in one paper. But we're supposed to publish more of them. If you've ever read the classical papers in your field you've seen the stark difference between the amount of data need to publish then vs now.