Science 24 July 2015:
Vol. 349 no. 6246 pp. 349-349

Rethinking graduate education

Alan I. Leshner | 12 Comments

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These postings do not necessarily represent the views/opinions of Science.

Very important in this context (1) is the often discussed issue of K-12 teaching careers for science Ph.Ds. Doyle and Vale’s paper in Molecular Biology of the Cell (2) on creating opportunities for science Ph.Ds to pursue careers in high school education precisely addresses some of the issues involved. It describes the thoughts of some Ph.D.s who feel that they have failed if they “resort” to becoming high school teachers, to the potential upgrading of U.S. K-12 education with Ph.D. involvement (2) in areas such as hands-on student research (3, 4).

The National Research Council recommended specific approaches to attract Ph.D.s into K-12 teaching (5). But as Doyle and Vale state: “their recommendations were not implemented…and the reports have been largely forgotten” (2). Good programs exist for enticing science Ph.D.s into teaching (2,5,6) but the numbers of Ph.D.s in K-12 teaching remains abysmally low ( 2, 5).

The U.S. government, should institute large scale prestigious and highly competitive fellowship programs on par with the most desirable postdoctoral fellowships in the world. Such programs were recommended by the National Research Council (5) but were not followed by the U.S. government (2). A National Research Council survey revealed that 30% of biology graduate students and postdocs were considering careers in K-12 teaching while only about 0.8% of Ph.D.s are in K-12 education careers (2,5). This important statistic suggests that the interest is there but large scale prestigious inducements to tap this interest are not. Implementation of such programs would be precisely in line with Alan Leshner’s global recommendations (1).

Steven B. Oppenheimer, Ph.D. Fellow AAAS; U.S. Presidential Award for Science Mentoring Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology and Department of Biology California State University, Northridge Northridge, CA 91330-8303 U.S.A.


(1) Leshner, A.L., Science 349: 349 (2015). (2) Doyle, M.H., Vale, R.D., Mol Biol Cell 24(21): 3292-3296, 2013 (3) (4) Acta Histochemica 113: 234-235, 2011 (5) Committee on Attracting Science and Mathematics Ph.Ds to Secondary School Teaching, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC., 2000. (6) American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2013, (7) http://www.the…

Submitted on Thu, 08/27/2015 - 15:18

Thanks for this thoughtful editorial. Mayo Graduate School (campuses in Rochester, MN, Scottsdale, AZ, Jacksonville, FL) has already been on this page for several years. As dean, I am proud of our 26-year-old program that supports student stipends from central sources and individual competitive fellowships so that all Ph.D. trainees are guaranteed support and none are 'employed' by their mentors through R01 awards. Mayo Graduate School initiated "Career Development Internships" to familiarize advancing PhD students with challenges and opportunities in a wide range of careers with a growing number of partners in academia, industry, science writing, technology transfer, laboratory medicine, and public policy ( Mayo Graduate School is committed to advancing science and health by placing extremely well trained Ph.D. leaders from diverse backgrounds in academic grant-funded research labs AND all of these important additional settings. We believe that Ph.D. training provides unparalleled experience in creative independent thinking, project management, and communication. These are the essential skills required for many kinds of careers. We look forward to the day when NIH training grants will be judged on the basis of placement of past trainees in this kind of wide range of successful careers.

Submitted on Mon, 08/10/2015 - 11:41

I am a little surprised and more than a little concerned that Dr. Leshner, as well as many others, seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that education is "job training". It is not and should not be. Education is "life training". I continuously emphasize to my graduate students that their training is NOT about learning specific facts or skills, but rather it is about learning how to THINK. What you do following a PhD may not (likely will not!) be the same thing you did for your PhD. It shouldn't have to be. Of course, we should always look at our methodology and ask are we doing the best job possible training thinkers, but that is not connected to the concern that many PhDs end up outside academics. I end nearly every doctoral defense exam with the question "why are we awarding you a doctorate of philosophy, rather than a doctorate of science?" To me, the answer is clear.

Submitted on Mon, 08/03/2015 - 12:22

I agree with Dr Smith, when I discuss the PhD with my graduate students, I make the case that when they receive this recognition it is a certification that our faculty considers them capable of creating NEW knowledge, and that is and should not be restricted to whatever particular sub-discipline included the research and analysis contained in their dissertation. I also make the point that they are not yet, and probably never will be a finished product. When they begin to assume that, I know that either I have failed them or they have failed themselves.

Submitted on Sun, 08/09/2015 - 01:10

In my point of view though academic curriculum helps students to carefully analyze issues, but I am not sure it could teach them how to tackle their own problems in their own community. How to use their knowledge in their real life. I support you in your point of "Rethinking graduate education".

Submitted on Thu, 07/30/2015 - 02:52

My PhD has been crucial in progressing in my career, but not in academia. Many businesses require the training that a PhD provides. I have forged a career in publishing, but other PhDs I know have excelled in commercial science businesses. Graduate students should be aware that there are other routes to success without becoming a professor.

Submitted on Tue, 07/28/2015 - 09:43

Thank-you Dr. Leshner for a timely review of the initiatives involved in transforming graduate education and your inspiring call for collective implementation. As “leaders from the scientific, academic, industry, and government communities” conceptualize their potentially new curriculum, I highlight three considerations: 1) encouragement and financial support of trainee-initiated projects and experiential learning opportunities, which would enhance their career trajectories and core competency skills in both academic and non-academic environments, 2) development of core-competency skills with follow-up actions and meetings throughout graduate school with a career plan mentor, and 3) departmental support of faculty to build and maintain a professional development and tracking/outreach program for student, PDF and alumni involvement. The 1995 U.S. National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy report touched on this third idea under “General Recommendation #2: Provide better information and [career] guidance: Advice for students should be improved by a systematic tracking of the employment path of each department's graduates…” I emphasize that departmental alumni are invaluable as they provide feedback for curriculum enhancements, contribute as guest speakers or mentors, and may be potential employers for internships and entry-level positions for newly-minted MSc or PhDs. The strength of the alumni attachment begins years before, when these professionals start their graduate training. Providing optimal career guidance and a connection at the departmental level with supportive research supervisors and a faculty member dedicated to the student’s professional development will provide the strong foundation for such potential future involvement.

Submitted on Mon, 07/27/2015 - 14:35

I'm not opposed to changing the system, but we should be clear about the objectives. Just because >60% of graduate students are not pursuing academic careers does not necessarily mean we're failing those students. Employment and income data for those with doctoral degrees is still pretty good --

Submitted on Mon, 07/27/2015 - 09:53

You say, "All available evidence suggests that over 60% of new Ph.D.s in science in the United States will not have careers in academic research ... Given that so many students will not join that community, the system is failing to meet the needs of the majority of its students."

The conclusion does not follow. What is the basis for this? How do you know that "the system is failing"? You do not point to any data.

Submitted on Sun, 07/26/2015 - 20:44

As for data, here is one report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario collected from surveys from 51,000 graduate students in 2010 and 2013. In brief, almost 90% of doctoral students gave the quality of their academic experience a positive rating while 53% and 40% of them gave positive ratings for career workshops/supports on academic and nonacademic careers, respectively. I think "failing to meet the needs of the majority of students" may mean that although academic excellence is achieved, the training of core competency/professional skills which are highly required in any career is minimal and leaves students not optimally ready for the job market. Yes, PhDs eventually find employment as they self-direct their professional development, but the time from graduation to the first job offer may take longer than the MBA who has been trained in self-marketing from day one. Many hiring managers have commented on how core competency skills are essential in the nonacademic sector but are lacking in new graduates. These skills are also essential in the academy, should professors seek industry collaborations or funding, which is highly beneficial in today's granting environment.

Submitted on Mon, 07/27/2015 - 23:43

Wonderful idea to finally tackle this big problem! It has been know for many years that production of too many PhDs, especially in the science field only have a counterproductive effect to the value of the people you went through the hard educational pathway: their enormous knowledge is not appreciated enough, income is much lower than deserved, job security does not exist and professional advancement is no one's responsibility. It brought underappreciation of very valid and essential professions and undervalued opinion in the broad society on science in general and PhDs in particular. It is important for our society that this huge problem is addressed and resolved.

Submitted on Sun, 07/26/2015 - 13:37

Many of us scientists agree that graduate education is predominantly aimed at producing academic scientists and professors. However, several of us in "alternative" careers actively promote and mentor college, graduate, and even high school students about the wealth of careers open to degreed chemists, especially those not in the lab or in professorship. For more details, see the chapter on careers in the Chemical Information Sources Wikibook, admittedly in need of an update ( ). Since chemistry is the Central Science, much of the material is applicable to other disciplines. In addition, the ACS Chemical Information Division (CINF) will be hosting a brunch on Sunday Aug. 16 at the ACS meeting in Boston featuring a panel discussion on alternative careers in chemistry. As a semi-retired chemist in an alternative career for 41 years, I can testify to the availability, suitability, and rewards obtained from such a career.

Submitted on Sat, 07/25/2015 - 09:53