Opinion: Retool Biomedical PhD Admissions

It is unethical to admit increasing numbers of students to graduate programs without considering the realities of the job market.

By | August 30, 2016

FLICKR, DENISE CHANNot only is the number of biomedical PhDs in the U.S. increasing, the rate of this increase is accelerating. To justify this rapidly expanding pool of experienced biomedical scientists, some have suggested that more PhD-educated citizens are better for the country. But this is a moot point if those PhDs lack opportunities to make societal contributions utilizing their highly specialized training.

Comments like “things have always been tough” and “there are plenty of jobs” ignore the systemic problems and biases that the current generation of junior scientists face. These remarks are a distraction from the issues facing the biomedical research enterprise, many of which have been discussed in academia since before these junior scientists were born.

Defenders of the status quo point to myriad “alternative careers” and the low unemployment rate among biomedical researchers. But there is a lack of data on such trainees and their careers; the data that are available show that the number of biomedical researchers being produced is still greater than the sum of all positions for which a PhD is required—not just the academic ones. The platitude that PhDs possess diverse skill sets that are sought outside of academia is debatable given the general lack of training and opportunity to develop such skills in non-academic settings, especially since many of the so-called alternative careers are highly competitive. That PhDs get jobs somewhere does not address the opportunity cost of their working long hours in the lab for close to decade (or more) while earning meager pay, only to contribute to the alarming increase in adjunct professors or to train for another career because of a lack of employment opportunities in their chosen fields.

Perhaps US universities should train fewer biomedical PhDs.

One argument against restricting graduate admissions is that it would reduce diversity. But improving diversity and inclusion, and controlling PhD numbers, are not mutually exclusive goals. The current admission process itself is flawed from the onset, and one-third of admitted biomedical PhD students drop out of graduate programs. As Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun recently argued, the metrics used to assess applicants are flawed, often reflecting a given candidate’s socioeconomic status rather than their aptitude and potential for success in scientific research. In Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, Julie Posselt points out that the graduate admission process is marred by personal and subjective biases that require urgent and detailed scrutiny.

Graduate admissions processes ought to use different metrics to assess an applicant’s interest, aptitude, and potential for future success in scientific research. U.S. universities need to adopt a more holistic approach to selecting potential PhD trainees, including reflection on the implicit biases and assumptions made by their own admissions committees.

Barriers to diversity and inclusion in the biomedical workforce persist beyond the point of graduate program admissions, of course. We restrict ourselves when we discuss “the pipeline”—the route from college to faculty—and consider people who leave academia to have “leaked” from it. The problem with a pipeline analogy is that it is linear, homogeneous, and prioritizes academia above all else. University culture prohibits a diverse academic enterprise because the one-size-fits-all pipeline does not value differing personal values in science and these differences manifest in varying academic career interest according to race and gender. US universities can create a more supportive and open-minded academic culture that employs an increasingly diverse faculty by better valuing nonacademic scientific contributions.

A recurring theme among scholars considering these issues is the need to better train current and future faculty. Few postdocs are being trained how to mentor, hire, and manage people, despite this being a major function of the faculty jobs they are applying for.

Admitting increasing numbers of students without ensuring that they have a decent shot at their desired careers will not make for a more diverse and inclusive biomedical workforce. It is, at best, naive and, at worst, harmful to guide those eager to pursue their passions for science into a system that trains them for disappearing jobs.

We would like to thank Chris Pickett, Jessica Polka, Kyle Dolan, Yelena Bernadskaya, David Riglar, Patricia Goodwin and Jeremy Berg for helpful discussions.

Viviane Callier is a science fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Gary McDowell is executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization Future of Research and a resident at the Manylabs open-science skunkworks in San Francisco. Views expressed here are the authors’ own.

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August 31, 2016

This situation is not just in USA. I would even say It is better in USA than Canada or Europe.

We hear too often university proffessors and lab directors discussing how to motivate the new generation to go to science and persue Ph.D studies. Trying to motivate the young generation to follow science studies such as Ph.D without telling them about the reality of the job market, is an egoist lie.

One third of students that have graduated in the lab where I work in the last 10 years, have not found a job in science, but in a completely different field through their personnal contacts. It is, not only, the reponsability of Universities but also of researchers and lab directors to spread the correct word about science and job opportunity.

Avatar of: wctopp


Posts: 110

August 31, 2016

Setting an upper limit on the amount of grant money a single scientist can get would help a little.  Industrial money needs to be added in to the total and if industrial/private money alone puts her/him over the top then NO grants to that person.  Giving $1M/year to a superstar and nothing to nine others virtually forces that superstar to churn out graduate students and post-docs who then almost invariably enter the ranks of the other nine.  This begs the question whether NIH or ACS gets more for their money putting it all in a few highly productive places.  These are not social services or welfare agencies, their mandate is to get the most science out of their allocations.

Avatar of: Dukie74


Posts: 5

August 31, 2016

While it appears to be true that more PhD's are being trained than the existing number of job openings directly requiring that PhD, how do we know which of the PhD applicants will end up actually being the best scientists?  Some professions, such as medical doctors, greatly limit the professionals at the admissions stage, even though we know that some of the eventual medical doctors may not be very good.  On the other hand, law schools turn out more lawyers than are warranted by the job market.  The marketplace has no place for those who may not demonstrate their quality.  The result is that the "survival of the fittest" philosophy selects the ultimate practitioners of law and science AFTER they are trained,  Medical doctors are selected BEFORE they ar trained.  Maybe the question being discussed here should be, "shouldn't more medical doctors (and other "limited entry" professions) train more individuals and let them be selected after training in order to get the best practioners"?

Avatar of: sierrafrogs


Posts: 2

August 31, 2016

Hmmm, since when is it the trainer's responsibility to find employment for the trainee?  There is no job market out there that doesn't have numerical limits, and I can't think of an occupation that limits its training enrollment on that basis. Even a medical degree is no guarantee of a job, especially in competitive specialties such as general surgery. 

The sole valid reason to enroll in a graduate program is that you want to, that is, that the subject interests you enough to want to become a real expert on it.  If "you want to" because of all the job possiblities out there you probably need to reassess your career goals because you're likely to end up disillusioned at best.  On the other hand, I think it is well established that in a sea of job candidates the good ones are typically the ones who get the good jobs, and the less than good ones end up either employed in lesser positions or in some other line of work, if at all.  So to me the real moral of the story is that yes indeed you should only go to graduate school if you want to, and once there you should expend every energy to be as good a researcher and authority on your subject as is possible for anyone to be.  If you achieve even a shadow of that goal you'll always be employable in that field.

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