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By Megan Cooley

Megan CooleyThe extinction of the graduate student to save the Ph.D.? Really? Well, perhaps extinction is an overexaggeration, but in a PNAS Perspective published last year, you might think that is what the authors were suggesting. The article was a collaboration between professors from San Francisco, Harvard, and Princeton. The authors were addressing the effect of the number of newly minted Ph.D.’s in the biomedical research field. Since the NIH budget was slashed starting in the early 1990s, research funding has been stunted, but enrollment in graduate programs, and subsequently graduation rates, have not slowed.

The authors argue that this has created a “hypercompetitive” system at the top, having a negative effect on the quality of our nation’s research. They call for trimming at the top and at the bottom, proposing to slowly decrease the number of students admitted to biomedical graduate programs. Interestingly, in looking at the 2012 NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Report, the number of students admitted to chemistry graduate programs has remained relatively unchanged over the last 15 years.

The authors suggest that too many Ph.D.’s are in postdoctoral positions at research institutions for too long (i.e., more than three years). They call for tighter restrictions on term limits in these positions, ideally three years or fewer. The rationale for these term limits would include decreasing the strain on budget funding for postdocs, but the authors also feel that the first years after the Ph.D. are the most motivated and most creative years, and so they want to see these researchers exercising their own independent research, driving innovation.

Great point! Let’s do it! Wait a second, what about all of these formidable hoops you need to get through in order “establish” yourself to be able to move into a faculty position? Most Ph.D.’s wanting to conduct research of their own don’t simply walk up to the chemistry department at Harvard, hand them their résumé, and assume a faculty position. That’s not the way things go. Research institutions accept you either if you have a great publication record in top-tier journals or if you bring funding and a publication record.

I would argue that most postdocs require on average between six months and one year to author their first major grants, as most of these larger multi-year funding opportunities require significant preliminary data or at least enough that will support the proposed hypothesis. Assuming you are funded on your first attempt, it could take six to eight months to get your score and then receive the initial funding. So, now we are up to roughly two years of your postdoctoral time. Then you need to focus on obtaining more data so you can apply for K grants, which will ultimately help you transition from your postdoctoral position into a faculty position. Start the cycle over again.

I think the authors do have a valuable point regarding implementation of stricter time limits on postdoctoral positions. No one should be a career fellow. But postdoctoral development needs to be further assessed. Postdocs should be mentored in career development by internal institutional faculty and should also strive to network and obtain external mentors to gain perspective on their disciplines of interest. Postdocs should ask, how can I tailor my development to make myself a strong applicant for the position I want to obtain? Better defining your career goals and creating a path for how you can achieve them would also help to minimize the time you spend in this transitional period.

The authors suggest that graduate students should be made more aware of various career opportunities that are available to them while in school. I could not agree more! Career options feel rather black and white in graduate school: industry or academia. That’s simply not true. There are many options (e.g. clinical work, government work, policy work, not-for-profit work) that could diffuse the pressure within industry and academia to provide future positions for these graduate students. And these opportunities might be more fulfilling to many students than the traditional veins of academia or industry. One example of a resource to help students is My IDP, an online assessment to help scientists evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and see which careers might best fit their skill set as well as correlate with the life style they wish to have.

What do you think about restrictions on graduate school admissions and less time in postdoctoral training positions? What resources would make the transitions into professional positions more efficient?

Megan Cooley, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Her research is focused on understanding the effects of the tumor microenvironment on acquired chemoresistance and metastasis.