I sense a problem with undergraduate education

A lot has been said about job prospects of biomedical graduate students and the ever-declining percentage of Ph.D. graduates who are ultimately able to find academic faculty positions. Indeed, the importance of exposing graduate students to a variety of scientific career options has become recognized in recent years. Many graduate programs, including my own, now require students to annually complete an Individual Career Development Plan (IDP).

These are positive developments, and as chair of my departmental (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) graduate and admissions committee, I warmly embrace this change in attitude. As a department, we have even gone further and have begun annual career development meetings with each year’s crop of students, and we are trying to arrange occasional lectures and workshops from invited scientific speakers whose careers lie outside of academia.

However, I believe that it’s important to remember that even by preparing students for a variety of non-academic scientific careers, there is unlikely to be a demand for the increasing number of Ph.D. graduates currently being pumped out by the system. In reality all of the non-academic science jobs being discussed and courted have existed for years. It’s not that science journal editors and staff, science policy makers, teachers at undergraduate colleges, industry, science writers and grant review administration have become highly abundant positions all of the sudden; it’s merely that students are now being encouraged to seek out and obtain qualifications for such positions (if they show interest) in the course of their Ph.D. studies.

These non-academic positions are probably just as competitive as academic ones. Without a major change in policy – such as encouraging Ph.D. graduates to teach high school students (with financial incentives and an understanding that science is crucial for the advancement of the human race) – it is unlikely that there will be a major change in demand for Ph.D. holders.

However, it’s important also to remember that despite the lack of good jobs that properly reward Ph.D. holders for their years of study, unemployment is extremely low for this sector. Indeed, it was estimated that even for those carrying a bachelor’s degree that unemployment was below 4%, and this is likely significantly lower for those with a Ph.D. in the sciences. These data are likely a result of the ingrained motivation, independence and critical thinking that are part and package of a Ph.D.

There are many articles that discuss what should be done to “fix” the problem, including awareness at the national level that there are too many Ph.D.s being granted, and even altering the grant system so that institutions will admit many fewer students. I fundamentally disagree with this idea, and think that a greater number of Ph.D. students and graduates represents a culture that is more literate in science and one that will be better equipped to have the brightest, most talented and determined go on and lead scientific research in the next generation.

In the past, when voicing my ideas of “the more the merrier,” that Ph.D. holders who have become solid critical thinkers can contribute to society in a variety of important ways, both directly in science and in other occupations, my main detractors complained that having people go through all this labor and study only to find that great and well-paying jobs aren’t readily available “isn’t fair.” Is it fair?

I agree that it isn’t fair, but as I frequently point out to students, life isn’t fair. We were not all born wealthy, or with advantages. We were not all born with equal opportunities. Some parents can afford to send their children to outstanding private schools, or spend time teaching them on their own. Other parents work hard just to feed and clothe their kids. Some kids work during high school and on through college. Others can afford to focus exclusively on their studies.

It is also important to note that fewer and fewer career choices lead to “guaranteed high paying jobs” for graduates. In the US, I think that dentists, physicians, pharmacists, and engineers can reasonably assume to find well-paying jobs at the end of their training. This is not necessarily true any more for lawyers (as more and more graduates vie for jobs), business degree holders or any Ph.D. graduates from what is generally known as “the liberal arts.” So whether the system is really so slanted against biomedical Ph.D. graduates is not altogether clear.

There is another very good reason why I think dramatically decreasing the number of graduate students would be harmful to science. As chair of our graduate and admissions committee, it’s clear that we rely heavily on a combination of undergraduate grades, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores and personal interviews to select our students. Recommendation letters can also make an impression (one way or the other). But it’s obvious that the top grade scorers don’t necessarily make the best researchers. Sure, overall there is an extremely vague correlation, and certainly students have to have a grasp of science to succeed. But I’ve seen many average students (from undergraduate studies) who have truly excelled in the lab and have gone on to do outstanding research – and continue on to academia. By limiting the number of Ph.D. students accepted into graduate programs, we could be losing an outstanding crop of potential researchers. My point is that success in research (or lack of it) should be the factor limiting researchers from continuing on to academia – not something less meaningful such as undergraduate grades.

Finally, I would like to point out that I am not sitting in my academic ivory tower, oblivious to the problems of today’s students. My goal is not to sacrifice 5 or more years of many students’ lives just to seek out the very best fitted ones for academia. Although I noted that life isn’t fair, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make it as fair as possible. For this reason, I believe that perhaps the most important thing that can be done for potential future graduate students is to provide them with career advice and information early on in their undergraduate years.

Again and again I see students interviewing for graduate school when they have no idea what it’s all about. Many do not understand even the very basics of the system, and frequently students have a warped view that a Ph.D. degree will entitle them automatically to a great job. Although in my graduate program we try to educate the students in the course of interviewing them, it is really not the time to do so. Students need to have qualified counselors who will answer their questions while they are still in their undergraduate institutions. They need to know the statistics for obtaining jobs in academia and other scientific careers – before they apply to graduate programs. They need to understand the criteria that make for a successful Ph.D. (not merely the minimal requirements stated for obtaining the degree). Then, and only then, can they make a calculated decision as to whether they want to launch themselves into a 5 year program. That, at least, is a fairer way to do things. And I take off my hat to those who choose to do so.




About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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6 Responses to I sense a problem with undergraduate education

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I don’t know what the figures are like for the US, but for the UK I always quote the Royal Society’s report “The Scientific Century”


    Here (Figure 1.6 on page 14) they show where the holders of PhDs go in the UK (of course our PhD is nominally 3 years rather than 5 as in the US), but your point about the need to make students aware of this even at the undergraduate level is well made.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I see a lack of informed decision-making by undergraduates from the US and those who studied abroad, leading me to think that it’s probably a wider problem. If graduate students know “what they are in for” and what their chances are for future careers – and still decide to pursue such a career – then they are starting out on the right foot.

  2. aeon says:

    Some quick and very raw thoughts:
    a) If “success in research (or lack of it) should be the factor limiting researchers from continuing on to academia” is measured in paper output (as it currently is, and was in my case), I would think academia is going to destroy itself from within. I think “critical thinking” is not only disencouraged by the publish-or-perish approach, it’s a massive obstacle for your career.

    b) Students “having no idea what it’s all about” has, from where I stand, something to do with the warped image “science” still has in ‘the public view’ (*). Which, in a way, is also Academia’s fault. We are often overselling ourselves, but on the other hand the real *work*, and it’s circumstances, is rendered next to invisible.

    (*) I’m not sure if it is just ‘the media’, and lean to the perception that it might be a problem of society structure, in general. But media plays it’s role, with all those genius-type “mad professor”, “geek”, or “boffin” figures. Which, to end on a positive note, admittedly are fun.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      As to your first point: I won’t even get into a discussion about the measuring of scientific output by publications, because that is a topic for other blogs. But you will agree that those are currently the criteria for success in academia (like it or not), so those who can succeed in publishing (as opposed to achieving high grades) are more likely to thrive.

      You can also liken it to democracy and life in general: it’s far from perfect, but preferable to all the other options…

  3. Grant Jacobs says:

    Your post reminds me of a suggestion I made a few years ago while writing advice for those wanting to attend university to consider taking a year out at one of the obvious “break” points between school, undergraduate and postgraduate studies, trying to choose a job related to their interests (rather than “just any old job”). Those that found themselves comfortable in the workforce then might consider continuing in that direction.

    Perhaps this might be something to encourage undergraduates to do?

    (I did something akin to this, working as a computer programmer after my undergraduate degree before deciding to go back to academia, eventually taking up PhD studies in England. I enjoyed programming, but found I still spend too much time thinking about what people were doing in computational biology.)

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I actually took a year off and worked and traveled through South America after my undergraduate studies, because although I knew I wanted an academic path, there were so many options that I needed time to think about them.

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