Response to PhD ‘overproduction’ article at UA/AU

This is a response to PhD ‘overproduction’ is not new and faculty retirements won’t solve it.  An article posted at University Affairs last week.

Tenure success rates
Retirements were never going to solve the problem, and it’s never been about every PhD student landing a tenure job. Surveys of PhD graduates as far back as the 1960s put achievement of tenure appointments between 60-70%. Prior to that there weren’t any statistics.

These values are all from American organisations. Canada has been completely disinterested in this kind of information. It seems only certain Canadian medical associations track employment values regularly. That’s why we can find physician employment rates out medical school in every geography in Canada, but you can only find anecdotes about how students from Canadian PhD programs perform. And just like gamblers talking about their winnings at the Casino;  success rates out of graduate programs are more often polished representations of the truth – glossing over many students that either dropped out, switched careers entirely, are stuck as sessionals, or who are toiling away in an seemingly endless cycle of postdoctoral fellowships.

The reason PhD employment has become a front and center issue recently is because the tenure success rates of PhD grads is about 8-9℅ now – as determined by extrapolating from those American surveys. While it may have been be easy to ignore 30-40% of people that quietly slide in to other work capacities in the 60s and 70s – and who I imagine were hardly complaining, seeing as their compensation rates rewarded their advanced credentials -, it’s impossible to ignore these issues when the rates are >90% and compensation rarely matches the credentials.

Students know more now than ever: the old sell tactics won’t work

While the stream of eager, low cost, enthusiastic labour may still trickle today for graduate programs, it won’t be long before most if not all undergraduates scoff at the idea of graduate research.

For example; when I was in high school I had no idea what a sessional lecturer was – they barely existed. I’ve had conversations with my students and they all knew what sessionals are. They also knew about the horrible compensation sessionals receive, and the total lack of job security  despite these individuals having PhDs and a decade of work experience. My students also knew about postdocs, their compensation and the job prospects. This conversation came up when my students asked me about how I came to teach at their school.  These are 17 years old and they have absolutely no any interest in pursuing academic research despite being incredibly talented students who love science.

Just to be clear; I make it a point not to speak poorly about any career path in my classes. It has been through their own independent research that they’ve come across this information. They’re all quite well off and their parents are all highly educated who encourage them to critically evaluate their futures.  These students know, from their own personal interest in their professional futures that career paths involving academic research aren’t paying off unless that’s the only thing you can see yourself being happy doing.

So when graduate supervisors are trying to sell the benefits of the programs to prospective students, appealing to the ‘knowledge based economy’ wont cut it.

The industry is going to have to start collecting data to recover credibility

Graduate programs are going to have to show empirical data reporting competitive employment rates if they want to compete for talented students and not just sign up individuals who are putting off adulthood. These results are going to have to involve demonstrating that graduates are properly trained for employment after a 6 year PhD. Not after a 6 year PhD, followed up by a 6 month unpaid internship or more education at a cost – because that’s what the anecdotes gloss over.

Why are you going to do a 6 year PhD if you’re going to have to retrain anyway? Just skip the PhD, and go immediately in to the internship or the educational program that’s actually going to train you for employment success.  In the 6 years you have saved you would have developed a vast professional network, and skills that are directly applicable to the specific career – not to mention the vastly improved level of compensation and a sensation that you’re actually participating as an adult.

A possible solution – it’s going to be painful

Seeing as more than 90% of PhDs are going in to areas of work that are other than academics, it only makes sense that PhD programs train individuals for non-academic activities. This means less focus on purely lab activities – which is the anti-thesis of STEM PhD programs today. Less research focus also goes against the way the granting system operates, how professors are professionally evaluated, and thus how students are themselves motivated to perform and develop.

We can’t keep talking about the problems in graduate level training as if it’s a singular problem, and that somehow retirements will contribute to the solution in any meaningful way. What we have been observing for over a decade is a symptom of how academic institutions and supervisors are financially and professionally rewarded.  The reward system needs to change to incentivize training students in ways that better reflect what the employment market is demanding.

Training 100% of the students to perform functions that less than 10% will ever engage in makes no sense – and ask any new professor if they felt prepared for running their first lab.  That alone will give you an idea of how well the system is working.


Note: Nature improperly cited the original survey source.  It will take time to dig it up – I last accessed the survey close to 2 years ago, online.  I’ll update this citation as soon as I dig it up.

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Time to brush up my French language skills

A little over a week ago I moved back to Ottawa.  Being the capital of Canada, most industries here being officially bilingual.  As a result, I think it’s in my best interest to brush up on my French language skills.

Remarkably, I’m finding picking it back up quite easy with the help of some fantastic, free online resources.

Ma France is a great online resource for people who performed well and took French through High School.

Happy Holidays and New Year!

Ma France:  Learning French

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Where will a Biology PhD take you?


All too often graduate students have little understanding for what exactly they are being trained for.  You go to medical school to become a medical doctor.  You go to dental school to because a dentist.  You go to law school to become a lawyer.  Those professional programs train you specifically to perform specified functions and while full time employment success rates after even those programs continue to decrease, trainees in those programs fully understand what they’re being trained for. The same can’t be said for MSc and PhD graduate studies unfortunately.

Earlier this summer Jessica Polka, PhD, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Biomedical, published an excellent article in Nature discussing this specific problem. Along with this article she generated the figure that I inserted at the top of this blog post.  It helpfully illustrates the typical paths biomedical PhDs take over the 7-11 year time line from graduate studies to employment.

The unfortunate part is that >90% of these individuals will never be academic researchers and yet that’s the objective of more than 50% of each cohort.  Compounding that, the skills one develops during graduate studies is almost exclusively intended to prepare people for academic careers, leaving most program participants ill prepared for the inevitable career transition after academia.

One possible solution would be to create two graduate program streams, in the same way that certain medical schools train MDs as well as MD/PhDs.  Individuals who are interested in pursuing exclusively academic careers would take the traditional PhD tracks, while people interested in non-academic careers would still have to perform rigorous research, but their experience would be modified so they’re better prepared for the ‘real world.’ One obvious component to this alternative track would be emphasis on professional relationship building outside of the academe and somewhat less research than the academic career track.


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Intelligence Squared Debate: Genetically Modified Foods

Despite spending the better part of my adult life performing fundamental research – an incredibly introverted experience – I’ve always known that communication is the key to any kind of personal or professional success.  Moreover, communication is central in promoting societal movements.

I have been fortunate to work for people that put special emphasis on this skill set by offering special opportunities to travel to conferences, give talks within the university or for collaborators at their institutions.  Not all research groups develop these skills unfortunately.

Today I came across an Intelligence Squared debate on the topic of GM Foods.  All the participants are professionals in their fields, so this wasn’t a loaded debate.

For me the outcome was remarkable; 28% of the audience, representing almost all of the previously undecided viewers, were swayed in support of GM technologies.  This result alone should emphasize the importance of clear communication and how essential it is in motivating society.

It doesn’t matter how great  your invention, technology, or idea is.  If people don’t know about it, or understand it, then they won’t support it.

You can find the link to the debate below.  I encourage you all to watch it if you have the time this weekend.

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How much of Monsanto’s R&D is dedicated to GM development?

I’ve always wondered how much Monsanto spends on traditional breeding R&D vs. GM technology development.  Insofar as their vegetable seed development it appears that they spend only 2% of their annual R&D budget on GM product pipelines – the rest is devoted to traditional breeding programs.  This means that out of $181 million dollars, Monsanto spends roughly $3.6 million on GM and $177 million on conventional breeding approaches.

This really shouldn’t be surprising considering Monsanto is the biggest seed supplier in the world and much of the world is averse to GM products.  If only the public perception reflected the relative activities of the company.



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What are GMOs?


I thought I would just briefly explore what Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) actually are and some common misconceptions.

Although GMO technically refers to many products, its common use refers primarily to plants that now harbor genes which are not naturally present in the plants genome. Examples of GMO crops that you can access as a consumer in Canada would be Corn, Canola, Soy, Cotton, Papaya and Squash.  Reports that there are other GM crops (eg. tomato) that you can purchase as a consumer are absolutely not true.  Does GM tomato exist?  Certainly – but it’s used for research purposes  in the same way as Arabidopsis thaliana.  Tomato, like A. thaliana is an incredibly well characterized plant system which has a number of molecular techniques developed for it and therefore making it an attractive system to perform fundamental research on.

So why do plant biotechnologists, like myself, think genetically modifying organisms is a valuable technology?  It’s because as useful as traditional breeding programs are, if the genetic diversity present in a target crop doesn’t contain the trait we want to develop, then genetically engineering a modified plant is the only way to develop that trait to a useful level.  It’s as simple as that.  Corn, for example, like any other plant does not demonstrate a natural resistance to glyphosate (Roundup).  So introducing Agrobacterium 5-enolpyruvoyl-shikimate-3-phosphate synthetase was the only way to generate that trait. Similarly, there was no resistance to papaya ringspot virus in the natural papaya population so genetic modification was the only way to save that crop, and the associated industry.

Make no mistake – humans have been genetically modifying organisms for far longer than 30 years.  The image I chose to lead this article off shows what I think everyone would recognize as corn you could purchase today, contrasted with what few of us will recognize at all.   The frame on the right is what our ancestors began cultivating approximately 3000 years ago.  It’s called teosinte, and the genetic modifications that augmented the fruit capacity of teosinte to modern corn was obtained through thousands of years of breeding. Another prime example of breeding programs changing the genetics of plants would be that of tomatoes.  What we think of as an attractive tomato – shiny, red, big – is dramatically different than what was available hundreds of years ago.  In fact, the only reason tomatoes are shiny at all is because through breeding selection, farmers inadvertently chose against tomatoes that expressed the biochemical pathways which produces certain light absorbing phenolic compounds.

Genetic modification is a tool – that’s it.  In fact it’s a tool that’s used to produce much more than GM plants (eg. Insulin).  All we should be concerned about is if the products of this tool are safe, and of value to our society.  There is over 17 years of GM crop use on the books now and no significant, documented negative effect on people or the environment.

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The Scientific GMO Consensus

Golden Rice

The photo I chose to lead this article off with shows wild type rice, and the two main iterations of Golden Rice – a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) which has been developed to address vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.  You can see quite clearly that golden rice is able to synthesize beta-carotene, the yellow-orange pigment – with the introduction of two exogenous genes.

Having studied plant biotechnology for as long as I have and you end up getting pulled in to GMO arguments from time to time. In the end both parties seem to agree to disagree and it essentially rests on the issue of who can you believe; people who have spent the better part of their lives understanding GMOs from how they are produced to how they impact the environments, or people who are skeptical about where the research funding comes from (read Monsanto), and therefore the fruits of this labour are all poisoned.

This morning I came across a nice compilation of the organizations which are among the Scientific GMO consensus, and their statements on the subject. If you just want to see the list and their statements you can scroll down to the bottom of the article.

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