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.