For Science Ph.D.'s, There Is No One True Path

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 25, 2012

Last April the scientific journal Nature published a series of articles on the overproduction of Ph.D.'s in the sciences. In particular, the journal singled out doctoral education in the United States for its imbalanced Ph.D.-to-job ratio, citing some stunning statistics: From 1973 to 2006, for example, the number of biological-sciences Ph.D. recipients in tenure-track positions six years after receiving their degree dropped from 55 percent to 15 percent, and it continues to fall. We are producing more and more Ph.D.'s, and every year there are fewer faculty positions for those graduates to fill.

To some people, this state of affairs has all the trappings of a pyramid scheme. Graduate schools and principal investigators take on too many students because they are inexpensive, work hard, and help to get papers published. At the same time, the graduate schools and investigators know full well that not all the students can move up the pyramid. In this view, the university is not an educator so much as a scientific sweatshop.

This all sounds like a horror story: Toil for years in obscurity, only to emerge from that dark tunnel onto a bridge to nowhere. But as I plan to leave academe to return to a full-time writing career, it is clear to me that this seductive explanation of supply and demand does not jibe with my experience as a doctoral student in the sciences, which has been full of teachable moments that I know will benefit me regardless of the specific work I pursue.

Few experiences are more instructive, for example, than outright rejection. I remember well when my first scientific paper was turned away by a prestigious journal. At first, I felt only anger aimed at faceless reviewers. I arrived at graduate school relatively unscathed by such moments, and being told by a jury of my new peers that this first bit of work hadn't passed muster was humbling. But my adviser was efficient in moving me through the stages of grief, so that when, a few days later, I arrived at acceptance, we were able to sit down, reframe the work, rewrite the paper, and send it back to the same journal, with the same data. This time, we succeeded, and it was a much better research paper for its initial rejection.

Through this and subsequent experiences, I learned to absorb the sting of harsh rejection, to ingest criticism, to accept its value, and to turn it to my advantage. These are life skills, not scientific skills, and rejection was only the beginning. Since then, I have had to devise and adopt quick, practical solutions to unexpected problems, to communicate clearly and concisely in front of crowds, to think on my feet in response to an unexpected question, and to pick my battles within my own research group. Perhaps most important, I have learned to approach problems by reducing them to their component parts and solving them one by one.

These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot.

What's more, the assumption that leaving the primary domain of one's education constitutes failure does not appear to apply to all advanced degrees, and not even to all graduate programs in which students are generally expected to choose a specific career.

For example, my wife's uncle Howie is a proud alum of Ohio State University's law school, but, except for a brief stint directly after graduating, he has never practiced law and, so far as I know, no one has ever made him feel bad about it. Although he may not work for a firm or sit as a judge, Howie's education is always at his side, holstered, ready. For most of his career, he has owned a small business, and he will tell you his advanced education has helped him in nearly every phase of it. But it also comes out in more subtle ways, too: I'll never forget the time a park ranger showed up to shut down the waterfront photographs my wife and I had planned for our wedding—without permission from the City of New York. I couldn't hear what Howie said to the ranger, but, five minutes later, we had our photos. My soon-to-be-wife turned to me: "There's Howie the lawyer!" Nobody turns to someone, as a friend reasons through a sticky problem, or a colleague makes a knockout presentation to a consulting client, and says, "There's the scientist!" But they should.

Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box. Crucially, they must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor's time; graduate students—and their older siblings, the postdocs—by virtue of being cheap, productive labor, are anything but a waste of time.

I am lucky to have been aided by an adviser who, before being a scientist, studied philosophy and has always been open to my having a career outside academe, and by a program director who genuinely cares for her students. But too many young scientists are made to feel worthless because of their desire to leave academic science. It has to stop.

A few months ago, I attended an event sponsored by several local biomedical universities titled "What Can You Be With a Ph.D.?" The event was spread over numerous auditoriums and included panels on science writing; teaching at the elementary, high-school, and college levels; government jobs, both in bureaucracy and research; forensic lab work; nonprofits; finance; biotechnology; consulting; and, yes, even postdoctoral research. Roaming from panel to panel, I was amazed at the sheer scope of opportunity for science Ph.D.'s. The event reinforced that, as the world becomes ever more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields. Looking around, it became clear that we've been looking at this pyramid upside down.

Jon Bardin is a freelance writer and a Ph.D. student in neuro­science at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.