Friday, January 11, 2013

NIH’s Feeble Response to Problems in Biomedical PhD Training.

In June 2012 a distinguished committee headed by Princeton President Shirley Tilghman reported to the NIH Director regarding issues in biomedical workforce training. The report indicated that conventional modes of graduate training were not adequately preparing students for the realities of the current job marketplace and suggested a number of approaches to improve the situation [1]. The report advocated increasing the proportion of graduate stipends based on competitive training grants versus those supported by research grants, but did not advocate reducing the total number of students.

While there are many good things about the Tilghman report, to this observer it failed to confront the most basic issue- that we are training far too many biomedical PhDs! The need for biomedical ‘birth control’ is implicit in some of the verbiage in the report’s Executive Summary. “Although the vast majority of people holding biomedical PhDs are employed (i.e. unemployment is very low), the proportion of PhDs that move into tenured or tenure-track faculty positions has declined from ~34 percent in 1993 to ~26 percent today. In contrast the proportion of non-tenured faculty has stayed relatively constant during the same period, while increasing in absolute numbers. The percentages of biomedical Ph.D.s in industry and government have remained relatively constant. The categories that have seen growth are science- related occupations that do not involve the conduct of research and occupations that do not require graduate training in science.“ Thus the data in the report show that approximately 30% of PhD graduates are in positions that do not involve research. Therefore they have no need for the years of intensive research training involved in a PhD. What a waste of the time and energy of those people!

About 43% of PhD graduates are in academia; however, an increasingly large proportion of those are in unstable, largely grant-funded, non-tenure track positions. The research associates, research track faculty and postdoctoral fellows in these unstable positions play a vital role in contemporary biomedical research. Yet no university has found an effective mechanism to introduce some stability and clarity into their career paths.

If one counts tenure track academics (26%) and government and industrial scientist (24%) as individuals who have launched successful careers based on their PhD training, then 50% of trainees have not. This seems a dismal failure of the training system.

The traditional system of graduate training in the US is based not on the needs of the students, but rather on the need of professors for inexpensive, relatively skilled labor to keep their research programs running. It is really farcical to call this graduate education; rather it is better styled as graduate exploitation. The current economic malaise further compounds the situation. The lack of jobs for people with bachelor level credentials pushes more young people into graduate school. However, on the other end of the process the same economic problems have reduced the number of opportunities for PhDs.

Despite all this gloom there are some relatively straightforward ways to improve the situation.

1. All graduate stipends should be based on competitive institutional or individual training grants. This would improve the quality and reduce the numbers in the PhD training pool.

2. To replace graduate labor more emphasis should be placed on postdoctoral fellows and PhD level research staff. Complementary to this, universities need to (or be forced to) set up mechanisms so that some grant funds are sequestered to provide stabilization of non-tenure track research positions. This is not to suggest some form of tenure for these positions, but rather to make sure the career of a staff scientist is not totally dependent on the renewal of a single grant (as is so often the case now).

3. To provide a cohort of scientifically sophisticated, but not research intensive, personnel for various tasks in industry, there should be increased emphasis on Master’s degree programs (as suggested in the Tilghman report).

Unfortunately, the NIH’s implementation of even the limited recommendations of the Tilghman report are feeble at best, as revealed in a recent article in SCIENCE [2].  For example, even such non-controversial items as having students and their mentors prepare ‘Individual Development Plans’, having universities to track careers of graduates, or asking universities to develop new curricula more suited to industry needs are to be done on a voluntary basis. Thus the new policies lack teeth.

Another sad episode in the history of biomedical graduate training- when will we learn!

[2] J. Kaiser. NIH Offers to Help Universities Improve Training, Boost Diversity. SCIENCE 338: 1405 (2012).


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