The missing piece to changing the university culture

Written by Maximiliaan SchillebeeckxBrett Maricque Cory Lewis and originally posted on

A new type of initiative is empowering graduate students and postdocs to reshape their academic training, providing another avenue to express their passion for research.

As graduate students, we have become disillusioned with our academic training. We began graduate school full of ambition, drive and optimism but have long since come to realize that we have joined a system that does not meet our diverse interests. We yearn for a community that supports creativity and the expression of future career goals instead of one with a narrow, focused interest.

Current PhD training programs are focused primarily on the academic career track despite its disheartening outlook: the number of awarded PhDs is significantly outpacing the available positions12, fiscal pressures have slowed the growth of available independent research jobs 3 and the time it takes to earn a PhD has not improved over the past two decades 4. Each year, there are seven times more PhDs awarded in science and engineering than there are newly available faculty positions (Fig. 1). As a result, only about 25% of biomedical sciences PhD recipients are in tenure-track positions five years after earning their degree 45. The percent of PhDs starting postdoctoral fellowships, however, has not changed, with close to 70% of life science PhDs pursuing a postdoc after graduation in 2010 (ref. 4), which suggests that PhD students are unsure of their career goals or unequipped for a nonacademic career. In addition to the discouraging job prospects, the time required to complete a PhD adds to the bleak outlook. Despite a downward trend, the average time to degree in life sciences and engineering is still high, with half of PhD candidates requiring seven years or more to complete their degree; one-third of candidates who begin will never finish 14. With over 40% of graduate students indifferent or unsatisfied to some degree with their graduate school experience 6, it is clear that initiatives must be taken to revamp the research training paradigm.

Figure 1: New faculty positions versus new PhDs.
Figure 1: New faculty positions versus new PhDs.

Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame. The number of S&E PhDs awarded annually has also increased over this time frame, from ~19,000 in 1982 to ~36,000 in 2011. The number of faculty positions created each year, however, has not changed, with roughly 3,000 new positions created annually (2, 10).


The research community has long recognized the need to reform PhD training programs and is taking various approaches to bringing about change. US federal agencies have created funding programs to incentivize universities to expand their curricula to be more interdisciplinary7 and entrepreneurial8, but these programs are few and far between. Several National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biomedical Research Workforce Working Groups have recommended that faculty advisers be better engaged during PhD training to provide closer mentorship to students regarding alternative career training4. Current incentives, however, are not well aligned with faculty interests, making it difficult to effect change through faculty-led efforts. Another NIH recommendation is to engage students and postdocs directly by implementing career planning tools to help individuals navigate and identify career paths (, but it is unclear whether students and postdocs find these tools useful. Time will tell if such top-down approaches can succeed in shifting the culture of research training programs.We believe that top-down approaches alone will not bring about the needed change, as they fail to appreciate the role that graduate students and postdocs—who are grossly underrepresented in this discourse—play in eliciting change.

We believe that researchers in training should advocate for innovative training opportunities as well as lead their own initiatives for experience-based learning to shape their own career paths. University leaders and faculty members must empower graduate students and postdocs, who must take matters into their own hands, forge their own paths and prove the value of interdisciplinary and entrepreneurially minded programs.

One graduate student– and postdoc-led initiative—autonomous from the university system—is changing how PhD students and postdocs are trained. This nonprofit organization connects teams of graduate students and postdocs from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) with local, resource-constrained startup companies to help solve real business challenges. Through these mutually beneficial collaborations, students and postdocs gain valuable experience and training in the commercialization of science while helping companies overcome obstacles and achieve growth.

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on CauseScience and commented:
    Great post.

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