Gumus GS: Academic focus of doctoral programs leaves graduates ill-equipped to enter the workforce
If you are a doctoral student, you’ve probably heard something like “this is a doctorate, find out for yourself”. While doctoral students enter their programs hoping to become highly independent researchers, we don’t expect to graduate without being fully prepared for the job market. Advisors and administrators tell us that research is all that matters and that if we focused more on our research, we would be fully equipped for post-doctoral life. This is far from true. In fact, focusing only on research for five years can be detrimental to students, especially those who wish to pursue non-academic careers. Industrial jobs require different skills than university jobs, and PhD holders pursuing careers in industry often find themselves overqualified for the research component and underqualified for the non-technical components. But when we ask for career guidance from our programs, advisers tell us that our research experience alone is sufficient, that we should be more self-reliant, and that ‘it’s a PhD’.
This lack of career preparation is common in doctoral programs. Less than a third of respondents to Nature’s National Graduate Student Survey felt their doctoral program prepared them very well for a satisfying career, and 79% of respondents were concerned about their job prospects. The current doctoral experience should be replaced by one that can be tailored to the professional goals of each student, whether in industry or academia, and which evolves with changes in the labor market.
The career crisis is particularly prevalent in STEM doctoral programs, whose programs are designed to uplift the next generation of academics. Due to the emphasis on developing research skills, many doctoral students are led to believe that academia is the top career option. However, to qualify and obtain an academic position, students must complete one or more postdoctoral experiences. This forces scientists to forgo a living wage for at least eight to ten years after college. At the same time, the proportion of STEM doctorates who end up moving into tenure-track positions is only 7.6% in life sciences.
To make matters worse, doctoral students are largely only encouraged to take courses and attend workshops directly related to their research. If a chemistry doctoral student wants to take a course outside of chemistry – for example, economics, which might be relevant to work in industry – their advisor is likely to say no. At first glance, Brown appears to be open to graduate students pursuing knowledge outside their immediate field through the Open Graduate Education program, which allows 10 students each year to pursue a master’s degree in addition to their doctorate. According to the program’s website, doctoral students are encouraged to pursue a field that may be “close to or somewhat distant from that of doctoral studies.”
In practice, many students who are accepted into Brown’s program choose a master’s degree that can directly benefit their dissertation research, and the faculty that selects STEM recipients appear to be biased toward students who wish to become academics. In comments on my own application, the committee agreed that although I was qualified for the secondary master’s degree and had an outstanding academic record in my chemistry studies, my career aspirations in business consulting were “uninteresting”. . They encouraged me to reapply this year with aspirations that better match the purpose of the program. I can only assume that the “aim of the program” was to prepare students for academia by enabling them to strengthen their theses with related master’s work. The prevailing “scholar or bust” mindset in universities forces doctoral students to endure low-paid work in the hope of reaching a coveted – but ultimately unlikely – tenure-track position. Universities must allow doctoral students to acquire skills other than research, otherwise their graduates will find themselves in a bloodbath of postdoctoral careers.
To prepare students for a fulfilling career, universities must allow them to indicate their desired career paths from the start of the program. If a student wishes to pursue an industrial career, internships, soft skills training, and business training should be readily available and encouraged, and business knowledge courses should be required. For students who wish to pursue academic work, training in people management, effective communication and mentoring, as well as grant writing courses, should be required. And for students who wish to pursue careers adjacent to or unrelated to their doctoral research, programs should tailor the entire program to best meet the needs of the student. Students should never have to be told ‘no’ by their advisor when seeking to expand their knowledge beyond their area of research. Without these critical changes, students will continue to face grim career prospects.
In a job market where nearly 40,000 STEM PhDs graduate each year, we need to be able to differentiate ourselves in a way that is valuable to our industry. We cannot be expected to do everything on our own – the institution has to meet us halfway. And in a university that claims to value the freedom and flexibility of academic study, it’s ironic that doctoral students can rarely explore areas beyond that of their research or consider a career outside of academia. If Brown is to live up to his mission, he must rethink the structure of his doctoral programs.
With this in mind, the spirit of the Open Curriculum should not be reserved for undergraduates only. Intellectual exploration is beneficial regardless of the level of education. As the Dean of College Rashid Zia ’01 puts it:
“Our goal is ambitious: that each of our students be engaged, empowered and transformed by their education. What is unique about Brown is that we elevate the role of students in achieving this goal as active participants in shaping their own education.
Doctoral students support this university by getting involved – really too much – with our education every day. We only ask that in return our education empowers us and transforms us in a way that prepares us for our dreams.