Doctoral education in the biomedical sciences: back to the future?

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Abstract

The contraction of employment opportunities for scientists and engineers has initiated debate about the nature and aims of graduate education. The course of study leading to the PhD degree is seen as being too long, too focused on a small, circumscribed scientific area, and too akin to technical training rather than education. There is a clamor for reform, though much disagreement about what the reform should be. The author places this debate in a historical context, revealing that the arguments and recommendations articulated today were first voiced in the late nineteenth century, when graduate education began in the United States, and have continued to be restated throughout this century. There is no quick fix of the problem. Two long-term remedies have received considerable advocacy, but both are flawed. The first is to reduce the production of PhDs to address the perceived oversupply, but even if such a reduction were possible, the ability of graduate education to predict future employment opportunities is imprecise. The second is to broaden the traditional PhD program to increase the employability of graduates in wider spheres of activity, including some that do not require scientific research, such as business, journalism, law, and secondary school teaching. The author asserts that the broad nonscientific educational background that some would like to see included in the graduate curriculum is principally the responsibility of the student and should be acquired mainly during the undergraduate years. In the long term, the paucity of employment opportunities for recent PhDs and postdoctoral research fellows can realistically be addressed only by increasing the rigor of graduate education, which should not be expected to serve as a job-training program. The PhD is an academic, not a professional, degree and can be no more than an entree to further study or to a number of possible career paths. The responsibility of the graduate school is to ensure that its graduates have a well-rounded scientific education, have each pursued a challenging problem in depth, and possess the intellect, resourcefulness, and drive to succeed in any endeavor that requires keen problem-solving abilities.

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