Tag Archives: career

Are PhDs prepared to run their own labs?

One reason why I chose Virginia Tech to do my PhD is the transformative graduate education program. It provides extra preparation to ones future career after graduation. It is not perfect yet, but what really is?

In the fields of biological sciences faculty has to run a laboratory efficiently. But the standard PhD education does not necessarily address how a primary investigator (PI) does it. Are we expected to absorb information on day-to-day lab managing skills from the stuffy air of our offices? And students are really busy with research, to the point of sacrificing sleep and human contact. Some labs have technicians running parts of the lab. Most primary investigators don’t involve students in the management side of things unless the student brings in their own grant.

There are consulting companies, like hfp, giving courses on how to manage a lab. Commonly these sorts of courses are offered for fresh primary investigators. But how can a graduate student really understand what they are getting into as they embark on a career path leading to a tenured primary investigator. I think these courses should be available to graduate students for them to make informed decisions about their future.

Leonid Schneider's comic in http://leadershipsculptor.com/putting-embo-lab-management-picture/

Leonid Schneider’s comic in http://leadershipsculptor.com/putting-embo-lab-management-picture/

A resource to alleviate the lack of these kinds of courses is produced by Howard Hughes Medical Institute in their resources for early career scientists. The “Making the Right Moves” manual offers advice for all levels and layers of starting as a primary investigator starting from applying the position, to hiring staff, and managing the projects you might have. I found this document to have a lot of useful information about a post graduation career for PhDs. I don’t want to be blindsided when I have to fire staff, balance a budget, and hire new people suddenly.

To help graduate students make career decisions I think courses and discussions involving everyday lab management issues. The life of a primary investigator is different from a laboratory work intensive graduate students life. And we really don’t want to buy a “pig in a bag” for a career.


  • Laursen, Lucas (2014) Learning to Lead a Lab, Science Careers. http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2014_02_21/caredit.a1400048
  • Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, (2006) by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Accessed 4/22/2014 at http://www.hhmi.org/sites/default/files/Educational%20Materials/Lab%20Management/Making%20the%20Right%20Moves/moves2.pdf

Do you want to ride a unicorn?

A recent article in chronicle of higher education on the perils of scientists in academia caught my attention immediately. It reflected my feelings on academic career “nicely”. The main data graph is attached to the end of this post for anyone brave enough to look.

Press and academic publications have been piling up messages on dwindling grants, too many PhDs, and dissatisfaction in working conditions. The data indicates that over 40% of primary investigators surveyed are encouraging students to leave the ship, 80% expect to see more discouraged PhD students and Post-docs, and over 20% have encouraged students to leave US for their next career step.

To lull oneself into the false security of this happening to just starting level scientists is foolish. The piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education gave stark examples of even established scientists leaving the field, or the country, to survive. No wonder I feel like staying in academia seems implausible, I am not good enough, and landing a tenured position seems as likely as finding an unicorn under the lab bench.



Some days leaving science and finding work at a grocery store seems like the easy way out. But then I see my PI and she seems to find the unicorns and ride them with success. What made her able to do that? Was it just a completely different environment ten or so years ago? Sure. But maybe it is actually about the ability to see the unicorns in the first place, that allows her to ride them. The current financial situation, which will change, makes it just harder to see these magical creatures. And maybe the people leaving academia have found that they would rather ride a Pegasus with wings, or they see the unicorn elsewhere.

Possibly the goal of our higher education is first to consider the existence of unicorns and then finding ways to get to them, where ever they are. Or maybe the stress has just made me delusional… I have finally cracked an it manifests as hallucinations of unicorns.






Where do we put all the PhDs?

Article titled “The PhD Factory” in Nature 2011volume 472 is a part of the reading materials for this semester in Preparing the future professoriate course. The core of the article is in the high levels of PhD production and the future of those PhDs. Situations between countries like China and Germany were explored and they differed quite significantly based on the economy of those countries.

The worth of spending the time in higher education was brought up with a comment, that does not sit well with me.

…it is not clear that spending years securing this high level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, high school teacher.

I say why not? Would I want extremely qualified, passionate teachers for my children? As shown by the graphs in the article, the salary is not much changed between PhD and non-PhD in Europe or US. So it might actually not be the money that we are after when getting a PhD. How could we put worth on knowledge and experience research training gives? Could the society get more out of the trained PhDs than just research? Their educations is at least partially paid from the tax money.


Statistics from Nature vol 427 article “The PhD Factory” by Cyranoski et al. 2011

The need for soft skills on the side of hard core research will play a big role in offering PhDs an opportunity to leave academia as well as have a productive career in academia. I found this lacking in my Finnish institution during my master’s studies. Virginia Tech has answered this need with the future professoriate and other certification opportunities.

Getting the PhDs outside of academia after graduation is extremely enticing idea, when we see current faculty fighting over grants fiercely and stressing over their ability to keep their labs afloat. The examples of Germany and Singapore seem like good models for economies similar to them. However the balance of drawing PhDs to the outside world can go overboard and cause problems to the academia, as seen in the example of India. Striking a balance in this issue should involve political decisions as the future of a whole country can be affected by it.

An issue brought up in the article is the differing view for the need of PhDs between academics and politicians

To Paula Stephan, an economist in Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies PhD trends, it is “scandalous” that US politicians continue to speak of PhD shortage.

Are there really too many PhDs or are they just trained towards too narrow career paths? The policies in place to award universities monetarily based on how many PhDs they produce, has in Finland led to problems. The amount of PhD students has increased while the next level jobs have decreased. Is the number of PhD degrees in a country some sort of status symbol in politics? This is why more academics need to get into politics. The divide between academics and the people who actually steers the society surrounding the universities needs to be addressed to have healthy development of academia.