Tag Archives: PhD

Higher education for todays life after PhD

When ever I talk to relatives or friends outside academia, I get the feeling that I am considered a complete nerd incapable of any “real world thinking”. Even some employers avoid hiring PhDs because they are viewed as too theoretically oriented and too expensive. In some field this might be true. And it should not be. The higher education system should serve the community.

There are not enough positions in academia for all graduate students anyway. And all graduate students don’t desire those positions. We need to prepare students for the whole world,  not only for academia. The info graph below describes the faith of biology PhDs. If 15 and 20% of post-doctoral researchers go to tenure track or non-tenure track faculty positions, it is actually under 23% of all students who receive PhDs. We cannot afford to only cater for the 22.6% percent who will become faculty.

Offering options and softer skills needed to survive in industry or as an entrepreneur for example would make any graduate program more attractive to students.  Virginia Tech’s certificates and transformative graduate education are a great help for career planning. But we could be doing more to help future PhDs to apply their degree outside academia.

Offering instruction in “soft skills” can help students build a suitable degree for non-academic workplaces. Simple accounting can help any academic to hold the lab’s funding in order, and leadership classes will help future workers deal with other people at their work place, where ever they end up at. Some of these are already offered and just need to be marketed better for students as well as their mentors. Contacts to industry will help engineering students and biology students alike. Internships care a great option for students with the time and their adviser’s blessing to take time off their research. But mentoring is useful for everyone.

Having a great mentor can make your career. But finding a great mentor can be very tricky. Virginia Tech does a great job supporting undergraduates as they come to the university. Even new faculty can get mentoring. PhD student’s mentor should ideally be their adviser. But that adviser is embedded in academia. Every PhD student should have a mentor outside academia to offer thoughts on possible career moves outside the university system. They could be part of the PhD student’s committee, or just an extra support.

In the future, I would like to see a larger number of PhDs to find jobs outside academia with confidence that they can make it in this environment.



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

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.


Resilience and loss of confidence

One of the myths in education outlined by Langer in “Mindful learning” is that gratification needs to be delayed. I took it to refer to the small prizes like good grades, general praise or award. Based on these aspects delaying gratification could indeed be a harmful myth. In case of grading and praise, the continuous assessment is much preferred instead of just one final grade to determine everything. Even a small praise could boost students to achieve more during the semester. However the praise and grading should be fair and realistic.

As shown by Brummelman et al. 2014 in Psychological Science, an inflated praise can be harmful for children with low self-esteem. This could also play into situations in high school, where students who do well feel they did not deserve the good grade (also mentioned by Langer). Especially in a class where the gap between high and low performers on tests is large, the teacher might feel the need to encourage low performers to look up to a high performer’s excellent work. This leads to social problems within the class: low performers might start resenting the high performers, and high performers might feel extremely uncomfortable for being drawn to the spotlight. I would like to think this is rare in higher education

Higher education has a different set of gratification producing events, like making the Dean’s list or belonging to a club. In fields of study that require research and publishing papers, the gratification comes from a job well done and accepted by the larger scientific community.  In the field of science, one has to be able to withstand failure. This is a situation where delayed gratification in form of successful experiments can be beneficial in the long run. You will learn to trouble shoot and analyze data that makes no perfect sense at first. You learn resilience in the face of failures. Ideally you will learn that not everything is your fault and the nature of science requires missteps.

But how long does one have to wait for any success? I waited 6 long years. This has made me resilient. But in the process I lost a large part of professional confidence even before entering graduate school. I doubt every single result I get. Any award is viewed as a pity prize. There must be some mistake, or other contestants just did not try. Is this a residual feeling after years of inflated praise? Could this be one of the causes of imposter syndrome in graduate students? Or is this a result of extremely delayed gratification? As usual, a middle ground must be found to prevent this sort of mindset from blossoming. To me standardized testing does nothing to help me think I am worthy of the grade. Anyone can fill circles. Heck, I sometimes guess the correct circle. The only exam I believe I truly earned an A in was an applied exam consisting of real data and on the spot analysis of it. Would we be better off with more applied exams in all fields and class sizes? What else can we do to support students in a healthy way?