Improving science Ph.D. training to yield broader options

PHD Training study

Receiving a Ph.D. in a scientific field generally involves a lot of very hard work. It also connotes a relatively narrow focus, as the student ultimately concentrates on a specific set of skills and subject matter directly related to their dissertation project. But with the number of Ph.D. recipients far outnumbering tenure track academic research positions, how does the rigorous process translate to job performance and satisfaction when so many now pursue non-traditional research paths?

JAX-Genomic Medicine Director of Education Melanie Sinche, N.C.C., contacted thousands of science Ph.D.s to assess the current training regimen in the U.S. Together with a team led by Rebekah Layton, Ph.D., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she presents responses from 8,099 doctorate holders in life science, physical science, computational science, social science and engineering in “An evidence-based evaluation of transferable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs,” published in PLOS ONE.  

The results are encouraging, as the respondents reported high levels of job satisfaction and indicated that their training had provided broadly transferable skills, even for those in non-research intensive careers. Nonetheless, there are gaps that will be important to address moving forward, particularly in collaborative settings.

In addition to honing expected skills — e.g., ability to gather and interpret information, ability to learn quickly and ability to manage a project — those who earned a science doctorate also reported developing transferable communication skills and the ability to think creatively. On the other hand, skills needed to work well with others, such as the ability to work well on a team, work with outside collaborators, and manage staff are lacking. Also, career planning and awareness was ranked the lowest of all skills. Improving training in these skills would likely benefit a wide population of Ph.D. students regardless of their eventual vocational path.

Exclusively preparing for a tenure track academic position is no longer feasible for a large majority of Ph.D. students. As the authors conclude, “Trainees should be encouraged to pursue careers that align with their interests and skills, since we now know that  Postbac, Ph.D., and Postdoctoral ProgramsExceptional opportunities for PhD and postdoctoral research and training in a unique scientific environment.rigorous training in scientific inquiry is vital for a range of occupations. Institutions and the scientific community should embrace this broader training model as central to their mission.”

Sinche et al., 2017. An evidence-based evaluation of transferable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLOS ONE.