5 Reasons Why PhD Programs are Falling Short at Preparing Today’s Workforce

And some thoughts on what to do about it

Evolution – it’s not just a concept we learn in our biology classes about how species change and diversify over time, but it also is a sentiment to how the practice of science itself has changed over decades and centuries.

As we gather more data and our understanding of scientific phenomena evolves, we change our way of thinking and adapt accordingly. This also applies to the tools we now have at our disposal to do science.

Instead of painstakingly jotting notes on pea colors and shapes to understand genetics and inheritance, we can now sequence the hell out of things, even down to a single-cell level. Instead of spending hours dunking sample tubes in water baths with different temperatures, we now have PCR machines that do the work for us. Instead of doing clunky microarrays, we now have next-generation sequencing techniques such as RNAseq. And so on and so forth.

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Why, then, is the PhD experience still geared toward training students to become professors when we increasingly see that students are foregoing postdocs and moving into non-academic careers?

As time has marched on, I’ve seen more and more impressive training programs pop up across the BioHealth Capital Region and the nation. Everything from specialized biotech training courses such as Bio-Trac to incredible biotech-focused associate degrees such as those offered through Montgomery College, Frederick Community College, and the Universities at Shady Grove. Communities colleges are partnering with nearby industries and offering internships and apprenticeships, some of which actually pay for students’ tuition and all but guarantee a job after finishing.

Meanwhile, while PhD programs have made some incremental improvements over the years, they are still falling short. Part of this is attributed to the denial of reality – that PhD students are preferably choosing industry and non-bench careers when they finish their degreesWhile community colleges are embracing changes in the job market and fluctuating interests, university graduate programs are still largely stuck with their fingers in their ears.

And it’s not just the age-old rivalry between academia vs. industry. Scientists are now finding tremendous job satisfaction in non-bench careers – everything from medical communications to regulatory affairs to science policy to science writing, and all things in between.

Graduate Departments and Professors – It’s long past time to admit the times are a’changin’ and, in turn, adapt your programs accordingly.

PhD programs are too often still structured in the interest of the professor, department, and university. Students are paid a small stipend to churn out data for publications, which then feed into grants and funding. More grants and funding mean more departmental merit, which in turn means more prestige (and money) for the university. Graduate students are often treated as a cog in the machine rather than future members of the life science workforce. In contrast, these specialized community college programs sway more in the interest of the individual and benefiting the regional industries and ecosystem at large.

Let’s cover some of the ways PhD programs are falling short, and how they can improve to better serve their students’ changing needs.

Note that I realize that not every program is lacking. In fact, many universities and graduate programs are on the up and up. PHutures, spearheaded by Johns Hopkins University, is one such example, and I have to also give major kudos to my alma mater the University of Maryland for addressing these needs and continuing to build resources for PhD students and postdocs over recent years. Keep up the good work, keep growing, and continue serving as an example for others.

1) Students aren’t encouraged enough to do internships

In fact, many are actually discouraged from doing internships because less time in the lab means less data.

I remember a few years ago when I was at one of TEDCO’s annual innovation conferences. I happened to run into a friend of mine who I had met from Women In Bio. When I started talking to her, she said something that struck me.

“I’m here with my internship – I can’t let my PI or labmates know I’m here, or they’ll be angry at me.” 

Not only did she have to hide her scicomm internship, but she had to lie about attending a widely renowned regional conference for a day because she might not be able to run an ELISA. 

Thinking back, I actually had to do something similar myself on occasion. While doing an informal science communication internship at a local association I feigned a stomach bug more than once so that I could attend and cover the association’s workshops. I was nervous about what people would think if they knew I was sacrificing lab time for something else. 

On the other side of the fence, I recall hiring interns to join our company for a semester and having to help graduate students navigate through the jungle of administrative nonsense to see whether or not they could take on an additional paid opportunity.

Tremendous opportunities like the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship are out of reach for many because they know there is no way in hell their PI would be okay with them leaving the lab for the summer to benefit their careers. Or they’re fearful that doing an internship will set their graduation date behind.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

In comparison, many community college biotech programs and apprenticeships strongly encourage or even require internships as part of their curriculum. This thinking should be adopted into the PhD curriculum as well, at no penalty to the graduate student’s graduation timeline.

Let’s encourage students to explore.

2) PhD programs don’t tap into their alumni as much as they could

As more grad school alumni pursue and advance in their non-academic career paths, it just makes to use them as a resource for current students and postdocs. But, unfortunately many grad alumni end up fading away into obscurity.

Looking at a more granular level, it’s also not uncommon for professors to lose track of their alumni unless they take an academic route.  

Many universities already have programs in place to serve their undergraduate students, whether it be alumni mentorship opportunities or inviting alumni back to sit on a panel or give a talk. 

Departments – it would be a worthwhile endeavor to establish a database of PhD student alumni with their email addresses, and take the time every so often to reach out and see what they’re up to. Fill that database with information on their current roles, and use that as a resource to connect graduate students who want to learn more about certain career paths.

And professors – stay in touch with your students. Don’t treat non-academics like the black sheep of the lab. We’re doing some really amazing work as well!

I know I for one am always ecstatic when someone from my former department or lab reaches out to learn more about science communication, and I imagine many others would be delighted to talk to students if given the opportunity.

3) PhD programs don’t take full advantage of their communities

When I moved up to Maryland to start my PhD, I had no idea what was in the area besides federal agencies such as the NIH and FDA. And I wouldn’t have learned about all the things in my backyard if not for pursuing opportunities and talking to people outside of the university.

Most of the knowledge I gained about biotechs and pharma industries in the BioHealth Capital Region came from attending networking events hosted by Women In Bio, doing informational interviews, and reading resources such as BioBuzz’s newsletters or emails from local professional societies.

While students do have a responsibility to get out there and expand their own knowledge, the burden shouldn’t fall solely on them to figure out what opportunities are out there. Departments and professors should make it a priority to work together and host opportunities such as job fairs and panels that help educate students.

Many state departments out there, such as the Maryland Department of Commerce, have resources and directories on life science companies that call the region home. Other independent resources, such as BioPharmGuy, have also put together a directory of life science companies by location and business type. And, of course, tapping into alumni networks as noted above is also a great way to make connections.

4) Students are made to think that lab is life

“If you have the time and energy to go to those workshops, you might as well be in the lab doing a Western Blot instead.”

The above was something that I was told after telling a professor about a BioTrain workshop I had attended over the weekend at Montgomery College. I was super jazzed – I was getting free training on topics such as drug development, business communication, and protein purification. Hell, I even got to tinker around with an AKTA FPLC system – something I hadn’t done before.

But, alas, we go back to that old-age thinking that if you have any time or speck of energy outside of the lab, you might as well turn your car around and come right back in. 

I find it vexing that departments find no qualms in students putting down their pipettes to attend journal clubs and departmental seminars, but when it comes to networking events or external events/workshops, professors look the other way or think that it’s not a good use of time. Career development should be given just as much priority as these other obligations, and professors should be just as accommodating in encouraging students to attend.

5) Publications are still considered the end-all, be-all of success

Yes, it’s important that data are published. Yes, publications are valuable. But should publications be the indicator of success? Should they be the priority of a graduate school education?


And that’s a hill I’m willing to die on.

While publications are undoubtedly important for academic careers, their importance wanes when looking at non-academic jobs, especially non-bench positions. More often, we’re seeing companies pay attention to skills and capabilities more than publications.

That, combined with the fact that:

  1. Reviewers are notorious for making scientists jump through hoops to get a paper accepted
  2. Negative data doesn’t sell
  3. Reviewers are becoming more difficult to find as professors begin to realize that they shouldn’t work for free, and as a result…
  4. …it sometimes takes months at a time to receive feedback means the system is now broken and we need to re-evaluate what’s actually important in graduate training.

Rather than dangle the publication carrot in front of graduate students, let’s look more holistically at what skills a student learns. Rather than cause students to have a mental health crisis every time they get negative results or their experiments go awry because they need positive data to publish and graduate, let’s celebrate the fact that PhDs are master troubleshooters and evaluators – a skill that is highly sought after.

And for the programs that make publications a requirement to graduate? It’s long past time to update your policies, because at a certain point you’re just holding back talent.

Some Final Thoughts

Make no mistake – I’m not implying that all the responsibility for career development should fall on graduate programs. Quite the contrary – I firmly believe that graduate students should take ownership of their careers and pursue opportunities to learn and grow. However, like any garden, your plant can only grow so much with bare soil. Provide the right nutrients and conditions, and you’ll see your crops really start to flourish.