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What’s the way forward to reform graduate training?

At the May launch event for the latest report about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduate training, the chair of the report committee didn’t mince words. The current training system, said Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus of AAAS (which publishes Science Careers), “works well for the PIs [principal investigators], institutions, and federal agencies that get relatively cheap labor and churn out lots of papers in top journals—but it doesn’t work well for students.”

The report, issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, offers a bracing alternative vision of the student-centered “ideal graduate STEM education” that aspiring scientists should, by rights, experience. It fails, however, to show a path toward producing the reforms that would make the current system provide what students need. It thus presents an implicit warning for anyone currently contemplating or pursuing graduate study that big changes are unlikely anytime soon. Nonetheless, it succeeds in offering an outline of the treatment that students ought to receive—and therefore ought to press for.

An elusive idea

The ideal graduate experience, the report explains, would focus on helping students prepare for today’s career realities rather than—as many are now doing—for faculty jobs that will never exist. It would begin by providing timely, comprehensive, and transparent career outcome information so that students can make informed choices early on.

Those who choose Ph.D. studies would be free to select advisers and mentors who support their intellectual and career goals, not those who happen to have grant money and need lab workers. Through research, courses, and other educational experiences, students would acquire deep expertise in a specialty, plus broad literacy across a range of related disciplines; learn to do original research; explore scientists’ ethical responsibilities to science and society; and develop skills needed for success in a variety of careers, such as communication with scientists and nonscientists, working in teams, and managing projects.

Programs would offer ample opportunities and resources for learning about various postgraduation occupations and for sampling some in internships. Students would graduate prepared for a range of possible futures because many will likely pursue several different occupations over their working lifetimes. Beyond that, all departments and universities would assure that every student, regardless of background or gender, feels encouraged, accepted, and included and has easy access to any services needed to address depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

A fundamental hurdle to achieving these admirable aims, however, is the fact that approximately 90% of Ph.D. students are financed on faculty research grants, according to the report. Unlike the fellowships that support the remaining 10% of graduate students and emphasize students’ professional development, the research grant funding mechanism puts fulfilling the grants’ scientific requirements first and education second. The dominance of research grant funding over educational goals “defines the culture of U.S. academic research institutions,” the report states. This leads to two serious problems: It discourages a focus on students’ educational needs and encourages overproduction of Ph.D.s.

Bringing change?

Overproduction happens because paying students as workers on research grants motivates professors to hire them based on the lab’s need for staff and the availability of money, rather than on the career opportunities awaiting young scientists after graduation. For decades this has produced a serious surplus of Ph.D.s relative to faculty openings, creating today’s severely dysfunctional scientific labor market. Many knowledgeable observers argue that universities should cut the numbers of graduate students and postdocs to better reflect postgraduation opportunities and instead employ more staff scientists to get grant research done.

The report committee, however, chose not to address the crucial question of overproduction, Leshner said, in part because very little unemployment exists among new Ph.D.s. That is technically true—but only because statistics count postdocs as employed, despite the fact that the posts are ostensibly intended to be temporary training positions rather than the career positions that many Ph.D.s thought their degrees would qualify them for.

As far back as 1978, a National Academy of Sciences study argued that postdocs “are candidates for permanent positions and thus should be counted on the supply side”—in other words, as job seekers rather than as fully employed. The study also noted that “a large percentage” of Ph.D. recipients reported taking and remaining in postdoc positions only “because they could not find a more permanent position.” This is still the case today for far too many Ph.D.s. In skirting this fundamental issue of overproduction, the report authors missed an opportunity to propose changes that could ultimately lead to a more sustainable academic labor market.

Despite this omission, the report does home in sharply on another core aspect of the current mess: the “mismatch between the incentives that determine the professional priorities of many faculty members and universities and the diverse education and career needs of STEM graduate students.” To reshape the system to center on students, incentives must shift toward “the conviction that producing well-educated students is a central element of [faculty members’ and institutions’] charge.”

Accomplishing this, the report continues, will require a difficult shift in academic culture that must include institutional leadership as well as buy-in from a whole range of stakeholders, some of whom will see adverse consequences from the change. Professors running labs, for example, would likely find their budgets constrained if they had to hire permanent staff scientists to replace the low-paid temporary trainees currently staffing their labs. Universities would have to devote more money to providing the services and faculty time needed for “student-centered” programs. Also prominent among the interested stakeholders are the government funding agencies whose “funding policies … must be aligned with the goals articulated” in the report.

Such a realignment—toward student welfare and away from research data production and publication as the highest value—will require not only institutional good intentions but real political will. Federal funding policies embody laws that Congress has passed with the goal, writes labor economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta, of achieving “specific outcomes deemed socially desirable and not directly provided by the market, such as … better health.” For example, Congress appropriates more than $30 billion a year to the National Institutes of Health because the public wants cures for cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s, and other major diseases. Moreover, Stephan writes, lawmakers respond to “a lobbying behemoth composed of universities and nonprofit health advocacy groups that constantly remind Congress of the importance of funding health-related research.”

No comparable lobbying machine pushes Congress to appropriate money for better treatment of graduate students, nor does the public at large see a compelling connection between the interests of graduate students and their own health and well-being. Instead, any resources used to improve students’ lot will likely be seen as reducing those devoted to seeking cures.

So how likely is Congress to do more for graduate students? “I don’t see how that is possible unless there’s less emphasis put on the amount of research being done,” a knowledgeable congressional staffer told our colleague Jeffrey Mervis. The opinion of this well-placed informant suggests that achieving the report’s admirable goals will require supporters to thread a very fine needle: convincing funders to devote more resources to benefit students without appearing to reduce the scientific productivity that the public believes leads to cures.

Here’s hoping that the report’s proponents can manage that delicate trick—one that has eluded would-be reformers in the past—because the changes this report proposes are badly needed to improve both graduate students’ situation and the deeply flawed system they must currently function in. In the meantime, young scientists can use the report to show their professors and universities what is required for the kind of education that the next generation needs and deserves.

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