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Credit: G. Grullón/Science

U.K. Royal Society: Universities must be honest with grad students

“There are now more PhD students in the UK than at any time in the past, of whom only a small fraction are likely to pursue traditional academic careers.” This imposes on universities a responsibility to “ensure that PhD students’ career expectations are clearly understood by all concerned and effectively managed.” Indeed, “the provision of careers information, advice and guidance should be treated as a key priority” of graduate programs. “[A]ll concerned” means students themselves, supervisory teams, university’s career services office, and anyone else at the university who is involved in the professional training and advising of graduate students.

These statements come from Doctoral students' career expectations: principles and responsibilities, a report issued on 18 December by the Royal Society. The ultraprestigious organization serves as the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, and since the 1660s it has counted many of the world’s leading scientists among its members.

Research students need to know what too many seem to want not to know, that doing a PhD is not an automatic passport to a lifetime in academia.

—Athene Donald

A committee of prominent academics created the document after a series of meetings held in various parts of the country to gather the opinions of graduate students, lab chiefs, and university administrators. The resulting “code of overarching principles and responsibilities” specifies each group’s obligations. The bottom line: “Research students need to know what too many seem to want not to know, that doing a PhD is not an automatic passport to a lifetime in academia,” writes the chair report committee, Athene Donald, in a blog post.

“I by no means intend to imply that academia should be the destination of choice,” she continues. “I absolutely don’t believe that, although it is a message too many students can receive during their training. As a nation we so often desperately need, but lack, scientifically-trained individuals in a huge variety of spheres ranging from politics to the media.”

Everything in these comments, and in the report itself, is equally true for the United States. Here’s hoping that the concise document gets the attention it deserves on both sides of the Atlantic.