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Starting a national conversation in Michigan

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Credit: Evan P. Cordes/Flickr

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—On 3 May, 250 people from 110 institutions across the country converged at the University of Michigan to talk about how to fix the system of grant-funded university research performed by graduate and postdoctoral trainees, who have few opportunities for scientific careers within academe and little preparation for the possibilities that exist beyond the campus.

Titled “Future of Bioscience Graduate and Professional Training” (FOBGAPT; #fobgapt on Twitter), the gathering attracted a mix of graduate students, deans, program directors, professors, postdocs, and others who the organizers hoped would reflect a wide range of viewpoints. In two and a half days of discussion, the group produced a long list of proposals, which the organizers are refining into a white paper to be issued in the coming weeks. Conversations at FOBGAPT were earnest, open, and diverse, and the meeting’s capacity attendance indicates widespread interest in reform. The proposals, however, appear to ignore several fundamental structural issues that are causing today’s problems.

Many issues were discussed, but some that are critical to the functioning of the current system—and to the origins of its current crisis—got little attention, and one was intentionally ignored.

Unquestionably successful as an effort to encourage an inclusive, multilevel national conversation, FOBGAPT is the latest in a series of events that, over the past year or so, have begun crystalizing increasingly common foreboding about the system’s flaws into attempts at action. These efforts include the manifesto published in April 2014 by four stars of the biomedical community and a series of related high-level meetings instigated by that foursome. Also, in October 2014, hundreds of young Boston-area scientists at the other end of the power spectrum attended a postdoc-organized meeting of their own, the first Future of Research symposium.

During the winter, a group of University of Michigan (UM) faculty members led by David Engelke, professor and interim chair of biological chemistry, decided to bring together people representing the full spectrum of academic bioscience, from top professors and administrators to graduate students and postdocs, to share ideas and look for answers. FOBGAPT is the result of that effort.

Gregory Petsko

Gregory Petsko

Courtesy of Weill Cornell Medical College

UM recognized their quickly organized meeting as an “A-list” occasion worthy of the campus’s premier venues. UM President Mark Schlissel welcomed the registered participants, and UM grad students and postdocs who were invited to the opening plenary session, in the splendid art deco auditorium of the Rackham Building, headquarters of the Rackham Graduate School. Breakout sessions and dinners took place in a number of Rackham’s elegant rooms and in other campus landmarks.

Schlissel opened the proceedings with an illustration of how young scientists’ fortunes have deteriorated over the decades. He obtained his first independent research grant, he said, at 34—a decade younger than the average first-time grant recipient today, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) figures—but he “felt old” compared to many of his counterparts.

The first plenary speaker, Gregory Petsko of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, introduced themes that resonated throughout the conference. Having chaired the 2014 National Academies committee that produced The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, he presented a number of its major conclusions about the shortage of faculty jobs and postdocs’ need for better preparation for the opportunities that exist in the wider labor market. He astutely noted that, in contrast to such titles as “student” or “faculty member,” “postdoc” indicates a temporal point rather than specific functions or rights and “implies no obligation” of the university or individual faculty members toward the individual. That oversight, he said, is indicative of the treatment many postdocs receive.

Petsko also recognized that the internal academic market for laboratory workers has no connection with the labor market for careers outside of academe. But, citing labor market expert Paula Stephan as his source, he argued that the outside economy could absorb all the Ph.D. researchers that America’s universities could produce. In an e-mail conversation with Science Careers, however, Stephan denied ever expressing that view. “Perhaps he is referring to the fact that the unemployment rate is extremely low for Ph.D.s,” she wrote. “This, of course, does not mean that they are using the skills they took many years to acquire. It just means that they found a position. … The job situation is very field dependent.”

Keith Yamamoto

Keith Yamamoto

Credit: Ernie Branson, NIH

The next plenary speaker, Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF), noted that “mentoring is not supervising,” nor is it “the same as cloning.” Rather, it requires “understand[ing] the goals and needs of each trainee”—a task faculty get no training for. Postdoc positions, he said, must cease being the default choice of new Ph.D.s; instead they need a familiarity with a range of available career options so that they are equipped to “choose a career on the day” they receive their degrees. To achieve this, universities will need to provide broader preparation, both didactic and experiential, for nonacademic careers. As an example, he described a UCSF program that allows students to gain real-world experience through off-campus internships. The changes he advises, he said, would turn postdoc positions into the explicit choice only of people seeking academic careers.

Such reforms would cause “lab demographics” to change, Yamamoto told the audience. That demographic shift will include “more staff scientists,” he told Science Careers after his talk. Funding considerations make that prospect “scary,” he added, and he doesn’t want the use of more permanent members to evolve into the hierarchical “Herr Professor model common” in other countries, he said.

The final plenary speakers—Patricia Labosky of the NIH Office of Strategic Coordination and Richard Boone of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Graduate Education—discussed new funding approaches, and then the meeting split into concurrent workshops. Participants joined whichever group they wished. Within the groups, they offered ideas, suggestions, and opinions without regard to rank or institutional affiliation. The workshops were titled “New Models for Training Bioscientists;” “Curricular Reforms;” “Experiential Learning Outside the University;” “Career Track Options;” “Funding Models;” “How to Correct Gender and Diversity Imbalances;” and “How to Assess and Balance Ph.D. Supply and Demand, Now and in the Future.”

Recurring themes

At the culminating dinner, workshop representatives presented summaries of their proposals—a list of ideas far too long to summarize here. Several themes, though, recurred in the groups’ suggestions, including:

  • the possibility of using a required master’s degree as what one group called the “first major decision point for professional commitment” and what another called a “decision hub.” Upon receiving this degree, students would choose among tracks preparing for different professional destinations, including immediate entry into the nonacademic job market, proceeding on to the Ph.D. with hopes of an academic career, and training for other nonacademic careers. Under this system, the master’s degree would cease to be a denigrated “consolation prize” for those leaving graduate school and become instead a step toward a number of careers.
  • the need to fund graduate students and postdocs directly, via either individual fellowships or specific training programs, rather than in project grants to professors. Labs would also employ many more permanent scientists, who would have clear routes of advancement and status and compensation appropriate to their education and value to the institution.
  • the need for clear and explicit shared expectations about goals, work, and training between trainees and advisers. Universities should train faculty members in mentoring and provide resources and services, including classes and internship opportunities that would afford trainees a range of professional and career-development skills. Mentors or committees of faculty members should systematically track trainees’ progress toward their stated goals.
  • the need to collect much better data on trainees’ experiences on campus and after they enter the career market. This information should be publicly available, and trainees should be able to use it to direct and revise their career planning as they progress through their training.

Many issues were discussed, but some that are critical to the functioning of the current system—and to the origins of its current crisis—got little attention, and one was intentionally ignored. A number of speakers avoided discussing the issue of grant-supported foreign students and postdocs, who do much of the work in academic labs. The availability of unlimited temporary visas permits universities to short-circuit the market feedback that would otherwise control trainee numbers.

Another issue is that currently trainees working hard for long hours do the bulk of the work of basic research in this country; if significant time is diverted to professional development activities, who will do the work they aren’t doing, and how will it be funded? The political realities behind the current funding arrangements, which arise from laws governing the federal research funding agencies, got little attention at the meeting. Congress and the general public view the approximately $31 billion it gives to NIH annually as an investment in curing disease; only a small fraction is explicitly devoted to researcher training. It’s far from obvious that Congress would favor dedicating a much larger portion of that budget to training scientists for nonresearch careers. Any such action is likely to be opposed by powerful interests that benefit from the current system, including employers and university administrations.

Patricia Labosky

Patricia Labosky

CREDIT: Michael Bright

Finally, the ability of the other professions to absorb an ever-increasing population of Ph.D. scientists is open to doubt. To cite a couple of examples, the pharmaceuticals industry—traditionally a major nonacademic employer of scientists—has, over the last decade or so, laid off tens of thousands of scientists; smaller (especially biotech) companies have offset these layoffs but not completely. And one nontraditional career that’s often cited as being open to scientists with Ph.D.s—science journalism—today offers prospects arguably worse than those in academic science. Indeed, last year, a meeting of the D.C. Science Writers Association included panel discussions on alternative careers for those hoping to leave science journalism. (Opportunities do appear to exist, however, in science communication for institutions and technical writing.)

Even so, it’s encouraging that so many people from so many institutions came to Ann Arbor, Michigan to look earnestly for answers. FOBGAPT could be a harbinger of improvement to come. But even if the reforms proposed in at the meeting were fully implemented, they may not go deep enough to resolve the contradictions inherent in the existing system. The group plans to reconvene next year to evaluate progress.

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