Ideas on “How to build a better PhD”

A recent article from Nature News by Julie Gould tackles the topic of “How to build a better PhD.” In the article, I discuss the idea of having multiple PhD tracks, one bound for academia, and another so-called “vocational” track which would provide intensive science training for use in non-academic careers. As discussed in the article, a similar two-track system already exists in engineering: 

“Students in the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany can choose to study for either an academic-style PhD in engineering or a doctorate in engineering (EngD), which is designed with industrial careers in mind and often involves a supervisor in industry alongside one in academia. David Stanley, who manages an EngD programme that focuses on nuclear engineering at the University of Manchester, UK, says that … ‘Graduates with an EngD are highly valued in industry, more than those with PhDs, because of their extended training.’”

As noted by Melanie Sinche from the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, there is high demand among employers for a expert computational biologists, and a vocational PhD could be a great way to train people for non-academic careers in computational biology. 

In Singapore, for example, the SkillsFuture initiative includes new efforts to provide more industry-relevant and vocational training. Importantly, a key goal of SkillsFuture is to ensure that credentials earned on one track can be appropriately recognized by other tracks.

There is no reason to assert, as science blogger Leonid Schneider has, that a vocational PhD track would be second-class, less demanding, or lower paid than an academic track PhD. It would simply be a means to provide better training for different career paths, which the majority of PhD students ultimately follow. Indeed, as highlighted by Jessica Polka in her ASCB infographic, “Where Will a Biology PhD Take You?” a faculty position is the true “alternative” career, with <8% of entering PhD students ultimately becoming tenure-track faculty. Any inherent assumption that non-academic careers (and by association a PhD track which better trains for those careers) are somehow inferior to a career in academia seems to ignore the success of vocational training. As we have already seen in the engineering field, graduates of their vocational track are highly valued and better prepared for careers in industry.  It is therefore essential that the modern PhD is tailored to the needs of the workforce.

-Tony Hyman

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