Problems and solutions in #science education and postdoc training @NatureNews

This week Nature has a number of editorials, commentaries, and news features examining graduate education and postdoctoral training. They are all extremely interesting and make TONS of good points!

My favorite, in part because I am living it, is a piece by Jessica Polka (@jessicapolka) and Viviane Callier (@vcallier)- Fellowships are the future. I have to be honest, I could not agree more with this article… even if I wrote it myself. A must READ!!

If postdocs receive greater independence, PIs will lose some control, so they may have to find other resources to conduct their research. But this could be good for science: having postdocs strike out away from the beaten path will bring fresh ideas and approaches to the table. For both of us, getting a fellowship enabled us to cut a path that was separate from the dominant research area in each of our mentors’ labs. The experience of trying to define a new scientific direction has been most useful for us, even as our paths diverge.

Next an editorial – Make the Most of PhDs – highlights the need for graduate education reform, for the good of science and graduates.

The number of people with science doctorates is rapidly increasing, but there are not enough academic jobs for them all. Graduate programmes should be reformed to meet students’ needs.

Last, Julie Gould’s news feature – How to build a better PhD – addresses the problems in scientific graduate education and how to improve it to build better PhDs.

Working on a PhD? Need a good laugh? Check out #FailAPhDInThreeWords

If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out #FailAPhDInThreeWords! Not only are many of the tweets hilarious, they also provide an interesting commentary on PhD’s and science. Some of the clear trends that emerge for failing a PhD include referencing God/religion, using inappropriate citations (wikipedia, twitter, etc), formatting issues (margins, fonts, typos), plagiarizing, photoshopping or going against basic tenets of science (n of 1, correlation vs causation). Below are some of my favorites!

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How to get your PhD in <5 years!

OK, the previous post about indefinite PhD timelines was a bit depressing… so I provide THIS, from the ASCB blog, to cheer you up.  Tips and accounts from real graduate students on how they managed to get their PhDs in 5 years or less.  Although nothing is guaranteed, in general, tips to get out quick include:

  • Pick a good mentor (and really take the time to do so)
  • Be organized… have all your data, research, resources organized
  • Plan experiments wisely and ahead of time.  And have an outline of your project, which you update frequently
  • Plan for the future EARLY: start searching for your post-grad job, postdoc, etc several months before you plan on graduating!

Obviously, circumstances vary from student to student, but planning ahead, staying organized, and thinking about your future all seem to trend towards a quicker and more efficient PhD.


My PhD will last… how long??

As someone who has just completed the PhD process, I can say I really relate to this piece.  From Science Careers, a thoughtful analysis on the PhD timeline… or rather, the indefinite length of the timeline.

It’s hard for some to comprehend because most graduate and professional programs—especially master’s degrees but also medical school, law school, and business school—have a defined end date, just like colleges. Yet, in most Ph.D. programs, you graduate at some nebulous time in the future. You graduate when, in the opinion of your interest-conflicted adviser, “you’re ready.” You graduate when your adviser gets sick of you, needs the space, or has a whim. You graduate because you’ve been there 8 years, and your adviser now believes you don’t actually deserve a Ph.D., but it would look bad for him or her to admit it at this point.

You graduate because a grant is running out, or you don’t graduate because a grant isn’t running out. An experiment fails, and you stay another year. A journal accepts your paper, and you can leave a year sooner. Your lab relocates, and you’re kicked out early—or your lab relocates, and you join another lab, effectively starting over. Your graduation, in other words, like many aspects of life, is determined not by your accomplishments but by an inscrutable set of circumstances over which you have little control.

But you’re thwarted by the fact that, for a Ph.D. program, there are no graduation criteria. Yes, your department may require a certain amount of coursework, most of which you probably finished during your first few years (despite the university somehow still justifying continuing to charge you tuition). But it’s not just coursework. It’s coursework-plus-whatever, and “whatever” is subjective, hazy, arbitrary, capricious. A Ph.D. program, therefore, occurs on a theoretically infinite time scale

I can understand the rationale for many of grad school’s lamentable qualities. Long hours aren’t fun, but they’re productive. Low stipends aren’t something to celebrate, but if you say the words “finite resource” and cover my eyes when I walk past the beautiful new athletic center and the university president’s mansion, at least I know what you’re trying to convey.

But what’s the advantage of keeping graduation dates and requirements mysterious? I just don’t get it. And I don’t think it has to be that way.

The entire post is worth a read, and definitely something that resonates with all PhD students!

Are you a fan of science and art? ‘Dance Your PhD’ finalists announced! Watch the videos!


The annual ‘Dance Your PhD‘ contest has announced the 12 finalist videos. Definitely check them out. The winners and audience favorite will be announced on November 3rd! From John Bohannon (the founder of the contest!) in Science.

It was a tight race among this year’s 21 Ph.D. dance submissions. The previous winners of the contest scored each of them on their scientific and artistic merits, and these 12 finalists made the cut. Now it’s a dance-off between the sciences, including a tango based on robot collision avoidance, an acrobatic spectacle based on soil ecology, and, in one of the most meta Ph.D. dances ever, a hip-hop dance about the anthropology of hip-hop.

Miriam Goldstein responds to Boston Globe article by starting twitter trend – #LifeAfterPhD #science

Miriam Goldstein has once again started a terrific trending hashtag on twitter. Previously Goldstein initiated #WhyIDidaPhd. Now she has started #lifeafterphd in response to a Boston Globe article. The article highlights the sad sad life of science postdocs. Check out the twitter trend, and join in! Below are a few examples:

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Why did you do a PhD? #WhyIdidaPhD #WhyImDOINGaPhD


Check out the ongoing twitter hashtag about why people did, or are doing, a PhD. Some examples below. It appears that the hashtag was started by Miriam Goldstein, a marine biologist & science communicator working in policy (@MiriamGoldste)(

Tweet @CauseScience1 and @MiriamGoldste to tell us why you did a PhD, or why you are doing a PhD.

NPR is on a roll! Highlights the struggles facing young scientists today #That’sMe #TooReal

ANOTHER great report from NPR titled “Too Few University Job’s for America’s Young Scientists”.  If you haven’t been keeping up (previous post, previous post), NPR has been crushing it lately by reporting on the struggles and bleak outlook for scientific research in this nation.  In their newest segment, they highlight the difficulties facing young researchers who are aspiring to pursue careers in science. From the source:

The entire system is built around the false idea that all these scientists-in-training are headed to university professorships.

“That’s obviously unsustainable,” says Keith Micoli, who heads the postdoc program at the NYU Medical Center. “You can’t have one manager training 10 subordinates who think they are all going to take over that boss’ position someday. That’s mathematically impossible.”

“But we’ve grown so dependent on this relatively cheap, seemingly inexhaustible supply of young scientists who do great work,” Micoli says. 

Even the lucky few who do land academic jobs find it increasingly difficult to get federal funding to run a lab. There’s simply not enough money to go around, given the number of scientists working in academia today.

These issues are unfortunately perpetually circulating in the minds of current “scientists-in-training.”  There are too many PhDs, postdocs are overworked and underpaid, and the jobs that we are all striving for don’t exist.  The economic crisis has been tough for all, but it’s difficult watching noble causes like scientific research and exploration suffer as a result.  Thank you NPR for exposing these issues!

PhD to Faculty: #LeakyPipeline

From the NatureJobs blog, a more positive commentary about the leaky pipeline from PhD to a career in academia. Are there too many PhDs? From the article:

For scientists, the reality of short contracts, relatively low pay and highly competitive progression into more senior positions is, in general, well acknowledged. In truth the idea that there is an issue only at PhD level is short sighted; scientists leave in high numbers at each stage of the possible academic career.

 Many efforts have been made to stem the ‘leaky pipeline’ from PhD to Principal Investigator. But for those who believe in the scientific method, could it not be seen as a positive thing, that former researchers are entering other sectors? Evidence-based decision-making as a way of forming policies is becoming more and more popular in both governments and industries. A workforce that contains employees with formal scientific training is, to me, no bad thing.