Monday, November 4, 2013

How about the "purposeful" PhD?

Late last week another article on the lack of academic jobs came out - this time in the New York Times, with the very sad title "The Repurposed PhD: Finding Life After Academia — and Not Feeling Bad About It". As many of these articles do (and there are a plethora of them, particularly in the Chronicle of Higher Ed), it starts by reinforcing the idea that everybody in a PhD program wants an academic job, and can't get one, and we are all very, very depressed. Though always careful to throw in a sentence about how some rare people don't want academic jobs anyway, that is usually about as far as that discussion goes.

This always leaves me wondering what would happen if we reframed that narrative. What if we instead elevated the trajectory of non-academic careers within graduate programs in the sciences (and even the humanities and other non-professionalized fields) and began to take training people for them more seriously? What if we legitimized and fully acknowledged what are still considered alternative career paths? What if, instead of the "repurposed" PhD, it became the "purposeful" PhD?

There are many challenges to undertaking the kind of transformation that I see as pretty necessary in academia to begin to address this issue. I've written a couple of related posts, one on the hidden curriculum and another on science policy fellowships (including life after!). One real challenge that I see is that many graduate students don't come out of training programs prepared to enter positions where their research expertise is only a small part of what they will be expected to offer in the non-academic job market. For example, I focus a lot on the challenge of what I'll call emotional intelligence or "soft skills" here for the sake of simplicity - it's something that is rarely discussed in science graduate programs, but is absolutely crucial outside academia.

On a more systemic level, I think a big part of what could enhance a lot of current scientific graduate training programs in the natural sciences (particularly those like ecology where there isn't a natural pipeline into industry jobs) is consistent exposure to non-academic positions and interaction with non-academic mentors - meaning, let's connect would-be practitioners with actual practitioners, starting early. I think it would be incredibly helpful for science graduate training programs to more formally incorporate extensive work experience outside of the university as part of degree programs so that students develop the experiences, skills, and relationships that lead to future job opportunities and success in those jobs. There are a couple of models that might be useful:

Professional PhD
Professional PhD programs allow students, who are largely already practitioners in a given field, often in education, to combine schooling and research in the workplace. These programs tend to focus more on the creation of expert practitioners instead of independent scholars, though much of the work engaged in may be similar in nature, the goal is clearly different. There is an extensive body of literature on the development of professional doctorate programs, and pros and cons to the approach. However, I do think that it offers some food for thought about what might be possible in the natural sciences in terms of offering programs that value both research and practical experience.

Clinical Training
Another model that might be applicable is that of medical training (or legal training). After a couple years spent in medical school, doctors in training enter residency programs where they are given the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom, and to spend time in their chosen specialties to see which the best fit is for them. This gives them practical experience, and introduces them to potential future employers. Some students go on to become generalists, some specialists, and yet others remain in clinical research. Medical schools also increasingly offer joint degree programs that allow students to combine medical degree with graduate business or research (PhD) degrees.

Yes, putting these kinds of programs into place would be a challenge. For example, many scientific fields do not have the equivalent of the teaching hospitals that are the training grounds for medical doctors. But, equivalent programs could be developed in partnership with the kinds of organizations that students might end up working for. The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program has successfully created relationships with a wide array of U.S. federal agencies that allow for one to two year fellowships that often lead to full-time employment - why not start sooner? At the very least, AAAS and the programs like it show it's possible to create partnerships with non-academic organizations on a broad scale.

I can't claim to know how it would all work, but it does seem like there is a lot of room for creative approaches that take the actual jobs that people both want and are likely to get more seriously.

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