Jessica Louie


Topic: Graduate Education
Comments by Jessica Louie

Proposed Actions

1) Fund all graduate students through departmental grants
2) Require one-on-one advising from committee members on a more frequent basis
3) Assign every student a guidance advisor from an unrelated discipline to serve as a neutral and anonymous university official without competing research interests
4) Reinforce realistic expectations for career outcomes
5) Require faculty to encourage students to attend conferences and talks
6) Do not require students to publish to bolster PI careers
7) Create student-focused journals and symposia to serve as outlets for student work and reduce pressure for students to compete with postdocs in order to build their CV

Optional Comments on the Problem

I think too many PhD students is not a problem. There is nothing wrong with qualified people seeking to gain education and spend a period of their youth doing science. Some of these student projects may result in major contributions to a field, and some of these nascent scientific minds may go on to do great things. Regardless of what career path students eventually take, training more scientists leads to a more educated proportion of the general population.

Rather, the competition for biomedical research careers is a result of cultural expectations that are reinforced from the top-down. The example that PIs set limits the career options that students consider in order to feel successful. More open acceptance and guidance on realistic career paths for happiness and success are necessary. In graduate training, emphasis should be on fostering curiosity, passion, and mentoring rather than how to streamline productivity, survival, and publications.

In the current funding system, however, PIs are afforded no motivation to prioritize graduate training with rigor and integrity. While certainly the funding system needs change, more immediately for graduate students improvements can be made to incentivize student training for research faculty and diversify responsibility for a given student so that PIs hold less power. Committees should be more involved in one-on-one advising with students more frequently than in formal committee meetings. Universities should assign each student a guidance counselor from an unrelated discipline to monitor student progress in a fashion that is anonymous to the student’s research advisor and committee. With improvements in checks and balances, students will not be able to fall through the cracks and funding pressures on PIs should not take the lead.

Another major source of pressure on that diminishes importance of training is an implicit expectation that students will publish. This puts students in direct competition with postdocs who already have completed graduate training. Currently, students can only build their CV by competing with postdocs, however the creation of more outlets for student work will help to defray this unfair competition. In this way, students can learn from the experience of sharing their work in an appropriate environment while students who happen to achieve at a higher level can be recognized.