Report Urges Broader Training for Ph.D. Candidates
by Christine Stencel
A recent report on Ph.D. candidates points to several broad
shortcomings in U.S. doctoral programs, but also indicates that doctoral
candidates being trained in molecular biology and microbiology appear to escape
several of these shortcomings. Nonetheless, to address specific training gaps
involving these disciplines, the ASM Board of Education and Training (BET)
developed a special institute to improve training of microbiology graduate
students in nonresearch aspects affecting their scientific careers (see box on
The report on doctoral training, "Survey on Doctoral
Education and Career Preparation," was conducted by Chris Golde with the
Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and
Timothy Dore, a chemistry professor at the University of Georgia, Athens. They
collected information from Ph.D. candidates at 28 selected institutions and
focused on students in 11 disciplines representing the humanities and the
social, physical, and biological sciences. Students in ecology and molecular
biology represented the biological sciences, with 571 molecular biology Ph.D.
candidates taking part, about 14% of the 4,114 students who participated. BET
encouraged eligible ASM student members to participate.
While America's Ph.D. programs successfully train students
in the principles of conducting research, they do not do so well in other areas,
such as how to teach and do administrative service, according to the report. Nor
do those programs offer graduate students much preparation for nonacademic
positions, a serious shortcoming because half of all doctoral candidates do not
pursue tenure-track faculty positions, the authors say. For instance, only 43%
of the molecular biology students said they desire careers as full-time faculty
members, perhaps in part because industry and other sectors offer them enticing
job options. According to other surveys, around 40% of biological sciences Ph.D.
recipients eventually do move into tenure-track faculty posts. These figures
indicate that a large percentage of Ph.D. students in biology are finding
positions they want, says Abigail Salyers, a microbiologist with the University
of Illinois, Urbana, and the ASM president-elect. For certain specialty
positions within microbiology, there is a dearth of applicants, not a glut.
Even so, although the report may exaggerate the
shortcomings of doctoral training, there are some areas in which programs could
do a better job in preparing students more broadly for their careers, such as
boosting students' confidence in their ability to succeed, preparing them to
pursue funding for research, and broadening their knowledge and experience, she
The authors of the report say that most programs could do
better in preparing students for classroom responsibilities, particularly
teaching, which may occupy more time than research. Only 19.4% of molecular
biology candidates expressed confidence in their ability to lead lecture
courses. While students in science fields such as molecular biology often do
teach, those duties tend to focus on introductory lab courses, rather than other
teaching assignments. Less than a third of molecular biology Ph.D. candidates
reported access to teaching assistant training courses. "Students really do
not have adequate opportunities to learn the art of teaching," says
Clifford Houston, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in
Galveston and chair of the ASM BET. "Frankly, the value placed on teaching
has traditionally not been as great as on research."
Regarding other types of academic service, half the Ph.D.
candidates in molecular biology express an interest in eventually being a chair
or dean, and 42% expressed interest in serving on an academic senate. "This
interest in service . . . bodes well for the future of American colleges and
universities," the report says. However, noting that graduate programs
provide essentially no training for such activities, the report recommends
addressing this gap and also recommends that doctoral programs develop better
ways to inculcate a sense of ethics and the customary practices and policies of
the various disciplines.
Less than half the students reported access to workshops on careers outside academia and only about a third felt encouraged to pursue these opportunities. However, over two-thirds of molecular biology Ph.D. candidates reported access to nonacademic career workshops. Moreover, as Salyers notes, "there's enormous lateral mobility in biology today," as students move among various disciplines and subdisciplines. Even so, Houston says, microbiology graduate students would benefit from learning more about career options, including those outside academic arenas. "When we look at the future and job markets, it's going to be in the best interests of students to have as much flexibility as possible," he says.
Christine Stencel is a science writer and manager at ASM.Copyright © 2001 American Society for Microbiology All rights reserved
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