From ASM News 

April, 2001

ASM News Volume 67, no. 4, p. 184

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 next page).

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 says.

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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