Scientific graduate education must be tailored to meet the needs of the present world.
Research-intensive graduate school has remained largely unchanged in the last several decades. Students enter an apprenticeship-style training with their supervisor and run experiments to publish papers to graduate. With the "publish-or-perish" mentality that remains rampant, students very quickly learn that they need to keep their heads down at the bench in order to survive. Despite being extremely demanding (and almost cruel on some occasions!), graduate education is still good. Students develop not only highly specialized research skills, but learn many crucial soft skills like team-work and independence, leadership, communication, and time-management*. The environment of research labs are also somewhat similar to non-academic organizations, where students must be self-motivated and goal-oriented to thrive. However, the current issue lies not so much with the training itself (while a few tweaks could be made), but with the lack of opportunities to follow.
Yes, graduate education is purposed towards generating knowledge-pursuing academics and we know from surveys that nearly 80% of incoming students believe they are destined for that. However, with fewer than a quarter of Canadian graduates achieving the program's intended career goal of becoming tenured professors, simply due to a massive shortage in available positions, something needs to change. The original pursuits in the ivory tower must undergo some degree of pragmatization, at least for a large portion of the graduates, as the current climate does not allow for everyone to be sent off to seek knowledge alone.
Intentional channeling of graduate talent into industry is an important perspective that we discussed in the previous post, but academia needs to take a firm stand in this matter as well. The health sciences are light years behind when it comes to implementing infrastructure that readily supplies young talent into the workforce, compared to programs like business, law, or engineering. Establishing these systems would not only benefit the Canadian health science sector, but would also provide graduate students with invaluable, real-world experiences to hone skills that may be utilized in the long-run. Dr. Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science once said, “We need to tailor graduate education to meet the needs of students without violating what it means to be a scientist.” To ignore this giant gap in the system will inevitably force many young scientists to leave the world of science. Though they are likely to succeed in any realm, it is a huge loss for our own field when we fail to properly utilize the talented minds that we spent so much energy, time, and resources in training.
The writing of this two-part opinion series fell serendipitously in alignment with an exciting funding announcement by the Canadian Health Minister to launch a brand new, hands-on training program for PhD graduates. The Health Systems Impact Fellowship, a $5.8 million investment made possible by collaborations between CIHR, Mitacs, and many other partners, will provide 46 PhD graduates with opportunities to apply their expertise and skills in various health organizations around the country. This financial investment is a progressive step towards addressing some serious flaws. But funding is only the first step among many required. A complex orchestration of changes in strategy, infrastructure, programming, and culture must follow suit in the coming years to keep this momentum going.
To conclude, we have inspiring words from Dr. Adalsteinn Brown of the University of Toronto, “It’s time to rethink the way we train our PhDs. The complexity and magnitude of challenges facing our health care system require sophisticated analytic expertise on the ground, embedded directly within health policy and delivery organizations." We could not agree more. And as Industry Link, we will continue to support this movement, giving skilled graduate students a chance to stay in the Canadian health science arena and effectively contribute to the field they know best**.
*I am speaking mostly on behalf of thesis-based, research-intensive graduate programs.
**Along with our Company Tours and Part-Time Internship programs, we see great promise in our Industry Link Consulting service, which was built in the same philosophical vein as Dr. Brown's statement above. Industry Link Consulting seeks to skill-match graduate student experts to perform scientific, research, and technical consulting and troubleshooting for early-stage companies. We have completed several cases to date, ranging from analytical reports on the science behind competitors' products to full commercialization plans. We asked our clients to rate us on numerous metrics: overall experience, consistency of final product with initial agreement, quality of final product, usefulness of final product, ease of setting up case with Industry Link team, ability to customize service, helpfulness of Industry Link team throughout process, and more. We were in awe that every client rated us with perfect five-out-of-five ratings on every single metric. Our consulting service and consulting reports have been described as "very professional", "well-managed", "well-written" and "delivered on time". This validates that our graduate students are both qualified and well-matched for the task. For a full description of Industry Link Consulting and offered services, please visit our website.
- The Royal Society (2010) The scientific century: Securing our future prosperity.
- Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (2011) Trends in higher education.
- Charbonneau, L. (2011) The problem with PhD training in Canada.
- Tamburri, R. (2010) Why universities need to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academe.
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research (2017) News Release: Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announces a $5.8 Million investment in programs to give health research trainees hands-on work experience.