PhDs – fit for purpose?

Measure a heart Are you a scientist? Have you done a PhD in a science or science related area? If so, do you feel that your PhD prepared you for your life and work in the months and years that followed that training period?

In many of my encounters with younger, early career researchers in the sciences, there’s an underlying discontent. It comes in many forms but a common theme is, “I never expected it to be like this”. People did their PhDs. They knew hard work and long or unpredictable hours were likely to form part of their future. What many didn’t expect was a feeling of being in the wilderness, searching for a niche, searching for a foothold, a small but elusive island of stability or certainty from which to plan the rest of their careers 2, 4 or even 8 years after completing their PhD.

There is the beginning of a discussion about whether PhDs, in the UK and beyond are still fit for purpose and a recent article in the journal Nature, highlights this.

The idealised vision of freedom to pursue your creative ideas purely for the fun of it seems to be a distant folk memory and what has currently filled the gap isn’t quite what we hoped it might be.

There’s still an aspiration for many to be able pursue their scientific vision with a single-minded drive.

Others feel they love the research environment, they love doing research and are highly skilled technically and intellectually, though maybe they recognise they do want a life outside of work and they can certainly do without the constant pressure of metric driven evaluation of publications, competitive bids for grant income and evaluation of impact assessments.

There’s an increasing number of people who know the experience of doing a PhD is just what they want right now, though even at the outset they recognise that they want to take the skills and experience outside of an academic environment into a wider career view. This smaller but growing group often don’t feel they can discuss their aspirations with their apparently much more single-minded supervisors for fear they they will be considered research lightweights, not committed to producing quality research and not tough enough to do whatever it takes to be a successful researcher…

So perhaps it’s time for us all to join in the discussion – what do we see as the purpose of a PhD? Is there a better way?

What do you think?

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