The Relevance of Graduate Education
Submitted by Nathan Vanderford on Wed, 2013-07-31 12:47
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Do you think that the majority of graduate education programs today are providing relevant education and training to their students in relation to the jobs that graduates are actually obtaining? 

The National Science Foundation’s report titled Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 indicates that only 14% of PhDs in the life sciences are employed in academic, tenure track positions and only 7% are actually tenured. Moreover, over 50% of this same cohort of PhDs work outside of academia altogether. Despite this, most PhD graduate programs and postdoctoral fellowships continue to solely focus on training the next generation of tenure track faculty. Does anyone see the problem here? This means that we are not educating and training the majority of our PhDs for the jobs that they are actually getting. So, it’s time to make graduate education relevant by providing PhDs with the knowledge and skills they need and that their future employers want. 

I recently presented a seminar on the importance of soft skills and their incorporation into graduate education to the Graduate Education Special Interest Group of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. It turns out that this group gets it. They understand the need to make graduate education more relevant and, in fact, the group recently published a review with recommendations on this subject. Although specifically tailored to pharmaceutical sciences, many of the general principles and concepts in the report span disciplines and closely match the recommendations of the report titled The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States, which – among other recommendations – suggested that greater attention is needed to enhance the professional skills of all graduate students.  

Ultimately, making graduate education more relevant to our graduates means incorporating educational and training components outside of research into science curricula. Coursework should cover many different professional and soft skill areas including business principles, communication skills, teamwork skills, flexibility, leader/follower skills, time and project management skills, strategy/strategic planning concepts, ethics, resilience, and innovative/entrepreneurial thinking skills. Additionally, relevant hands-on training through internships or other work experience opportunities should be provided to give graduates “real-world” work exposure to relevant job sectors. 

A few programs are providing relevant education and training to their graduate students. Such programs are matching their curricula with what employers actually want from future employees. An example of an academic institution that is doing this is the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI). KGI’s programs are merging science courses, business courses, and work experience (through internships) together to ultimately provide students with the science, professional (including soft skills), and hands-on skills needed to excel in careers either within or outside of research. 

Ultimately, I believe that the job market will eventually force other academic institutions to follow KGI’s example of making graduate education more relevant to today’s graduate students. What do you think? One counter argument is that too many PhDs are being produced and so we should reduce the number of new students entering the system, and the job market and job placement issues will thus appropriately adjust. I, however, don’t believe that is the solution. First, PhDs are needed in every job sector in order to push the limits of every field and move innovative technology, products, and services into the marketplace. Second, I don’t think that the academic research enterprise could sustain a deep enough cut in the research workforce to correct the job placement inequities given that graduate students and postdocs do the majority of the research in academia. 

Again, what do you think? Do you think this is a problem? Do you think graduate education needs to change? Do you think too many PhDs are being produced? The more we all discuss and think about this issue then the greater the likelihood that a “solution” will be found and implemented.   


Nathan has a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural biotechnology, a PhD in biochemistry, and an MBA with an operations management focus. He is the Assistant Director for Research for the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center. He is the founder of Integrative Academic Solutions, which aims to help individuals integrate multiple disciplines to achieve innovative job performance. He is also the founder/editor of The Daily PhD, a newspaper dedicated to graduate school issues and PhD career paths. Lastly, he is the founder/editor of What Are All The PhDs?, which is dedicated to putting a personal spin on highlighting all possible career paths for PhDs.

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