Graduate education still needs major reform

Holden Thorp

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This week in our NextGen Voices series, young scientists propose a set of rules for principal investigators (PIs) to follow. Although it is heartening in some ways to see young scientists willing to voice these important principles, the fact that they felt compelled to do so sends a sobering message about the culture of science. It is clear from the responses that many PIs continue to see their graduate students as sources of labor, productivity, and prestige rather than as students getting an education.

During my time as a university administrator, I was visited frequently by faculty who wanted to expand the size of their department’s graduate program. These meetings were astonishingly transparent—every single one of these emissaries was unabashed in their desire to procure more graduate students so they could get more work done. I was never treated to a presentation explaining how increasing the size of the program could lead to better training and experience for the students. After all, if we wanted to do a better job for our graduate students, we would make the programs smaller, not bigger. As postdoctoral stints get longer and more PhDs leave science, there’s a much stronger case for more focused programs than the other way around.

On top of the misplaced focus on productivity over education, the suggestions by NextGen Voices authors speak to a lack of awareness of what the students’ long-term objectives truly are. One of my favorite quotes in our piece this week says, “Encourage and support young scientists to do what’s best for their budding career, not your established career” (emphasis mine). Another group of visitors that I have seen over the years consists of graduate students choking back tears because their adviser lost interest in them after they declared an interest in industry over academia. This is a truly embarrassing and immoral feature of too many graduate programs and labs. If the point of graduate programs is to provide education and opportunity, then ensuring an impressive academic legacy for PIs should not take precedence over helping the students achieve their goals.

A culture in which PIs exploit and undermine their students is horrible for science. Graduate students who have been harmed by these actions often become disaffected for perfectly logical reasons. An abusive system that robs students of their enthusiasm has far-reaching implications, including further damaging the public’s trust in science. We can only hope that the PIs who most need to read these stories will stop on their way to this week’s research papers and take a hard look at our NextGen Voices feature.


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