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Renowned Scientist Addresses Graduate Education With CVM Students

Posted March 15, 2017

Alan Leshner

A nationally recognized scientist leading a project that redefines graduate-student education in science in the United States recently visited the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVM) to discuss the project and gather input from students.

Alan Leshner, PhD, chief executive officer emeritus for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), presented a lecture entitled “Advancing 21st Century Careers in Science.” The discussion was sponsored by the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology.

Leshner’s work—a two-year, $1.5 million-project under the auspices of the the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—emerged following an editorial he authored in Science magazine in which he argued that “it is time for the scientific and education communities to take a more fundamental look at how graduate education in science is structured and consider, given the current environment, whether a major reconfiguration of the entire system is needed.”

“The problem is that over 60 percent of new PhDs don't go into academic research, but we train them the same way we have for a hundred years, that is, to go into academic research,” Leshner said at the CVM. “Historically, most PhDs have wanted to be faculty, but lo and behold, (today) they don't.”

Leshner said that while many doctoral students anticipate becoming faculty members, once they learn about the life of an academic, they find that being an academic isn’t as attractive as they originally thought or learn about other science occupations that seem more attractive to them.

“The other thing that's important and relevant is nobody has a linear career anymore,” he said. “I'm a great example. When I started out, I thought I'd be a professor for the rest of my life and conduct research; then it got boring. I happen to bore easily, so I've had rather dramatic changes in what I've done in my career. I've been lucky, because I have had great jobs.”

While there is a low unemployment rate for scientists, there are not always positions available for scientists in academia—those 60 percent often go into fields such as industrial research and development, pharmaceuticals, journalism, or higher education administration.

“The issue is very complex, of course, because the system works very well for the faculty, for the institution, and for the funding agencies; it just doesn't work well for the employers, who have to train, or retrain, the students, and, of course, for the students,” Leshner said. “One of the things we know is that students want internships so they can sample what life is like, and we’d like industry to provide those internships.”

Over breakfast and lunch, Leshner received valuable input from graduate students in the laboratories of Drs. Larry Suva and Jay Ramadoss, whom, Leshner said, are good examples of the types of professors the science field currently needs.

“He (Dr. Ramadoss) seems to be extremely diverse in what he does; there's a wide variety of things,” Leshner said. “Each student knew what the other was doing, and it was great.”

The points made by the CVM students will be considered among the data Leshner’s committee is collecting for the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine project, which will survey a range of institutions, students, faculty, and administrators.

At the end of the project, Leshner and his team will make recommendations regarding what universities can do to help foster change and broaden the experience for science graduate students. He hopes the study will make their experiences more inclusive of the fields many of them actually will go into. A final report is tentatively scheduled to be available within two years.

“We hope, first of all, that we start a big national dialogue so that there is change occurring by itself, without us,” he said. “There already are people who recognize the problem and are trying to make some change. It's not revolution; it's evolution, which is important because revolution scares everybody.”

His long-term goal is that students will be better prepared for more diverse jobs, while still maintaining the standard of having a PhD in science.

Leshner has worked in and around science for 50 years, teaching at Bucknell University for 10 years and serving as a “rotator” at the National Science Foundation; as the deputy director, and later acting director, of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Mental Health; and as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He also was the executive publisher of the journal Science before retiring in 2015.

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