Renowned Scientist Addresses Graduate Education With CVM Students
Posted March 15, 2017
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
“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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