Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Why the current science degree needs a revamp

A study by Vitae on the destination of doctoral students showed that about half of doctoral graduates are employed outside higher education (HE) 1, 2.
The report stated that only 19% of doctoral graduates were employed as research staff in HE and that only 22% were teaching or lecturing in HE. On the other hand,13% were in research roles (not in HE), 6% were in wider teaching occupations outside HE, 27% were in other common non-teaching doctoral occupations outside HE, for example, working as health professionals, and 14% were categorised in other occupations e.g. sales roles 2.
With less than 50% of doctoral graduates working in higher education, be it as research or teaching staff, it comes as no surprise that at almost every science careers focussed conference I attend, there are talks on the lack of professors and how many PhD graduates stray from the field of academia. The number of professors continues to diminish while the latter (PhD graduates) is growing exponentially.
Although the number of PhD places has increased worldwide over the years3, desire among undergraduates and professionals for doctoral qualifications has also increased substantially, making places in reality even more competitive. With such highly competitive PhD places and so many applicants, are schools offering the right career advice and are supervisors picking the right candidates?
The idea of the intense PhD process is to groom one into the world of research and academia. Over the three – five-year period, students find a niche area of interest whiles developing valuable skills necessary for a life of teaching and research. With the increasing number of doctoral graduates however, universities lack the capacity to employ them all. Where positions are available there is no job security due to precarious funding opportunities.
The industry and other sectors however, also value and appreciate the transferable skills possessed by PhD graduates. As such, a significant percentage of industrial job adverts now consider having a PhD as essential. With the job crisis lurking over employment these days, I believe PhD graduates have no choice but to be flexible and hence cast their nets wide and across board. The tedious process of grant applications, the lack of job security and funding play a key role in deterring the once enthusiastic PhD academics from pressing on in this field4. There are only a few handfuls who remain persistent in securing an academic position. 
But how does one identify our future professors? I believe the answer lies in the structure of the Science degree.  I have come across a few individuals who have shared their experience of starting a PhD and deciding it was not their cup of tea after all. Although there is no official published data on PhD drop outs, studies have suggested attrition rates of up to 50%5,6.
Transiting from a degree to a PhD is almost like going from cycling to driving a truck. The change in experience is sharp and there is the danger that inadequate preparation can lead to a traumatic experience.
It is for this reason that I believe the science degree needs a revamp from three to four years to incorporate a research rotational year. This will ensure that the right candidates, who have the desire for hours of teaching, countless submissions of papers, presentations, proposals and grant applications, will be offered a chance to gain the appropriate experience. This way, students get to have a feel of independent research as opposed to the shadowed research experience generally gained at the undergraduate level now.
Although there are the four-year rotational studentships that serve this purpose, they are offered as post graduate options,  places remain highly competitive and are limited to a handful of institutions.   Some students go through the Masters / MPhil route and although these play a role in bridging the gap, positions are rarely funded and only accessible by the select few who can afford the cost.
What is therefore required is for the general undergraduate science program to be updated to four-years across board to include the rotational research year. This way, students are better placed to make informed choices with regards to pursuing an academic /industrial career.  Aspiring PhD students will subsequently have clearer intuition on their research area of interest, thereby reducing the dropout rate and the overflow of graduates seeking academic positions.

I hereby conclude that to tackle the problem of declining academics, it is imperative that experts look back at the root cause and consider a revamp of the current science degree system.  

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