Schulich school of Medicine and Dentistry logo Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry

A message from Andrew Watson, PhD, Associate Dean

Andrew Watson smiling for the camera in front of a brick wall

All of the straw polls and more formal surveys applied to graduate students indicate that no single topic is of greater importance to them than, what can I do with my PhD? Maybe more importantly, should I do a PhD? Or, what does a PhD allow me to do?

We are all aware of the significant “doom and gloom tone” that scientific journal editorials and main stream media stories have recently taken when considering the “plight” of the PhD. I want to refer you to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) “perspective article” by Alberts et al., published just this month.

This article is significant because, four of the most respected US biomedical researchers have developed the point of view that it is now time to reconsider our current system of conducting university based biomedical research funded by government research councils (1).

The article should be read by everyone pursuing biomedical research from faculty members and institute scientists to all of our trainees. The authors present details about the history of the current American system, highlighting the current hypercompetitive environment, and reflecting on damaging effects to raising the next generation of biomedical scientists (1). Interestingly, they do not simply identify the problems as most articles do. They have taken on the more controversial path of providing concrete solutions for going forward and making the system much more sustainable and realistic with regards to trainees and their ultimate pursuit of their academic career aspirations. 

Many will read this paper and suggest it confirms the opinion that pursing a biomedical PhD is not worthwhile right now. No question, changes are required on both sides of the border to foster a healthy biomedical research enterprise going forward. I believe that pursuing a PhD is a very personal decision and one that each person must go into with their eyes wide open.

The National Institutes of Health biomedical research workforce working group report (2) indicates that 80 per cent of Biomedical PhD graduates are employed in a field closely related to their PhD. This 156 page report is the most comprehensive consideration of PhD career options I have ever seen, and it breaks down all aspects of PhD employment trends and areas in the U.S. up to 2008 (2).   

There is also increasing help for graduate students (both MSc and PhD) with regards to the development of their career pathways. All Schulich Medicine & Dentistry graduate programs are keenly interested in their students’ future success. Many are now hosting career-based workshops and departmental seminars where former students return to share their career development experiences. The University is also very focused on your success and the student success centre offers many training workshops regarding resume preparation, interviewing skills, communication and leadership training all of which are critical for landing that first position.

The academic literature is also beginning to focus on how biomedical PhDs find a job. This article published in 2013 in CBE-Life Science Education (3) provides a template for PhD students to follow when assessing their career preferences and options.

I believe that students have always elected to pursue a biomedical PhD because that is exactly what you want to do. You have a passion for discovery and a desire to become a knowledgeable expert in your chosen field of inquiry. Undoubtedly there is a bright and productive future for you. Society needs you and increasingly we are here to assist you with your career development needs.

Thoughts on this message and any others are appreciated and can be sent to gradstudies@schulich.uwo.ca

 Literature Cited:

(1)   Alberts, B., Kirschner, M.W., Tilghman, S., & Varmus, H. (2014). Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc. Natl.Acad. Sci. (USA): 111(16):5773-5777.

(2)   NIH Biomedical research workforce working group report 

(3)   Gibbs, K.D., & Griffin, K.A. (2013). What do I want to be with my PhD? The roles of personal values and structural dynamics in shaping the career interest of recent biomedical science PhD graduates. CBE-Life Sciences Education: 12:711-723.