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054: The 5 year PhD – #modernPhD Part 1

Scientific training has its roots in the ancient world.  From Aristotle’s natural philosophy to the modern biomedical research lab, science training has relied heavily on an apprenticeship model.

Senior scientists take promising young students into their labs and train them, hands-on, in the practical activities of research.

The assumption has always been that the aspiring scientist will ‘grow up’ to be like her mentor – running a lab of her own someday.  And for a long time, that made sense.

But in the modern world, PhDs go on to a much wider variety of careers.  Sure, some seek faculty positions, but others teach, consult, work in industry, and influence policy.

Is it time to rethink the PhD process?  Can we modernize scientific training to support the diverse interest of today’s scientists?


That was the question posed by The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in their push to modernize scientific training.

We rise to the challenge with a Trilogy of Solutions.  This week, we unpack the first idea: revising the graduate school curriculum so that training is more standardized, and time to completion is fixed.

Imagine a world in which your PhD program was limited to 5 years.  What type of training would build your research skills and make you ready for the workplace?

The fact is, our current system is extremely variable – each student has a unique project with individual successes and failures.  One student might sail through in 3 years, while another is forced to change labs and stays through year 9.

Is the first student smarter? Better equipped to succeed?  Or is the second student better trained by the additional time?

The reality is that ‘time to PhD’ is not synonymous with skill or training.  And if time isn’t correlated with success, then there’s an opportunity to tighten up the training schedule without sacrificing pedagogical quality.

We share a handful of ideas an concerns about a fixed-five year PhD, but we’d love to hear what you think!  Is it worth standardizing scientific training, and where should we start?

Big fruit, small bottle

Josh took a trip out west (but not too far!) to pick up this week’s brew: Wicked Weed Watermelon Saison from Asheville, NC.  It’s big on watermelon flavor, and makes us long for one last weekend trip to the beach.  Grab some before summer melts away!

One thought to “054: The 5 year PhD – #modernPhD Part 1”

  1. Thanks for producing this podcast. One of the best ways to limit the time to degree is to be clear as to the expectations of students from the first day. The doctoral programs falls apart at the point of the final assessment. The Modern Phd should take a backward design process starting from the question, What do we want graduates to know and to be able to do upon completion of the program? How will our program assess the knowledge and skills of students to verify they meet our standards? Working backwards from the assessments, modern PhD designers design learning experiences to impart the knowledge and skills the program wants graduates to get. Apprenticeship models be gone. (Studies of apprenticeship in Africa on tailors and potters, show that apprentices get poor and impatient teaching).

    In a modern PhD, the program may want students to develop a certain standard of skills in speaking to a lay audience so that every student would need to complete a three minute thesis. If the program also wants to make sure students who graduate understand open science protocols all student writing would include the data, links etc. which would be taught and imparted as an expectation.
    The expectations of the non-Modern PhD of complete a dissertation and you’re done (maybe with some course work) would need to broaden in a Modern PhD, to include other skills. Please see this blog for other ideas to include in your podcast.
    Do the failings of the oral defense vacate the doctorate?

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