http://www.nature.com/news/stem-1.17959
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Etienne Schmelzer

The general skillset of a PhD is often unclear. In contrast to undergraduate studies, most skills learned during the PhD are not attained through coursework but individually and thereby not documented and are rarely certified. Therefore the experience of graduates can differ vastly in the same field – let alone between the different disciplines.Etienne

The Global Perspectives Program was an excellent opportunity for the exchanging ideas and enabled us to gain deeper insights into the higher education systems of Switzerland and the USA.

Analogue to the situation in Europe, science in the US is exposed to budget cuts. The increasing number of graduates combined with a decreasing number of academic positions can result in frustration for current, and future PhD students. According to Polka 2015, less than 8% of PhD students entering the field of biology will obtain tenure- track faculty positions, although 53% actually desire to become research professors [1].

PhDs are not only struggling to find positions in academia but also in non-academic areas. The vague definition of the PhD degree is especially challenging for non-academic employers. The general skillset of a PhD is often unclear. In contrast to undergraduate studies, most skills learned during the PhD are not attained through coursework but individually and thereby not documented and are rarely certified. Therefore the experience of graduates can differ vastly in the same field – let alone between the different disciplines.

The broad diversity of skillsets we learn in the different fields, obscures the title of PhD. Employers may prefer the Master’s Degree with its more defined structure, strict coursework, and well-certified skills.

The exchange with the students of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) made us realise that the vagueness of the PhD title is a shared problem.

THE SKILLSET OF A PHD: RICH BUT INCOMPLETE?

Besides the subject-specific skills and methodology we acquire, we also learn a broad set of transferable skills – also called non- conventional skills – which are universally applicable in a broad range of positions. Independent of the field of research, PhDs learn to collect data, to critically evaluate it and present the results. Besides this process, we are introduced to self-organization, project management, time-management, and most importantly, critical thinking. Although most data collection is individual in nature, collaborations and teamwork are inevitable in science today.

Recently, Nature dedicated a full issue to address science education [2]. They asked which skillsets scientists of the 21st century should acquire.

According to Paul Nurse (Director of the Francis Crick Institute, London) and Atsushi Sunami (Professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo), future PhDs need to be educated with a broader mind-set. To achieve this goal, Nurse proposes contact with inspirational speakers, which can endorse student’s creativity as well as short internships in related subjects and outside of a basic research career to improve job expectations. Atsushi Sunami recommends more exchange between universities and companies, and calls for more interdisciplinary education in order to make PhDs more attractive to the private sector. Jon Handelsman (Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Washington DC) demands to increase, instead of reduce, the number of trainee positions in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields but he points out that it is necessary to extend the training of transferable skills, such as pedagogy, entrepreneurship, and administration. Another non-conventional but pivotal know-how pointed out by Robert Tjian (President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Maryland) is management. He emphasises that “outside of master’s programmes in business administration there is little training in leadership, how to form the right team and how to run it effectively” [2].

In my personal view, courses in transferable skills might be an additional burden for us PhD students, but would benefit our future job search considerably. Not only would these skills be certified, they would standardise the PhD degree itself.

Taken together, non-conventional skills would not only reduce the frustration of graduate students with an employment search but also benefit the leadership quality of future professors. Interdisciplinary courses in transferable skills might even redress the frustration of an undetermined career path into visualizing it as an opportunity where we can achieve whatever we want. The World Is Ours!
[1]J. Polka, ‘Where Will A Biology PhD Take You?’, ASCB, 2014. [Online]. Available: http://www.ascb.org/where-will-a-biology-phd- take-you/. [Accessed: 24- Aug- 2015].
[2]’Stem education: To build a scientist’, Nature, vol. 523, no. 7560, pp. 371-373, 2015.