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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 24, 2005

Getting a Faster PhD?

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Posted by Derek

Being a harmless science blogger, I've stayed out of the whole Harvard/Summers/women-versus-men tar pit. (Proof that I don't spend all my time fishing for traffic, as if posts on patent law weren't enough evidence already.) If you want, you can find more discussion of that controversy than you could want on any of the current-affairs blogs. But, still, I was struck by a comment from Virginia Postrel. She's discussing what might be done to increase the female presence in the sciences, given that biological clocks for reproduction work very differently for women and men (i.e., fathering a child at 45 is a lot easier than getting pregnant at that age. Neither Virginia nor I make any claims about the wisdom of doing either one; we're just talking biological feasibility):

"If, however, you spend six years in grad school and another two as a postdoc, you'll be 30 when you get your first tenure-track post--and that's assuming you don't work between college and grad school. I don't have the numbers, but science training is notorious for stretching out the doctoral/postdoc process, in part because the researchers heading labs benefit from having all that cheap, talented help. Female scientists who want kids are in trouble, even assuming they have husbands who'll take on the bulk of family responsibilities."

Fortunately, that long a stint in academia is unusual by chemistry standards, but molecular biology is notorious in just the way she's talking about. I've seen biology postdoctoral positions break up marriages, because the other partner eventually just wanted to finally, finally move on with life. Her suggested remedies?

"So, if a university like Harvard wants to foster the careers of female scientists, this is my advice: Speed up the training process so people get their first professorial jobs as early as possible--ideally, by 25 or 26. Accelerate undergraduate and graduate education; summer breaks are great for students who want to travel or take professional internships, but maybe science students should spend them in school. Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish their Ph.D.s. Spend more of those huge endowments on reducing (or eliminating) teaching assistant loads and other distractions from a grad student's own research and training."

I got my first real PhD-level job at 27, after a year's post-doc, but that's a year or so younger than average for organic chemistry. I spent my undergraduate summer breaks doing research internships (of greater and lesser value), but I should make clear to those outside the field that graduate students in the sciences already work all through the summer. When I was in grad school, we watched the law students across the street pack up and leave in the spring while we cranked away in the lab days, nights, weekends, and holidays. I treasure a memo in my files from the chemistry department head, pointing out that the university vacation calendar did not apply to grad students - and he wasn't just talking about summers, of course. Do not, the memo warned, attempt to take all these holidays, things with names like "spring break", even though you may hear people talking about them.

As for Virginia's other prescriptions, I think penalizing slowpoke professors is a great idea. I know that some schools talk about doing this, but I've never seen any of them follow through. I think that the inverse idea, rewarding those research groups with a high percentage of students finishing on time, would be worth looking into as well. There are plenty of groups that could use a better work ethic - not in terms of the number of hours put in, but in terms of making sure that everything the students do is devoted to the great and holy cause of getting the hell out of graduate school. That's something you should do on general principles, man or woman, whether you plan to start a family or not. Grad school is for getting through, not for lingering.

Reducing TA assignments would also help. I know that many professors, if they have enough grant money, try to get their students out of teaching assistant positions as early as the university will let them (I did one year of it, the minimum.) But if you work for someone without as much of the ready cash, you can be TA-ing until your last year, and in an increasingly bitter mood about it, too.

Speeding up graduate education can be done. You don't want to turn out a bunch of unprepared losers, but as far as I can see, the system we have now does that anyway, but often too slowly. It's true that real research projects take time - you're never going to get well-trained chemistry PhDs out the door in two and a half years. But you shouldn't be expecting five and six years out of people as the norm.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry)


1. a chemist on February 25, 2005 7:10 AM writes...

Funny how practices differ across the pond and the world as a whole. Here in the UK, a chemistry Ph.D. tends to be 3 years worth of practical stuff (at least for Organic and Inorganic) and then about a year for writing up, viva, job hunting afterwards (of whatever form - post-doc, industry, ...). It's probably a result of different funding models and first degree structures as much as anything else, although there does seem to be a bit of a move to 4 years of funding, and as I understand it writing up after that in some cases.

I think the major difference however, is the fact that a lot of the humanities stuff you can do via distance learning or studying and simply reading, after all, aren't humanities Ph.Ds just re-reading books and writing a coherent arguement on some subject (ducks for cover and dons asbestos [or equivalent] suit). I've known law students to basically only go in to campus once or twice a month to exchange, renew and get out more library books, and a chat with their supervisor if they're lucky, whereas once or twice a day (even at weekends) is often considered the norm for chemistry at least.

Can't really see t-BuLi reactions or HPLC going on, on my desk at home, with the NMR in the shed out back...

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2. SP on February 25, 2005 8:38 AM writes...

The mean time to PhD in Harvard chemistry is now almost 6 years (probably about 5.9), so it's not unusual there. And in almost every recent class, there have been more women who dropped out, despite the fact that they were only about 20% of the class to begin with.

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3. jwb on February 25, 2005 9:50 AM writes...

The largest issue with the extension of the academic training period is the disparity between supply and demand - as long as there's few jobs and many PhDs, the average time spent in training will rise. Heck, most 'starting' med chem positions I see these days in industry require at least one (and frequently these days a minimum of two or three) years as a postdoc, although I remember that wasn't the case back when I was in grad school. Most biological positions are worse.

We need to train less people, or have a dramatic change in the job market (or both), or the trend will simply continue..

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4. David Govett on February 26, 2005 2:56 PM writes...

Apropos, "you're never going to get well-trained chemistry PhDs out the door in two and a half years"
After some of the cognitive enhancement drugs are approved in a decade or so, grad school purgatory will be halved. Do not linearly extrapolate the present into the future. Stuff happens, like the PCs, the Web, biotech, nanotech, MST3K ;>}

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5. The Novice Chemist on February 27, 2005 10:30 AM writes...

You know, now that I think about it, Postrel has a point: if science undergraduates were given the opportunity to speed up their education with summer stipends, I'll bet that you could cut the college years down quite a bit -- problem is, of course, is that professors don't teach their advanced courses during the summer. Seems to me that the chemistry department typically shuts down with the exception of pre-med organic chemistry.

It's also worth nothing that if these summer undergraduate students were to spend their time in an actual lab doing research, there should be some experiential force multiplier that allowed them to get results for a thesis that much quicker in graduate school.

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6. SteveSC on February 27, 2005 11:39 AM writes...

So you are finishing college and picking a graduate advisor. Do you pick:

A) The young hotshot Assistant Professor who was first author on 12 articles on really interesting stuff last year and has had 3 loyal graduate assistants in the 5 years since he was appointed (one he married, none have graduated yet, but all swear they are doing cool stuff).

B) The grayhair Professor who hasn't been first author forever, has had 15 graduate assistants in the last 6 years (you could only talk to 3 because the rest have all graduated), and they all seem to be working on the same boring stuff.

My wife chose A. Five years later she switched to B and finished her PhD in 18 months. While watching the process I realized that many idealistic graduate students choose A without realizing that 1) Assistant Professors are interested in promotion, and teaching is far down the list of importance at most institutions (they also tend to hog credit); 2) interesting stuff means risky stuff, which increases the chance your dissertation will bomb; 3) it's better to pick someone whose lab operations are designed to cycle assistants in and out, than someone who gets dependent on particular assistants (especially so dependent they marry them).

It's training, not your life's work. You are learning how to do by being supervised. In some ways I think MDs have it easier because no one is allowed to practice medicine before they finish the MD. There is not as bright a line in research, however, and grad students can be seduced into thinking they are doing Important Research before they finish their PhD. And worse yet there are plenty of faculty who find it in their own interest to seduce them.

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7. jsinger on February 28, 2005 3:53 PM writes...

1)If, however, you spend six years in grad school and another two as a postdoc, you'll be 30 when you get your first tenure-track post

FYI, the _average_ age of first-time NIH grant applicants is 32. Or was, ten years ago. It's probably higher now.

2) Personally, I'd like to see the grad school process reformed because it's abusive, degrading and exploitative to both males and females. But if it's reformed to hit a gender equity target instead, I can live with that.

3) The question is, though, why is it in Harvard's interest to make such a reform? Their labs benefit far more by keeping grad students and postdocs around for an extra year or two than they would from a total applicant pool with slightly more females. Let UCSF prduce female Ph.D.s!

4) #3 reminds me that it's curious how little most educated people understand about how a university functions behind the scenes. For the most part, they know about as little as I do about an auto plant, even though they've all been to college!

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8. David on February 28, 2005 7:09 PM writes...

IIRC, the average age is 34-35 in the biosciences.

Have a baby? Riiiight.

Reduce TA'ing...not in the university's interest. Then they'd have to hire real profs to teach classes, and they *insert whining Regents here* don't have any money to hire profs.

Basically you have a slave/plantation system here. The profs don't care if their students graduate sooner--the longer they're in the lab, the more skilled they are and the more papers they can pump out.

The universities don't care how long it takes--the more grad students to take care of the dirty work of the university--teaching.

There's no incentive to cycle out grad students. There's no incentive to practice "grad student birth control"--let's have labs with 40 people!! who cares if they can't get a job!

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Smart kids go into investment banking, not science.

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