Bottom Line Up Front

Calls for clear, easily accessible data on Ph.D. program outcomes have failed to produce results at any kind of scale. A new coalition of 10 life sciences institutions hopes to change that.

December 15, 2017
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Ten institutions on Thursday announced their commitment to providing life sciences Ph.D. students -- current and future ones -- transparent data on admissions, training opportunities and career outcomes. Most students aren't going to end up in faculty jobs, and the founding members of the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science want potential trainees to know that up front.

“Open data will allow students and postdoctoral fellows to understand fully the range of likely outcomes of their eventual training and career choices,” the chancellors and presidents of all 10 coalition members wrote in a co-authored article about the initiative in Science. More than that, they said, clear data will help universities better align their programs to Ph.D. students’ actual career outcomes -- and hold institutions “to account for their success in training and placing graduate students.”

The “cardinal goal” of such transparency is "making advanced training in the life sciences more efficient and humane,” the presidents added.

In February, the nine universities and one research center that make up the coalition will begin to publish reports on admissions and enrollment data on their doctoral programs in the life sciences, along with students’ median time to degree. Within the ensuing 18 months, they'll share detailed information on student demographics, how many years their graduates spend as postdoctoral fellows, and the jobs their Ph.D.s and postdocs eventually get.

“While many students come in with the expectation that they’re going to be able to have academic careers, that’s just not what the facts show,” said Peter Espenshade, project co-leader and professor and dean of graduate biomedical education at Johns Hopkins University. Indeed, the presidents’ article estimates that just 10 percent of life sciences Ph.D.s earn a tenure-track position within five years of graduation. Contributing to that downward trend, the article says, is a 22 percent decrease in federal research funding since 2003, adjusted for inflation. (Other factors not cited in the article include the increased hiring of professors off the tenure track.)

Espenshade said that students’ awareness of the poor academic job market seems to be growing, especially within the last 10 years. Yet many still see graduate school as “a next logical step after leaving undergrad,” he said, and don’t address the realities of that market “until it’s too late.”

The initiative is not, however, about discouraging graduate study, Espenshade said, arguing that it would be impossible to overeducate the U.S. population -- especially in terms of science. Rather, he said, “What we want to do is provide [trainees] the best education, based on the array of careers they’ll have.”

Elizabeth Watkins, coalition co-leader and dean of the graduate division and vice chancellor of student academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, also disagreed that there is a Ph.D. supply problem. Trained scientists and scholars who can think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and make sense of large amounts of data benefit society, she said. They also find “meaningful employment and make valuable contributions” not only in academe but in business, nonprofits and government.

The Coalition for Next Generation Life Science includes Hopkins and San Francisco, plus Cornell University; Duke University; the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

That’s for now. Members are confident that other institutions eventually will sign on.

“We see this as a tipping point for change,” Espenshade said. With increasing participation, “it’s not going to be a defensible position” to withhold data.

Beyond tracking and sharing data, Watkins said, she hopes institutions will use the information to adopt career exploration and preparation programs on their campuses for both graduate students and postdocs. That way, she said, “trainees can move into jobs that match their interests, values and passions,” rather than “default” into postdoc positions.

There have been many calls for increased transparency about Ph.D. program outcomes over the years, in the sciences and other fields. In September, for example, the chief academic officers of the Association of American Universities member institutions endorsed a statement calling on all Ph.D. programs “to make a commitment to providing prospective and current students with easily accessible information” on student demographics, time to degree, financial support and career paths and outcomes.

“AAU institutions should commit to developing the infrastructure and institutional policies required to uniformly capture and make public such data,” the statement said.

The association doesn’t have a plans to enforce the idea, however, so it’s up to individual institutions to make the first move toward transparency. For that reason, among others, similar calls for open data have failed, over time, to yield systematic results. The new life sciences coalition is hopeful that its you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine approach -- originating from within institutions and not outside them -- will be more successful.

"Through conversations among peers, we are committed to working through open questions and obstacles with a goal of agreeing on common standards," the presidents wrote in Science. "And over time, we hope to establish a useful precedent that will promote easier and replicable modes of collection and publication, as well as drive down the costs and lower the barriers to this work for other institutions." They've got something of a head start: Michigan already offers detailed statistics on Ph.D. and master's programs. 

The presidents say the life sciences are a starting point for their open-data push, which could well extend to other disciplines in the future. Other coalition goals include enhanced mentorship for doctoral students and postdocs, and improved recruitment and retention aimed at diversifying biomedicine.


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