AsianScientist (Jan. 19, 2016) – With the right training and attitude, PhD students will flourish in their scientific careers despite a competitive job market, said a panel of distinguished Nobel laureates at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2016 (GYSS@one-north 2016), taking place from 17-22 January, 2016, at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
The panel, which met on Monday to discuss the topic “The PhD Degree: Commodity or Commonplace?,” was chaired by Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore, and comprised Nobel laureates Serge Haroche (Physics, 2012), Harald zur Hausen (Physiology or Medicine, 2005), Arieh Warshel (Chemistry, 2013), Ei-ichi Negishi (Chemistry, 2010) and John Robin Warren (Physiology or Medicine, 2008).
Quantity versus quality
The issue at hand is one of supply and demand, the panel members agreed. A rapid increase in the number of PhD candidates being trained—together with a much more gradual increase in academic jobs available worldwide—have made entering the traditional and preferred route of academia much harder, explained Tan. This phenomenon is also true for industry, he noted.
“At the same time, industry has been somewhat slower in being able to keep pace with the number of PhDs that are being trained. Clearly, this varies from sector to sector, but on a whole—and in particular, in the life sciences—the uptake by industry has been slower than the numbers trained,” he said.
Professor Harald zur Hausen was of the opinion that it is not the number of PhD students that pose the problem, but the quality of the training provided. More attention should be paid to helping PhD students become independent researchers, he said.
“As long as PhDs have the opportunity to work at least in a large part independently, to develop their own eventual ideas during this period of time, then it’s highly worthwhile. [For example] in the medical field, some technicians are told by their mentors exactly each individual step of the experimentation that they will do; I think it’s not really that kind of training which we should aim for,” he said.
zur Hausen, whose groundbreaking research showed that human papilloma virus (HPV) caused cervical cancer, said that such ‘hand-holding’ also leads to the issue of ‘scientific inbreeding,’ where students continue to work in the areas of their mentors instead of venturing out into new research domains.
Staying competitive and employable
So how do mentors best advise young scientists not to be discouraged by the pressures of an increasingly saturated market?
Professor John Robin Warren suggested that PhD students be aware of what job opportunities are available around them. According to him, a little initiative and a self-starter attitude goes a long way.
“If there’s anything that they are interested in, they should try and learn while they are actually doing their PhD—get in touch with industry people,” he advised. “A lot of people do quite well by actually being well known before they finish their PhD, and for the company that they are interested in to know them.”
Indeed, Warren recounted how he was once well known for an entirely undesirable reason: His scientific research was not only met with scorn, he was also described as “that pathologist who is trying to make gastritis an infection.” But the lack of support from his colleagues did not deter him from subsequently going on to show Helicobacter pylori’s central role in causing gastritis and peptic ulcers.
Changing industry attitudes
Professor Serge Haroche, who developed a photon trap to empirically study the properties of light in a non-destructive manner, pointed out that hiring managers need to change their perceptions of PhD holders and be part of the solution.
“If there is a problem now, it’s partly because of universities, which may produce too many PhDs; but it’s also the fault of the companies and enterprises, which do not make use enough of all the talent and expertise that are developed during the PhD time,” he said.
We must ‘educate’ private companies on how it is in their best interests to hire PhD holders who bring unique qualities to the table, Haroche added.
“[These companies] prefer to hire people who have been in management all their lives, who started working in political sciences or human resources, because they think these people are better to manage or work in companies. I think it’s a mistake and I think PhDs should better advertised and better used.”
Haroche then shared his rather insightful take on the real world value of a PhD—that by doing something which has never been done before, one doesn’t just learn how to solve questions, but also how to ask good ones.
“If you work in a company, even if not in science … if you know how to ask good questions, you will be a better manager,” he mused.
Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of the GYSS@one-north 2016.
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