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PhD training in the 21st century: is there something missing?

Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, many universities and affiliated research centres tried to transfer all their events online. From online thesis defences to online webinars and conferences, researchers and trainees all over the world had to adapt to this new norm and develop additional skills to perform adequately in a virtual environment. 

A lot of research centres initiated online science communication competitions and promoted posters’ presentations with videos to motivate students to keep presenting their work and to adapt to the new online experience. Since March 2020, I have myself participated in several competitions related to science communication. 

This virtual knowledge and information exchange is the new norm, at least for as long as the pandemic lasts. Participating at those events, has been a very rewarding experience not only because it was something different than the normal course of my PhD work but also because I acquired new skills sets enriching my competences. I learned how to efficiently communicate my PhD work to non-scientists, create animations and videos from scratch and add subtitles to them. Every successful YouTuber and LinkedIn influencer can testify to the importance of those skills in building a happy and loyal audience.

Is there something missing in the current PhD training?

Considering the great initiatives related with science communication and the need for researchers to share their work and make it more approachable and understandable to the public, I could not stop thinking if there is anything missing from the PhD training currently offered at universities. Today, it mostly includes reading articles, learning specific techniques, troubleshooting, collecting and analysing data and to present those data in either the form of peer-reviewed articles or lectures and poster presentations at conferences. However, this old structure might be outdated and is definitely not reflecting the current needs of PhD graduates and the present market. 

It may also not come as a surprise to anyone that most PhD graduates will not become full-time professors due to the scarcity of academic positions. So, do we need that many PhDs? The answer became more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic since it is extremely qualified researchers who are tirelessly working on finding functional and efficient vaccines. For those who are doubtful of an academic career, the private sector highly values the skills developed during a PhD, like analytical thinking and problem-solving, leading to many PhDs ending up having fruitful careers as Medical Science Liaisons (MSL), medical writers, consultants, and CEOs, just to mention only a few professions outside academia where PhDs thrive. 

In my opinion, there are two main issues arising. The first is whether the current structure of PhD programs trains candidates to successfully promote the versatile skill set they have developed during their studies and informs them for alternative careers outside academia. The second issue is which skills are underdeveloped based on the modern work market and academic setting. The following list comprises of useful courses for both a career within academia and the private/public sector.

Knowledge of alternative careers outside academia

Many private companies and PhD coaches all over the world capitalize on the missing link between obtaining a PhD and finding a suitable career. Academia’s mindset is established on a specific path which includes a post-doc upon completion of the PhD degree and eventually a tenure position. Many supervisors are neither open to discuss with their trainees what other options are out there nor qualified to provide correct advice. Universities have the responsibility to inform graduate students about the current reality within academia and assist them to explore alternative careers in both public and private sector.

Relevant courses would help PhDs to match their skills, passion, and values with the right career path during their PhD, reducing the stress of the unknown and the post-PhD anxiety. Through this training an alumni network can also be established which leads me to the second course I would like to have had early into my PhD training.

Networking

The stereotypical image of an awkward PhD student sitting alone at a table in a conference room full of people doing analysis while eating as much as possible includes some elements of truth. Networking is probably the most important step in landing your dream job in any field inside or outside academia. Resourceful networking is a form of art, but you do not have to be a performer to be successful during this endeavor.

There is a plethora of online information about how to initiate networking under any circumstances, no matter if you are an introvert or extrovert. However, a relevant course will benefit attendees by organizing the chaotic and not always valid online information, provide training related with how to create an elevator pitch and help students overcome their imposter syndrome which is quite common amongst PhD candidates. 

Management training

While I have devoted an entire article on how the management training I acquire through my MBA has helped me during my PhD, I do not think it is necessary to get another degree to rip the rewards of management training. PhDs have already been exposed to a certain degree of organization and a lot of them thrive in project and time management.

Nevertheless, leading a multicultural and diverse team as an academic supervisor or a manager outside academia is much more complex and requires a variety of skills including setting clear goals, understanding cultural differences, and having a strong ethics system in place. For some people leading and managing comes naturally, but luckily for the rest, all the essential skills to perform in such positions can be tough and developed through time and practice. A management training course would be beneficial for any career pathway a PhD candidate would choose to follow and be of extra help in today’s world. 

Financial planning

The competitive nature of public funding makes financial skills very important for future supervisors since they need to master debit and credit accounts to stay in budget while preform all necessary experiments and hire qualified professionals. Young PIs are overloaded with tasks outside their comfort zone, since suddenly they have to deal with administrative tasks, funding applications, financial managing and human resources duties.

Financial training can help reduce stress related with budget analysis and avoid unnecessary waste of funds. Outside academia, basic financial knowledge is considered essential for many professionals and creates leverage for those considering a career in entrepreneurship. 

Science communication

Science conducted in public academic institutions needs to be accessible to everyone. Scientists do not always properly communicate their work to the public, resulting in doubts of the value of research and confusion about the scientific methods and results. Social media offer a great platform for scientists to make their work more approachable to a general audience but there are a few tricks to master before starting a successful blog or YouTube channel like avoidance of acronyms and scientific jargon. The latter has become the new plague even in data sharing between researchers.

Science communication is not only essential for those considering a career in this field but for all PhDs who would like to transition outside academia since they have to explain during a job interview, for example, what was the focus of their PhD. For those pursuing an academic career, it is becoming more and more common to give interviews to share their most significant results, therefore they should be able to present their work in clear and simple terms. 

Storytelling

This might sound weird since storytelling has been associated with books and movies, however, it is one of the most common mean of communication and has been established long before writing. Theorists have suggested that it was the primary mean of knowledge diffusion across large groups of people, which led to culture formation and evolutionary success.

Storytelling is part of our daily lives, from the story we tell to a new acquittance to introduce ourselves, to the stories we share based on our scientific data. If done properly the presenter ends up with a mesmerised audience, but if done poorly forced clapping follows. Storytelling is a skill that any PhD no matter the career pathway needs to develop to better communicate results, skills, personal and professional experiences. 

Leaving the comfort zone

The current COVID-19 pandemic pushed me outside my comfort zone, since I had to explore my creative side and develop new skills not necessarily matching the profile of a regular PhD candidate. Although expected, I was disappointed when I found out that all my blog articles would not add more value to my PhD thesis.

We need to redefine what constitutes success during PhD-training, based not only on academic standards that were established centuries ago but also on how the society has evolved and to the new norms in academia. PhDs are content creators, skilled communicators, conflict and project managers and should be able to showcase these skills and be proud of them. 

Featured image by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

About the Author
  • Melina Papalampropoulou-Tsiridou 0000-0001-7390-1860

    Melina, originally from Greece, started her research career obtaining a BSc degree in Biology from the University of Patras. She, then continued her research in U.K. where she attended the University of Edinburgh and awarded with an MSc by Research in Integrative Neuroscience. Fascinated by neuroscience, she decided to cross the ocean and continue her studies at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada.  She joined in January 2016 the laboratory of Prof. Yves De Koninck, affiliated with CERVO Brain Research Centre and Université Laval, pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience. Melina is currently a PhD/MBA candidate at Université Laval.

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