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Scientists call for shorter, broader PhD programs

To expand career horizons for science graduate students and prepare them better for positions in industry, universities should re-examine the PhD and provide students with real-world experience, said two prominent scientists from industry and academia at last week's colloquium on Science in the National Interest.

"Although our graduate education system is clearly world class, I would say there are serious problems as well; problems that I came to see over many years of hiring and managing new PhDs," said Dr. John A. Armstrong, retired vice president for science and technology at IBM.

In short, he said, "the training of PhDs in general is too narrow intellectually, too campus-centered and too long."

Professor D. Allan Bromley, dean of engineering at Yale, agreed that American universities should think about changing the PhD. "The first one was awarded in 1861, and nothing of any consequence has changed since," said Professor Bromley, who was science advisor to former President Bush.

Both Drs. Armstrong and Bromley said that graduate students today are essentially trained for positions in academia, with little exposure to people in industry or government.

As a result, "we have allowed the career horizons of our graduate students to shrink," Professor Bromley said. "A great many graduate students today feel that they achieve first-class citizenship only by cloning their professor's career, laboratory, lifestyle-you name it-as quickly as possible."

Yet, "depending on the particular field of science under discussion," said Dr. Armstrong, "somewhere between 40 and perhaps up to 90 percent of new PhDs will end up working in settings outside research universities."

To better prepare students for these positions, universities should bring representatives from industry and the government labs to the campus, as well as provide opportunities for students to work in industry while earning their degrees.

"We have to start exchanging more people between our universities, federal laboratories and industry," Dr. Bromley said. Such exposure will "broaden [students'] career horizons, [and help them] understand what tremendous challenges and opportunities there are outside the normal academic confines."

Earlier in the day John P. McTague, vice president for technical affairs at Ford Motor Co., also encouraged students "to start thinking a little more broadly about potential career opportunities." For example, he noted that the vice president for customer service at Ford is a PhD chemist.

Later Dr. Armstrong described what he called the "burden of overspecialization" for new PhDs. "They often believe themselves ill-prepared to venture outside of their specialties, to use their powerful training in jobs in development or manufacturing, in management or government," he said. This problem is compounded by "an almost total lack of work experience."

Such work experience could also help decrease the average time it takes for a person to earn a PhD, Dr. Armstrong said. "Long stays in graduate school are partly due to students' comfort with graduate-student life and to their anxiety about what it'll be like in the outside world when they leave," he said. Work experience could significantly alleviate students' anxiety, which in turn would decrease the time they take to get a degree.

"I firmly believe that the average of six or seven years to get a PhD is too long," he said. "I think it is a serious disservice to our young people to keep them cloistered for that long, or to allow themselves to cloister themselves for that long."

Dr. Armstrong suggested that universities, industry and government must work together to address these problems. With respect to universities, he suggested that faculties "give serious attention to reinvigorating a requirement for a minor as part of a PhD," and emphasized the importance of forming contacts outside the university "that can be turned into internships, summer employment and other away-from-campus experience for graduate students."

Industry, in its turn, should "make serious efforts to accommodate students" in internship programs, and make sure that assignments really challenge students. Government funding agencies "should ask grant applicants about their success in providing real-world experience for graduate students, and give some modest credit in evaluating grants based on [that] success."

He concluded: "I believe that although we have the best graduate education in science and engineering in the world by far, the situation into which our country is moving demands that we think of ways in which to make [that education] ever more effective."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 15, 1995.

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