Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

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Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby Tom » Thu Jan 20, 2005 11:11 am

Since most of you who frequent these boards have their Ph.Ds I am wondering do many of you feel that your graduate program has trained you to be a better scientist?

My reason for raising this question is based on the observations I have made during my few years as a technician working along with grad students from two Ivy League institutions.

For one thing I'm so surprised by some of the people who enter into the program and their naivety of the lab culture. Many do not know what their career goals are or the future ahead of them in their profession. Also, so many are untrained in their discipline in regard to lab skills and techniques, which I felt should've been learned in independent undergrad research or a couple years as a tech. Even I know more techniques than a 2nd or 3rd year.

I'm also very surprised by how many students quit after their 1st year or half way through the program. I've seen one quit after obtaining his M.S. and a rotating student close quitting, since he planned to take an unofficial "sabbatical" to play with his rock band in Europe.

I've even heard faculty members complain about the poor quality of incoming graduate students. My former PI who constantly made these criticisms was actually involved with the graduate admissions herself! At my current institution there is a Nobel prize faculty member who to the confusion of many grad students will not take any rotation students. Many have assumed that it is because he is busy and only maintains a lab of postdocs. However, my advisor had a discussion with this faculty member regarding this matter and he explained the reasoning behind this strategy is because the grad students from this "Ivy League" institution aren't very good. I will admit it is one of the lower tier ivies, and I think he would have a different opinion about the students from a school in MA or a couple in CA (his alma maters). But I do find this sort of absurd.

Finally, it seems to me that Ph.D. programs do not really offer any real quality training that cannot be learned outside of the program. The first two years are classes and rotations (where perhaps the most useful class is the critical analysis/journal club), and after that you are thrown into a lab and left to fend for yourself with little to no guidance. Of course this is dependent on your advisors, but in the last two labs I've been in it seems the effort by the PI is minimal.

In my first lab (which was a small startup) I had to train the rotation student on techniques, while my advisor stayed in her office 24/7 writing grants. In my second lab (which is a well established lab with 20 post-docs and six techs), the students can't get five minutes with the PI b/c he is so busy. Therefore, they will rely on any post-doc who is kind enough to offer any project or experimental advice. Often they do the post-doc's every suggestion even if it is deterimental to their getting their Ph.D. (since for the post-doc graduating "on time" is not an issue) and are sometimes abused to do the post-doc's own project work. In fact, in my position as a tech I have the benefit of also being involved in the project work (plan experiment with suggestions of a post-doc in my lab, present my data in small and large lab meetings).

So beyond not taking grad classes, how is my situation and training different from that of a grad student except not receiving a Ph.D.? I also realize students undergo an intensive examination process (Qual Exams, Thesis), which helps motivate (or pressure) them into reading and studying more, but wouldn't a self-motivated person be able to achieve the same goal? So ignoring the difference in academic credentials in the future how does a Ph.D. program train you to be a better scientist than someone who foregoes that direction?

Sorry for the long post, but I just wanted to hear honest opinions, and express my feeling for the need for academic reform of grad programs. At times I do find it absurd that I have a equal to higher salary than a 2nd year post-doc who has a young son and a unemployed wife to support. Where is the justice in this?


Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby Andy » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:05 pm


The answer to the question that is the title of your post is a resounding yes. You don't have to be a Ph.D. student to be a good scientist, of course. But it is not going to hurt your chances of being a good scientist. How does a Ph.D. teach you to be a better scientist than one who forgoes that route? Well, not 100% of Ph.D.'s are better than the average non-Ph.D. scientist, but most probably are. This probably comes from putting hurdles in front of Ph.D. students that they clear one by one. Humans learn well when given a series of somewhat structured tasks that fit into a larger body of knowledge. Also, talking at length with faculty (PI, committee) about flaws and strengths in experimental design can really help.

I believe your post represents a group of common misunderstandings about what a Ph.D. program is supposed to be. Often, I tell grad students to lay off on their criticism of faculty and the Ph.D. process, today I'm here to defend the noble grad student!!!!

To say that most graduate students aren't very good simply flies in the face of the abundant evidence. You know all those papers that get published every week in Cell, Science, Nature, and the other great journals? They represent the hard work of good graduate students. And postdocs, who were graduate students 2-4 years earlier.

Grad students are naive about academic lab culture? Of course they are! Most have never had such a lab be their "home base" for more than one or two summers. How many 23-24 year olds have a firm hold on "their careeer goals"? To say grad students don't have career goals nailed down is a ridiculous criticism. At least they're working and learning things, instead of sitting around smoking pot and playing X-Box games. Well, some grad students do that, but I digress.

Many are untrained in their discipline with regard to laboratory techniques? So they're learning something new, and good for them.

Your department has poor graduate students? Cry me a river. If they were really that bad, no faculty member would take them. My guess is they find it in their heart to accept students. Everyone wants the best help he or she can get. The Nobel laureate . . . some PI's reach a level where they can run a top-flight lab without graduate students. That's their choice and it's true that grad students take more attention than postdocs. But this is far from a condemnation of graduate students.

The main difference between your situation and a Ph.D. student is this: The Ph.D. student entered a quasi-structured program that they expected to systematically test their ability to design experiments, interpret data, and manage projects designed to reveal new information. That's it. You can still be a good scientist. Grad classes are probably the area of grad school that Ph.D. students learn the least. It's all about the lab.

I don't get your "justice" argument. Many people feel underpaid and underappreciated. If you think having a Ph.D. will lead to a life of riches and respect, then DON'T go to graduate school because you will be sorely disappointed.

I hereby declare today "Graduate Stuent Appreciation Day." We love you, grad students!

Best regards,




Postby andy » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:06 pm

Writing research proposals, grant applications, papers, and dissertations are great intellectual excercises that are a big plus in terms of training.

Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby MPB » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:10 pm

So you seem to be saying that your greater familiarity with the lab equipment = 2 years of coursework, seminars, journal club, dissertation and thesis proposals, ocasional meetings with the PI, regular training from the post-docs, dissertation and thesis defense, and final exams.

PhD training is not about learning to operate equipment or to maximize your lab technique. Sure, it's nice to know those things, especially to know them well enough to trouble-shoot experiments that are not working. But it's not why you're there.

Techs get paid more than post-docs because grad school graduates are much more plentiful than good lab techs. During the last year of my last academic job, I was trying to hire a lab tech and a post-doc. I ended up with 5 or 6 good candidates for the post-doc position, but no really good candidates for the tech position.

Yes, grad students do leave programs and go on to do something else, but I think this fairly normal behavior for people in their 20s who have just graduated from college.

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Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby Madison » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:22 pm

Grad school is all about learning to think, not just about doing experiments and developing lab techniques. You said it yourself - the postdoc tells you what experiments to do, you don't decide yourself. The Ph.D. trains someone to see the big picture and the fine points of a scientific discipline, and then to critically analyze (1)What are the good questions to try and answer, and (2)How do we go about answering those questions.

Lab skills are really only 1/2 of the picture. And rightly so, because working in the lab is how a young scientist proves him/herself and get the foot in the door to get a good job, the mature scientist rairly works in the lab, but designs approaches to answer questions, manages people, manages budgets, and does a ton of writing and reading and thinking.

Being a scientist is not really about working in the lab - you can hire someone to be the hands (a tech), it's about the mental exercise of asking questions.

Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby A. Sam » Thu Jan 20, 2005 1:17 pm

Your point that it?s difficult to recruit good students is valid. I?m sympathetic to the laureate at your school, though I think he?s being a little dramatic. Grad students are often only there because they don?t know what else to do or couldn?t get into some other professional school. Especially in parts of the country where there are big schools and not a lot of industry, for a person graduating with a degree in biology or chemistry, going to grad school may be the only ?job? they can get in their field without having to move 1000 miles. Faculty take a look at the graduating undergrads and then they take a look at the starting graduate students and wonder if the best of the best made the transition. The answer is hell no, the best of the best go to med school or law school or dental school or vet school, that?s what makes them bitter.

I have to offer up the lame answer so often offered up here, which is that the quality of your training depends on the lab that you?re in. You have to have an engaged and talented PI and they have to recruit accessible and willing and talented post-docs. In that environment everyone new to the lab inevitably learns to enjoy science and develops a critical mind. There are plenty of examples where the techs in one lab are better scientists than the grad students and post docs in the neighboring labs. And you?re absolutely right that grad students can get less training in the course of several years than a technician might; they only get out of it what the put into it. I?m not sure that there is anything wrong with that or what reforms might change that
A. Sam
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Re: Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby Tom » Thu Jan 20, 2005 1:55 pm

Thanks for replying to my post everyone. I knew this post would raise alarms in the science community, I'm just glad that so many of you are cordial about it. Apologies if the post seemed very cynical.

I agree whole hearted about many of your opinions regarding approaching science as a mental exercise and the sole motivation being discovery (or doing science for the sake of science for learning). I also agree there are opportunites granted to Ph.D.s that aren't offered to non-Ph.D's after schooling.

My reason for proposing this question is actually one of a personal agenda, which is whether to pursue a Ph.D. or not.

During my time as a tech I've notice three (perhaps there are more) types of post-docs in my lab. They are as follows:

1) Unmotivated post-docs who seem to be just doing research because it is the only career direction they know of. They aren't applying for grants/fellowships and spend 40-50% of their time socializing or web browsing.

2) Really motivated post-docs who loves science and live and die by it, but aren't applying for grants and don't seem to know the politics of academia. All that seems important to them is "publishing the paper". However, despite their microscopic view of life seem very happy.

3) The post-doc who really has it together. Is applying for the R01 and doing good research. May or may not be totally interested in his work, but is motivated by lateral movement upwards in a future faculty position. Works the phone and networks with other PIs/scientist regarding collaborations/project advice/jobs.

So I often wonder where I fit in somewhere in the bunch and at the moment I only see myself falling into category #1. And I wonder, would going into a Ph.D. program be a wise decision, and would it really motivate me enough to be a #2 or #3? I definitely have an interest in research, but not the passion I think to make some sacrifices in life for research (social, family, money, locational stability, etc).

I have asked many of the post-docs in my lab that if they had the chance to start all over again, would they still get a Ph.D? Half (mostly Europeans) said no, they would go do something else (and if they had to undergo the U.S. grad school system absolutely not). The other half (mostly Asian) say absolutely yes, that it is the only way to do "research" (which is an ambigious term). I wonder at times if this disparity of opinion is a cultural difference? Myself being Asian-American, I can understand where there is a cultural misconception among Asians that a higher degree always promises greater fruits (mostly monetary), which may or may not be true in science.

So, have any of you felt that being in a grad program has made you more motivated by research? When I expressed my concerns with a post-doc in my lab, she advised me to not go into a program if I have this uncertainty. But is this really good advice?

Andy thanks for your input. When I meant "justice", I think post-docs should just be paid more that what they are currently. I don't think any of them would disagree with that. I do understand why the system is the way it is though with the "outsourcing" of jobs and less and less American students going into the sciences and grad school, recruitment of foreigners into the graduate programs in the sciences.

Re: Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby Nikos » Thu Jan 20, 2005 3:13 pm

Hey there Tom,

Your post raises some interesting points. I guess I will give you my my take from my perspective. Im a third year graduate student with a couple of years left to go before wrapping things I would hope. Now about three years ago when I started this journey I was very intrigued by discovery and the curiosity in me spurred me to want to learn and become a significant contributor to biomedical research in whatever niche I pursued. At this point, I certainly know a lot more now than I did then, but Im not only talking about creative thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to sort through difficult challenges encountered in my research, but rather the difficulty one faces in their pursuit of a career as a biomedical scientist. What I mean by this is that it is ridiculously evident that there are an excessive number of graduate students, both trained and incoming, and an even larger number of postdoctoral fellows, for the given number of positions that are out there for academic scientist positions throughout the country, and I do not see this trend changing any time soon. I feel that across graduate schools throughout the country, this fundamental issue of supply and demands is not at all discussed by any graduate school websiteor by any program director. I would love to see PhD programs in the biological sciences track their graduates like many professional schools(law, business, etc) do, and I am talking about beyond the postdoctoral position into a full time entry level job, whatever it may be.

Nevertheless, irrespective of all of my griping about the system as a whole, even if you have a little bit of uncertainty I would recommend you pursue the PhD if you enjoy the conceptual aspect of your research and enjoy the daily challenges and solutions that you attempt to employ in your thinking process. Another thing that many, if not all, graduate schools fail to tell their students is that after obtaining your PhD, you do NOT have to stay in research. I personally feel that with the analytical and creative capabilities you develop throughout your graduate school career, you can transition into a multitude of other careers including consulting, market research, patent drafting/review, quality control, technical support, business development, etc. Now of course, if your liking of research turns into a "love" of what you do, then you can always stick to the basic research route and pursue your dream. Either way, pursuit of the advanced level degree will prove to be very advantageous in your career pursuits.

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Links of interest

Postby Tom » Thu Jan 20, 2005 5:07 pm

Hey Nick,

Thanks for the advice. I did remember a grad student in a lab I was doing undergraduate research in having a similar perspective, that after he received his Ph.D. he would go into consulting for a biotech firm. This was about five years ago, and unfortunately I don't know what happened to him.

Well, here is an interesting report I found about the statistics for post-docs in regard to the demographics, salaries, careers, etc. Unfortunately 2001 is the latest data that could be dug up. It is located here:

These two sites have good articles regarding grad school and careers (perhaps you've found them): Science, Math, and Engineering Career Resources:

Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology:

That former is maintained by previous Ph.D.s at Dartmouth.

Also since you are a 3rd year, a last link which you might enjoy is It is a comic strip written by a Stanford Ph.D. student that lampoons the typical life of a graduate student. Really funny.

Does a Ph.D. program really prepare you to be a good scientist?

Postby AMK » Thu Jan 20, 2005 7:24 pm

Interestingly, as a post doc, I do not fit into either of your categories. I love what I do as a scientist, but have no aspirations of becoming a PI (For a number of reasons which I will not go into here). And nor will I dedicate my life to science? I simply enjoy working the field. However, it has left me wanting (financially speaking of course), and lead me down a path where I am now self employed (part time), and a post-doc (full-time)

Please keep in mind that one is only limited by their own mind. Just because you complete a PhD, it does not mean your abilities are restricted that field. The ability to critically dissect problems comes in handy in any discipline (For example, I am a post-doc in molecular biology, but I also own & operate my own business with no formal business training). This ability (or confidence I should say) to back my self, I learnt while I was doing honours and PhD.

By completing a PhD, you will (or at least should) learn to stand on your own feet. No one can take that away from you. So the question should not be, will the PhD flame your desire as a scientist (great f it does!), but will it prepare you to take on new challenges. And I would argue, that it does!

Best of Luck 



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