Neuroscience professor discusses academic job market, careers on Reddit series

Sunday, June 12, 2016 - 1:07am

Friday afternoon, Huda Akil, the Gardner Quarton distinguished professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, along with five neuroscientists from various other institutions, participated in Reddit’s Science Ask Me Anything series, to discuss training future neuroscientists. The Science AMA series features researchers and other experts speaking directly to Reddit users about their experience.

Friday’s featured AMA participants also recently published an article in the neuroscience journal Neuron, discussing to discuss the current trends in training neuroscience scholars, with emphasis on new technologies, collaborations among scientists of different disciplines, the need for new experimental and analytical approaches and training for careers outside academia.

The two main topics discussed during Friday's AMA session were what current trainees felt were the biggest problems with the training process and advice for current or prospective trainees.

Many Reddit users asked questions about the academic job market, particularly concerning the lack of guidance from academic advisors to prepare students for jobs outside academia. From 1982 to 2011, the annual number of Ph.D. degrees awarded almost doubled from about 19,000 to 36,000, but the number of new faculty positions created annually—about 3,000 positions—has not changed during that time period.

One user wrote that s/he feels career development is a major concern for graduate students, many of whom are considering careers in the private sector due to lack of jobs in academics, pointing out that many graduate students have no experience interacting with the private sector.

Akil responded that graduate programs should offer many options for students to explore career paths outside academia. She also voiced concern over the negativity students feel about academic careers, saying it's exaggerated by a negative atmosphere surrounding the difficult circumstances in academia, which discourages students from pursuing an academic career path.

“I do think that young people have many personal factors to consider, and that they are trying to make the best choices for themselves at a complicated time,” Akil wrote. “But I am concerned that we may be inadvertently taking some choices off the table for people—that all the negative talk about the difficulties in funding and the demands of academia discourage some people from going that direction, including applying for academic positions for which they are highly qualified.”

S. Murray Sherman, Maurice Goldblatt professor and chair of the neurobiology department at the University of Chicago, agreed that training students for non-academic jobs is important but argued that the basic scientific training a Ph.D. student receives should not be compromised since training students receive in graduate school is valuable for non-academic jobs as well.

“Simply put, I believe the basis of Ph.D. training is essential even for jobs outside of academia,” Sherman wrote. “In my view we (or at least most of us) train students to be genuine scientists, and genuine scientists are needed in the many diverse fields beyond academia, even if these students end up in careers that do not involve active research.”

Edda (Floh) Thiels, associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the National Science Foundation, echoed that collaborations are becoming increasingly important, especially in neuroscience.

“Collaboration and teamwork are important skills to teach and enable trainees to hone, for our ability to continue to make significant advances in understanding the brain depends increasingly on our ability to bring together and leverage different kinds of expertise,” Thiels wrote.

One user asked whether pursuing a dual-degree program to obtain both an M.D. and a Ph.D. would be useful if s/he is interested in more fundamental research than clinical.

Akil responded that having an M.D. and a Ph.D. would provide a unique perspective, but, depending on personal preferences, that may or may not justify the extra time and effort to obtain both degrees since it’s possible to practice in the clinic with just an M.D. and to do research with just a Ph.D.