Give Input on Strategies for Modernizing Biomedical Graduate Education

We’ve been examining how best to support the modernization of graduate education at the national level to ensure that trainees gain the skills, abilities and knowledge they need to be successful in the biomedical research workforce.

We’re involved in a variety of efforts. For example, we and other NIH institutes and centers provided support for the development of training modules on rigor and reproducibility. We encouraged graduate programs at institutions that receive predoctoral T32 support from us to make their alumni career outcomes publicly available to prospective and current students. We’ve also offered administrative supplements to predoctoral T32 training grants to support innovative approaches in the areas of rigor and reproducibility, career outcomes and graduate education. In April, we held a symposium covering these and other topics in graduate education. Finally, we plan to write a new predoctoral T32 funding announcement.

We’re now soliciting input from the biomedical research community and other interested groups in response to a new request for information (RFI) on strategies for modernizing biomedical graduate education. We’d like to know your thoughts on:

  • Current strengths, weaknesses and challenges in graduate biomedical education.
  • Changes that could enhance graduate education to ensure that scientists of tomorrow have the skills, abilities and knowledge they need to advance biomedical research as efficiently and effectively as possible.
  • Major barriers to achieving these changes and potential strategies to overcome them.
  • Key skills that graduate students should develop in order to become outstanding biomedical scientists and the best approaches for developing those skills.
  • Potential approaches to modernizing graduate education through the existing NIGMS institutional predoctoral training grants.
  • Anything else you feel is important for us to consider.

Responses can be submitted via an online form Exit icon and can be anonymous. They can also be emailed to modernPhD@mail.nih.gov. The due date for responses is August 5, 2016.

6 comments on “Give Input on Strategies for Modernizing Biomedical Graduate Education

  1. With the exception of students in Biomedical Engineering, many students being trained for careers in biomedical research often lack sufficient skills in quantitative methods. This is especially true for research that invokes rate equations or proper use of probability and statistics in data analysis. For “rigor and reproducibility” a good training curriculum should include higher math, with real biomedical applications invoked for exemplary problems.

  2. It will be important to take into consideration the global competitiveness of U.S. students in STEM. The Bologna Process has provided European higher education (across countries) the ability to compare skill sets on a common standard (http://www.ehea.info/) . The U.S. students and faculty need to understand that the student’s skill sets must make them globally competitive in biomedical fields.

    “TUNING” educational structures in Europe (http://www.unideusto.org/tuningeu/) provide information on what European education is implementing on competancies in a variety of discipline areas. Here are some examples of competancies for Chemistry (http://www.unideusto.org/tuningeu/images/stories/Publications/CHEMISTRY_FOR_WEBSITE.pdf) and Physics (http://www.unideusto.org/tuningeu/images/stories/Publications/PHYSICS_FOR_WEBSITE.pdf).

  3. The issues facing graduate education are much more entrenched and systematic than implied by the issues referred to in this post. They include the preparation of undergraduates through facts rather than concepts; the limited motivation (and ability) of faculty to train, teach, and mentor; the emphasis on the ‘success’ of experiments and projects (and where they are published), instead of the student’s scientific ‘mastery’; and the related pressure to compete to succeed rather than to learn and to contribute to science and society. A further problem is the framing of these issues in terms of ‘training’ and ‘workforce.’ To achieve the most transformative goals as individuals and as a scientific enterprise we want to ‘empower’ students, encouraging and preparing them pursue their passions, to make new discoveries, to find new frontiers –not ‘train’ them to carry out a particular technique for experiments for a particular subaim of a particular grant; as a society, we want to train citizen-scientists who will contribute throughout society and not be simply a ‘workforce.’ We as scientists are extraordinarily privileged to have the opportunity to pursue our ideas and dreams. While we will disagree on individual problems and solutions, let’s take on the challenge –or responsibility– to ensure that generations to come will continue to have this privilege, and that society will reap the benefits of a vibrant and creative scientific enterprise –benefits that extend well beyond the training of a workforce.

    • Dan Hershlag’s comments beautifully reflect my own thoughts on the matter. Administrators (and I serve as one as an Institute Director) need quantitative measures of production and it is relatively easy to assess the parameters of understanding rigor, quantitative biology, career choices in the work force, etc. Lost in the shuffle is how we enable people to become deep thinkers, problem solvers, and build upon their appreciation for the inherent beauty in biology. And the incredible reward and thrill of doing an experiment that answers a question, instead of generating a question from a scattershot of data. Biomedical PhD’s should be thought leaders in society, with a good comprehension of the history of science and biology and the potential impact of their work. To some extent, the “quantitizing” of how we train graduate students risks minimizing the reason that people enter the biological sciences in the first place: that the molecular, cellular, and behavioral bases of life are the coolest things to know.

  4. Many of these previous comments hit to the point but do not offer specifics of how we train next generation of deep thinkers/good citizens/etc. My personal (perhaps anecdotal) impression is that current undergraduate and graduate training lacks teaching of the basics of scientific method. We rarely if ever discuss what it actually means to do science. Education needs a reform where we define scientific method – perhaps with thorough discussion of what different philosophers of science put into that definition. In my view, Karl Popper had it right – we can never proof anything in biology but we can disprove. Current system, however, is aimed and rewards “splashy” findings/proofs rather than testing and rejection of many alternative hypotheses – so-called strong inference of Platt. Current ways of training of how to do science – e.g., do as I do it – are not working anymore, because of high degree of unreproducible science. The problem is deeper, though – because in my personal experience there are very few people who remember those fundamental (Popper’s and Platt’s) definitions of the scientific method, and rarely people know how to use them appropriately. I wonder if people who do not utilize Popper’s scientific method and principles of strong inference in their research are able to teach them effectively to students.

  5. I think I agree with several of the comments before mine. But let me dumb this down for everyone. I think we should be focused on teaching students how to (1) THINK critically and innovatively, (2) SPEAK with purpose and to a broad audience, and (3) WRITE logically and persuasively, using data (with appropriate use of statistics) to bolster your arguments and direct future plans. These skills are valuable regardless the professional path that follows. They are foundational if one is to go on in academic, industrial, or government biomedical research but equally valuable in patent law, science writing, advocacy, etc. These skills also require a lot of time and skills on the part of teachers, and these are hard to find in a graduate education system that does not value devotion of one’s time to such activities. How about NIGMS consider looking into how the teachers of our graduate students are being “rewarded”. How about T32’s and other funding mechanisms consider the structure of the graduate school and whether it is configured for the student or to maximize “profits” for a dean or to move the money to pet projects. Finally, for a scary exercise, ask your graduate faculty to answer a few questions: (a) List 10 things that you think every student graduating from your program should know. (b) What is the purpose of the course work in your program? (c) What is the goal of the thesis? (d) What is your definition of a successful student outcome? Once you get feedback, meet and discuss. Be prepared for diversity of opinions. It is hard to design a curriculum or other activities when there is no consensus as to the purpose or goals.

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