Catalyzing the Modernization of Graduate Education

A major overhaul of how we educate graduate students in biomedical research is long overdue.

Science has changed dramatically over the past three decades. The amount of information available about biological systems has grown exponentially. New methods allow us to examine the inner workings of cells with unprecedented resolution and to generate expansive datasets describing the expression of every mRNA or metabolite in a system. Biomedical research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative, and the questions we seek to answer are more and more complex. Finally, as the scientific enterprise has expanded, Ph.D.s have pursued increasingly diverse careers in the research and development, education and related sectors.

Despite these major changes, we educate Ph.D. students in biomedical research in essentially the same way as we did 25 or more years ago. As Alan Leshner put it in a recent editorial Exit icon in Science magazine, “It is time for the scientific and education communities to take a more fundamental look at how graduate education in science is structured and consider, given the current environment, whether a major reconfiguration of the entire system is needed.”

Problems related to the reproducibility and rigor of scientific studies Exit icon are likely driven in part by the inadequacies of an outdated system for educating our trainees. When nearly any student can sequence hundreds of millions of bases of DNA in a few days, does it make sense that all of our students are not given a significant amount of training in quantitative and computational analyses? And as we delve into more complex biological systems, shouldn’t students be receiving in-depth training in rigorous experimental design and data interpretation before they embark on their thesis work?

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Outcomes Analysis of the NIGMS Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP)

We recently analyzed the educational and career outcomes of scholars who participated in the NIGMS Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP). The goal of this program, which we started in 2000, is to prepare recent baccalaureate graduates from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences for entry into—and completion of—rigorous Ph.D. training programs. PREP is part of a larger effort at NIGMS to support the development of a highly skilled, creative and diverse biomedical research workforce.

PREP grants are awarded to research-intensive institutions. Each grant supports five to 10 scholars who spend 75 percent of their time as apprentice scientists pursuing a mentored discovery research project and the remainder engaged in academic and professional development activities. These include a program of study to enhance their academic record and workshops to improve their writing and presentation skills.

Our assessment of PREP outcomes is based on various educational and career metrics for PREP scholars supported from 2001 to 2014 through 41 institutional programs. For more details about the analysis, read the report.

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Training Career Outcomes

Last week, I wrote to NIGMS-funded T32 program directors to encourage them to inform students about trainee career outcomes. Because this topic is also relevant to the broader community, I’d like to share the message here.

 

Dear NIGMS T32 Training Grant Program Director:

At the June 2015 meeting of NIGMS training, workforce development, and diversity program directors Exit icon, Peter Preusch, Dick Okita and I discussed the importance of making post-training career outcomes available to current and prospective students. The goal of collecting and sharing data on Ph.D. career outcomes is consistent with recommendations of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH. This topic has also been addressed by the Association of American Medical Colleges Exit icon, the Council of Graduate Schools Exit icon and a recent Molecular Biology of the Cell article.

 

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Outcomes Analysis of the NIGMS Diversity Supplement Program

We recently analyzed outcomes of the NIGMS Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (referred to here as the Diversity Supplement Program or DSP), which provides investigators holding active NIGMS research grants with supplemental funds to support scholars from groups underrepresented in biomedical science. Using a public search approach, we could track a large proportion of participants—but not all—through doctoral training and into various careers. We assessed the educational and career outcomes for undergraduate, graduate student and postdoctoral participants supported by supplements between 1989 and 2006, and we encourage you to explore the report.

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Funding Opportunities for Predoctoral Training

You may be interested in these recent funding opportunity announcements:

Jointly Sponsored Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Institutional Predoctoral Training Program in the Neurosciences (T32)
(PAR-15-178)

Purpose: Prepare predoctoral students for independent research careers in the neurosciences
Letter of intent due dates: 30 days prior to the application due date
Application due dates: June 10, 2015; May 25, 2016; May 25, 2017
NIGMS contact: Stephen Korn, 301-496-4188

Availability of Administrative Supplements to NIGMS Predoctoral Training Grants (Admin Supp)
(PA-15-136)

Purpose: Request supplemental funds to existing predoctoral training grants to develop and implement curricular activities to enhance rigor and reproducibility in research and broaden training activities to better prepare students for a variety of scientific career paths
Application due date: April 30, 2015
NIGMS contact: Shiva Singh, 301-594-3900