Thursday, November 3, 2011

Petitioning for PhDs

I just found out about a petition to make graduate student stipends tax exempt once again. The strain of a meager income piled onto the stress of getting a PhD is certainly less than idea.  Further it is frustrating that not all stipends are created equal. The relative comfort in which a student studies will depend on a number of factors such as their discipline, institution, funding source, etc. (here is a great sampling from the biomedical sciences). Despite the unwelcome monetary pressures, I think that being compensated (including stipend tuition, health insurance and travel) to get a PhD is far more valuable than any tax exemption.

Of far greater concern to me is the declining currency given my degree. Are PhDs becoming a dime a dozen? Or is it that our training is of limited relevance outside of academic and research contexts? Traditionally, many PhDs have gotten jobs in industry and at science funding, advocacy and regulatory agencies. There are others, but are these established PhD-friendly venues becoming overcrowded?  Where are the new and exciting career pathways?

I recall being told that life with a PhD is good (it is) and that my disciplinary focus was unimportant to the "outside" world (less true). Perhaps I was just naive and a bad listener, but they made finding employment worthy of my degree sound so easy! But finding "my place" has not been simple for me--nor has is it for others.  Struggles are unavoidable, but for PhDs they are becoming less existential and more about adequate compensation and reliable employment.  The stresses many postdocs express as well as the proliferation of postdoc-only career fairs, soft skills training seminars and other supplemental career/job services are indicators of concern.

The dilemma for postdocs is a difficult one that will require dedicated focus to resolve. I think that education and training is a powerful thing for individuals and for society. Simply stopping the flow and support of scholars isn't the answer.  But we must be creative in our thinking and innovative  in our utilization of the PhD talent that we have invested so heavily in.  How can PhDs be further empowered to contribute in a wider array of employment sectors?

Its clear to me that while postdocs are in dependent professional relationships, we can no longer view their needs as wholly subservient to those of the PI, the university or to research itself. A petition demanding that?? That's one I would definitely sign!

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