A Glut of PhDs Also Impacting the Sciences, says Tilghman

With much discussion of the current plight of the humanities, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of what the sciences and humanities share as academic disciplines. Changing funding and university structures affect the sciences as well, from graduate students to senior faculty.

The most recent speaker in the Chancellor’s Colloquium series, Shirley Tilghman, is President Emerita and Professor of Molecular Biology of Princeton University, and the talk that she gave on Tuesday, January 27 at the Mondavi Center was called “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: A Life in Biomedical Science” and was followed by a question and answer session with Harris Lewin, Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Davis.

In her talk, Tilghman describes biomedical science as simultaneously experiencing opportunities that are “almost breathtaking” as well as structural flaws that may threaten the future of the field.

Graduate programs across the country are producing too many PhDs, glutting the market with researchers, but with not enough permanent positions (and, indeed, not even enough temporary postdoc positions) to go around.

Tilghman’s paper ‘Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws” offers potential solutions for how her field might begin to save itself from its own problems. These include diversifying training for graduate students as well as diversifying graduate offerings themselves so as to not direct all students through the narrow funnel of the postdoc and reserving the postdoc itself for those who wish to go on to research careers, not treating it as the default step it tends to be now.

Tilghman explained what these alternative modes of training might look like in the Q & A with Levin. Just as the humanities have had to take a long, hard look at their career placement, so do biomedical departments need to help their students explore other employment outside of the academy and learn what it means to work in industry or the government.

Tilghman, as the first woman president of Princeton, was asked a number of questions regarding her experiences as a woman in a field dominated by men, and how she handles the issues of mentorship between men and women.

To women starting out in the sciences, she says, “Learn to defend your turf. Be prepared to speak out and defend your position. Don’t ever let people tell you that you can’t combine family and work.”

The next speaker in the Colloquium series will be Nigel Thrift, a professor and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Warwick. His talk, entitled “Why Geography Matters,” will be on Monday, February 23 at 4 pm at the Mondavi Center. The series programming will finish the year with two speakers in the spring quarter, Donna E. Shalala and Teresa Sullivan. Shalala, whose talk will be on Friday, April 10, is Professor of Political Science and President of the University of Miami, as well as the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Sullivan is President of the University of Virginia and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her talk will occur on Monday, May 4. For more on upcoming speakers in the series, visit the DHI’s events page.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English