Expanding Biomedical Degree Options

Columnist
Graduate Division

Every week we see exciting science and technology news pop up in our social media news feeds. From the outside it may seem that the science industry is blazing forward in an unstoppable surge of discovery and innovation. On the inside, though, those exciting publications are relatively rare examples of success that result from some talent, a lot of hard work, and a boatload of luck. The luck part wouldn’t be such a problem if an impactful publication record weren’t a prerequisite for “making it” in the science industry.

There are many ongoing discussions of the science pyramid: where one principal investigator trains several postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, most of whom have traditionally had their eyes set on a research career. This system is not sustainable. This isn’t news, given that the system has always been set up this way, but the issue has gotten a lot more attention since cuts in the government’s science budgets and the financial struggles of the pharmaceutical industry have put additional pressure on Ph.D. scientists’ job searches and job security.

The modern world we live in requires a lot of innovation in science and engineering. This has made STEM fields particularly lucrative and prestigious, evidenced by the wave of young tech billionaires and the number one world university ranking of MIT. Many, including President Obama, are urging more young people to get into STEM fields to keep making discoveries, solving problems, and improving lives.

The problem is, we have too many biology Ph.D. scientists and not enough jobs for them. Every year a new batch of bright young scientists enter Ph.D. programs, expecting that their passion and talent for science will make them the next wildly successful researcher. Passion and talent work out well for engineering majors, most of whom go into tech companies either fresh out of college or after a master’s degree. You don’t need an advanced degree or an established reputation to make it big at a company like Apple, Google or SpaceX; if you’re good at what you do and work hard, you can quickly rise into management positions.

For biology majors fresh out of college, on the other hand, the most prominent options are entering a life sciences PhD program, going to medical school, or heading straight into biotech, where they’ll hold lower positions than PhD scientists and won’t necessarily be able to climb into management. A biology major with big dreams generally chooses between the all-too-binary MD or PhD options. If you don’t want to be a physician but want to move forward in science, you typically go to graduate school and get a PhD. I know PhD candidates who want to continue in academic research, transition into industry, or go into science policy, law, writing, communication, or outreach. Is a five-year research project on one focused topic the correct preparation for all of these careers?

That brings me to my proposition. The biomedical industry in the United States is lacking a meaningful master’s degree – not just a terminal master’s given to those leaving their Ph.D. programs. It needs to take a leaf out of engineering’s book and create a solid degree program that focuses on breadth and prepares science students for the many career options outside of academic research. A two-year master’s program in biomedical science would have classwork covering basic biology subjects such as physiology, immunology, stem cells and development, and human diseases including cancer, diabetes and obesity, infection and allergy, neurodegeneration, etc. In addition to broad and extensive coursework, students would rotate through laboratories in different broad categories throughout the program. Working in labs for six weeks at a time over two years would expose students to the traditional and cutting edge laboratory approaches used in each field and give them a basic level of hands-on experience in a wide variety of biomedical fields.

I believe that a focus on breadth, both in coursework and in the lab, would be more valuable training for the scientists who want to make contributions to science but not necessarily as independent academic principal investigators. If you’re going into a biotech company that develops new therapies for both cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, you’d want to have some knowledge and experience in both diseases – something your PhD thesis research is unlikely to give you. If you’re going to be a science writer or policy maker, breadth is also more important than depth.

In fact, even academic research-bound scientists would benefit from going through a breadth-oriented master’s program that could show them firsthand what questions in biomedical science they’re passionate about answering before they narrow their interest and choose a PhD thesis lab. I know I would love that kind of education.

It’s the 21st century, and our industry needs an updated education program. Our undergraduate programs need to be more open with their students about what they’re getting themselves into if they pursue a PhD, but our graduate programs also need to step up and create new ways for bright young students to succeed in this field.