Predicting the future of science and the Ph.D.

David-Edwards-bannerAs a child, whenever somebody asked me about my future, what I planned on doing when I grew up, I already knew the answer: I was going to be a physician. I enjoyed medicine, I liked helping people, and doctors, as a whole, seemed confident and glamorous. Becoming a physician was a confluence of everything I loved and wanted in a career. The question wasn’t hard, and the answer never changed.

Until, that was, I entered college. For a variety of reasons, I realized that I preferred medical research to clinical practice. I switched my interests over to graduate school instead of medical school and, years later, I am the struggling, nervous, easily excitable fourth-year graduate student who’s writing to you now.

And yet, despite this seemingly decisive change in my professional aspirations, I never regained that confidence I had as a child. I recently had my dissertation committee meeting, and when I was asked directly about my future plans (academia, industry, etc.), I admitted somewhat sheepishly that I didn’t know.

That’s the truth—I don’t really know. I have no idea about my future, other than (a) I will probably graduate with my Ph.D.; and (b) I will have significantly more white hair as a result of the effort.

But the indecision isn’t unique to me (despite the Imposter Syndrome-like feeling sometimes that I’m the one graduate student unable to pick a freakin’ lane career-wise). Not only are other students also having these tumultuous self-reflections, the entire scientific Ph.D. enterprise is undergoing seismic evaluations of its utility and effectiveness in training the next generation of scientists.

Graduate school is built on the ancient model of apprenticeship, where fledging scientists trained under the tutelage of an older, experienced scientist, become scientists themselves, then train a new generation of fledgling scientists, and the solipsistic, snake-eating-its-own-tail cycle repeats itself.

But is this system relevant, especially in a world where didactic information is increasingly prized over critical thinking, and “alternative” careers, like alternative rock, are increasingly becoming more mainstream and accepted (and enjoyed by middle-aged dads everywhere)?

I’m a member of a committee, called the creativeIDEAS Committee, which was established to answer this very question at OHSU. Its mission is to”engage the OHSU community to evaluate the current state and envision the future of doctoral education in the School of Medicine.”

This is a grand undertaking, one that wouldn’t be possible without the impassioned input of everyone on campus. This week, on March 9th from 4 – 6 p.m. in BICC Gallery, there will be an open house event soliciting feedback on what the future of the Ph.D. programs in the School of Medicine will look like. Please consider attending the event because the the reimagining of those programs, indeed their future, is in your hands. And the future, it can’t be stressed enough, is incredibly hard to predict.

But with your help, with the collective effort of hundreds of intelligent and committed educators and scientists and students, we won’t need to predict it—we can build it ourselves.

This is the first post in what will hopefully become a collection of various thoughts and reflections on the future of scientific careers, the intricacies of science education and what in the world I’m doing with my life. Trust me, it’ll be fun!

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