Make science PhDs more than just a training path for academia

Sarah Anderson

Taken from

My committee member looked up from the document in his hand, which detailed my ideas for my research proposal. He cleared his throat: “You know, when you apply for faculty positions…” he began. I gave a quick, impulsive nod in response, but thought to myself, “That’s never going to happen.”

I’m a PhD candidate in chemistry with no intention of pursuing a career in academia, and I’m certainly not alone: out of 81 students in my programme, only 40% plan to go into academia. A more comprehensive survey of 5,700 science doctoral students worldwide, conducted in 2017, found that 75% of respondents wanted to work in academia after graduation, although a significant portion of those reported equivalent interest in the industry sector, suggesting indecision1. Clearly, the desire to pursue academia is not universal among PhD students. Furthermore, tenure-track job openings are a rare find: a study of job availability carried out in 2014 concluded that only 13% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the United States2.

Despite the lack of exclusive interest in academic careers and the low demand for professors, PhD programmes are designed to accommodate students with their sights set on academia. This fact is evident in the requirements that PhD students must meet to earn their doctoral degree, as well as the events hosted and sponsored by science departments.

Research is of course at the heart of a PhD, and assessment of productivity through a qualifying exam and thesis defence is needed to bestow a doctorate. But the goal of an original research proposal, such as the one my committee member was holding, isn’t to evaluate progress, but rather to serve as practice for developing exploratory project ideas and securing funding for them — skills most relevant to future professors.

This agenda isn’t hidden: the reminder that a great proposal could be used later in faculty applications was dangled in front of my colleagues and me as a largely inapplicable and therefore ineffective incentive to put in the work.

Also, the majority of events hosted by science departments — seminars given by professors, lunches with professors, panels of professors — are of greatest value to students taking an academic route.Collection: Young scientists

There are typically more opportunities for non-academic professional development outside of a candidate’s department of study, such as science-journalism and business-certification courses. But a lack of department promotion and sponsorship of these programmes means that students are often either unaware of their existence or feel discouraged from participating.

Research proposals are one example in which PhD programme requirements could be better tailored to the career goals of each individual student. Those interested in science communication shouldn’t waste their time producing a proposal for research they’re not interested in performing. They could instead write a piece on their research targeted at a non-expert audience, for example. Similarly, those planning to enter industry could pitch a new product, and those aiming to become lecturers could participate in and report on a teaching internship. Choosing a career track with corresponding requirements could become as standard as selecting an inorganic, organic, physical or biological chemistry track.

The events hosted and sponsored by science departments are an area in which graduate school could become more inclusive and beneficial to students pursuing careers beyond academia. There are many professionals in industry and non-conventional fields who could occupy some slots on the department calendar. Furthermore, by promoting external programmes aimed at non-academic-career preparation, science departments could ensure that students are aware of such opportunities and display public support for their participation.

To successfully implement these changes, we must first subvert the assumption on which PhD programmes seem to be built: that their participants plan to pursue academia. This mindset is in part a consequence of PhD programmes being crafted by professors who used their own career trajectory as a template.

But I suspect it’s also a product of the unfortunate reality that PhD advisers simply do not view non-academic careers with the same degree of admiration. The fact that multiple people have written articles on how to break the apparently devastating news to your adviser that you aren’t following in their footsteps speaks volumes. If academia can’t appreciate the inherent value of professions beyond ‘research professor’, then maybe it can at least recognize the benefits it gains from having PhD-trained scientists in roles outside academia.

For example, science communicators create crucial dialogue between scientists and the public, helping to establish a wider audience for researchers’ work and prevent misinterpretation of findings. Those in the field of science policy help to inform important regulations that affect national agencies funding academic research. High-school science teachers, lecturers and lab instructors are training the next generation of graduate students who will work in university labs. Hopefully, the PhD programmes that these students experience help them to feel validated in and prepared for whatever career path they choose.

Nature 573, 299-300 (2019)doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02586-5

****Interested in contributing original content to the blog? If so, contact Morgan at

Step 1 Medical Boards now Pass/Fail. Good or bad?

By now everyone has heard the bombshell that was dropped by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) on February 12 about transitioning the Step 1 exam from a 3-digit numerical score to a pass/fail outcome starting in 2022. For those of you who do not know, this is the exam that is typically taken by second year medical students to complete the scientific training portion of their medical education. It contains mostly what is referred to as the three-Ps: Physiology, Pathology, and Pharmacology with a little microbiology and anatomy also sprinkled in there. Traditionally the score on this exam has been one of the strongest measures on what specialty a medical student can go into after completing their M.D. Now a big wrench has been thrown into that process, so what do we think? Good or Bad? I’ll try to be brief.

Most medical students cite this exam as the black hole of medical school and the worst period of their entire medical education. This stress level was actually one of the major reasons why the NBME went to the pass/fail option. Susan Skochelak, Chief Academic Officer for the AMA commented on this change saying that “Our student, resident, and physician members voted to endorse a pass/fail policy, in part because we know that our current residency selection system is causing significant distress for our students.”

I agree with this assessment, the extent of scientific knowledge that is demanded by medical students cannot simply be evaluated with a single 8-hour exam. But is making one exam pass/fail really the change in medical education that we need? Many schools already have a pass/fail curriculum and Step 1 was a chance for students to set themselves apart from the crowd. Now the focus shifts to the Step 2 exam which is given in two parts: CS – an in person clinical skills test and CK – a written exam given after year 3 which covers the clinical clerkships learned during the 3rd year of medical school. The CS has already been pass/fail and the CK will remain a scored exam.

In my opinion such a shift in policy now requires the shift in medical education that has been needed for years. Since there will be less focus on the score of the scientific knowledge, the medical education system needs to change their baseline curriculum to reflect the change that this brings. Most medical students do not go to class already because they are focusing on boards, what is a pass/fail option going to do to attendance now? I think this is the chance for medical schools to make the scientific knowledge part of the required reading prior to entering a classroom and make the classroom more interactive and hands-on. Make the first two-years of medical school more condensed and make the scientific knowledge part of the future case studies that will be relevant to their practice of medicine. Many schools already have this kind of process through a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum.

I think this is a step in the right direction (no pun intended). In this new age of modern medicine we need to think about ways to best train the scientists and physicians of the future. I am interested in seeing the data 20 years from now about how this has changed the way medical students learn and how medical schools adapt to this new policy. What is your opinion about this new policy change? Is this change good or bad for medical education?Share in the comments!

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Secrets to writing a winning grant

Emily Sohn

Taken from

When Kylie Ball begins a grant-writing workshop, she often alludes to the funding successes and failures that she has experienced in her career. “I say, ‘I’ve attracted more than $25 million in grant funding and have had more than 60 competitive grants funded. But I’ve also had probably twice as many rejected.’ A lot of early-career researchers often find those rejections really tough to take. But I actually think you learn so much from the rejected grants.”

Grant writing is a job requirement for research scientists who need to fund projects year after year. Most proposals end in rejection, but missteps give researchers a chance to learn how to find other opportunities, write better proposals and navigate the system. Taking time to learn from the setbacks and successes of others can help to increase the chances of securing funds, says Ball, who runs workshops alongside her role as a behavioural scientist at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Do your research

Competition for grants has never been more intense. The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme is the European Union’s largest-ever research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion (US$89 billion) in funding set aside between 2014 and 2020. It reported a 14% success rate for its first 100 calls for proposals, although submissions to some categories had lower success rates. The commission has published its proposal for Horizon Europe, the €100-billion programme that will succeed Horizon 2020. In Australia, since 2017, the National Health and Medical Research Council has been funding less than 20% of proposals it receives. And the US National Science Foundation (NSF) received 49,415 proposals and funded 11,447 of them in 2017 — less than 25%. That’s tens of thousands of rejections in a single year from the NSF alone.

Being a renowned scientist doesn’t ensure success. On the same day that molecular biologist Carol Greider won a Nobel prize in 2009, she learnt that her recently submitted grant proposal had been rejected. “Even on the day when you win the Nobel prize,” she said in a 2017 graduation speech at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, “sceptics may question whether you really know what you’re doing.”

To increase the likelihood of funding success, scientists suggest doing an extensive search of available grants and noting differences in the types of project financed by various funding bodies. Government agencies such as the NSF tend to be interested in basic science that addresses big, conceptual questions, says Leslie Rissler, programme director at the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology in Alexandria, Virginia. A private foundation, however, might prioritize projects that inform social change or that have practical implications that fit into one of its specific missions.

Pitching a proposal

Before beginning an application, you should read descriptions and directions carefully, advises Ball, who recently pored over 200 pages of online material before starting a proposal. That effort can save time in the end, helping researchers to work out which awards are a good fit and which aren’t. “If you’re not absolutely spot on with what they’re looking for, it may not be worth your time in writing that grant,” she says.

Experienced scientists suggest studying successful proposals, which can often be acquired from trusted colleagues and supervisors, university libraries or online databases. A website called Open Grants, for example, includes more than 200 grants, both successful and unsuccessful, that are free to peruse.

Grant writers shouldn’t fear e-mailing or calling a grants agency to talk through their potential interest in a project, advises Amanda Stanley, executive director at COMPASS, a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that supports environmental scientists. For six years, she worked as a programme officer for the Wilburforce Foundation in Seattle, Washington, which supports conservation science. At this and other private foundations, the application process often begins with a ‘soft pitch’ that presents a brief case for the project. Those pitches should cover several main points, Stanley says: “‘Here’s what I’m trying to do. Here’s why it’s important. Here’s a little bit about me and the people I’m collaborating with. Would you like to talk further?’” She notes that a successful proposal must closely align with a foundation’s strategic goals.

Each organization has its own process, but next steps typically include a phone conversation, a written summary and, finally, an invitation to submit a formal application. “Once you’ve gotten that invitation to submit a proposal from the programme officer, your chances of getting funded are really, really high,” Stanley says.

Drs Cheryl Smythe and Fiamma Salerno
Grants manager Cheryl Smythe (left) allows for IT glitches when submitting grant proposals.Credit: Dr Louisa Wood

The write stuff

Applicants should put themselves in the shoes of grant reviewers, who might need to read dozens of applications about complicated subjects that lie outside their own fields of expertise, often while juggling their own research.

“Imagine you’re tired, grumpy and hungry. You’ve got 50 applications to get through,” says Cheryl Smythe, international grants manager at the Babraham Institute, a life-sciences research institution in Cambridge, UK. “Think about how you as an applicant can make it as easy as possible for them.”

Formatting is an important consideration, says Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in Canmore, Canada. White space and bold headings can make proposals easier to read, as can illustrations. “Students are tempted and sometimes encouraged to squeeze in as much information as possible, so there are all kinds of tricks to fiddle with the margin size, or to make the font a little bit smaller so that you can squeeze in that one last sentence,” Jacob says. “For a reviewer, that’s exhausting to read.”

Ball advises avoiding basic deal-breakers, such as spelling errors, grammatical slips and lengthy proposals that exceed word limits. Those kinds of mistake can cast doubt on how rigorous applicants will be in their research, she says. A list of key words, crucial for indexes and search engines, should be more than an afterthought, Ball adds. On a proposal for a project on promoting physical activity among women, she tagged her proposal with the word ‘women’. The descriptor was too broad, and her application ended up with a reviewer whose expertise appeared to be in sociology and gender studies instead of in exercise or nutrition. The grant didn’t score well in that round of review.

To prevent a reviewer’s eyes from glazing over, Jacob says, use clear language instead of multisyllabic jargon. When technical details are necessary, follow up a complex sentence with one that sums up the big picture. Thinking back to her early proposals, Jacob remembers cramming in words instead of getting to the point. “It was probably something like, ‘I propose to study the heterogeneity of forest landscapes in spatial and temporal recovery after multiple disturbances,’ rather than, ‘I want to see what happens when a forest has been logged, burnt and farmed, and grows back,’” she says.

Grants can be more speculative and more self-promotional than papers are, Rissler adds. “A grant is about convincing a jury that your ideas are worthy and exciting,” she says. “You can make some pretty sweeping generalizations about what your proposed ideas might do for science and society in the long run. A paper is much more rigid in terms of what you can say and in what you must say.”

Getting some science communication training can be a worthwhile strategy for strengthening grant-writing skills, Stanley says. When she was reviewing pitch letters for a private foundation, she recalls that lots of scientists couldn’t fully explain why their work mattered. But when she received pitches that were clear and compelling, she was more willing to help those scientists brainstorm other possible funding agencies if her foundation wasn’t the right fit. Scientists who sent strong — albeit unsuccessful — applications were also more likely to get funding from the foundation for later projects.

Science storytelling

To refine project pitches and proposals, Stanley recommends that scientists use a free communication tool from COMPASS called the Message Box Workbook, which can help to identify key points and answer the crucial question for every audience: ‘So what?’ Scientific conferences often provide symposia or sessions that include funders and offer helpful tips for writing grants. And development officers at institutions can help scientists to connect with funders. “A good development officer is worth their weight in gold,” Stanley says. “Make friends with them.”

Jacob has taken science-communication training through COMPASS, The Story Collider (a science-storytelling organization) and from other such organizations. She has learnt how to talk about her work in the manner of a storyteller. In proposals and interviews, she now includes personal details, when relevant, that explain the problems she wants to address and why she decided to speak out about conservation — an example of the kind of conflict and resolution that builds a good story. Jacob senses that the approach strikes a chord. “As a reviewer, you remember somebody’s proposal just that little bit more,” she says. “If you have a stack of proposals, you want to find the one that you connect with.”

A clear focus can help to boost a grant to the top of a reviewer’s pile, Ball adds. In one of the first large grants that she applied for, she proposed collecting information on the key factors that prevent weight gain as well as designing and implementing an obesity-intervention programme. In retrospect, it was too much within the grant’s two-year time frame. She didn’t get the funding, and the feedback she received was that it would have worked better as two separate proposals. “While it’s tempting to want to claim that you can solve these enormous, challenging and complex problems in a single project,” Ball says, “realistically, that’s usually not the case.”

Teaming up with collaborators can also increase the chance of success. Earlier this year, Ball was funded by the Diabetes Australia Research Program for a study that she proposed in collaboration with hospital clinicians, helping disadvantaged people with type 2 diabetes to eat healthy diets. Earlier in her career, she had written grants based on her own ideas, rather than on suggestions from clinicians or other non-academic partners. This time, she says, she focused on a real-world need rather than on her own ideas for a study. Instead of overreaching, she kept the study small and preliminary, allowing her to test the approach before trying to get funding for larger trials.

It is acceptable — even advisable — to admit a study’s limitations instead of trying to meet preconceived expectations, Jacob adds. In 2016, she had a proposal rejected for a study on spatial planning on the west coast of Canada that would, crucially, be informed by knowledge from Indigenous communities. She resubmitted the same proposal the next year to the same reviewers, but with a more confident and transparent approach: she was straightforward about her desire to take a different tack from the type of research that had been tried before. This time, she made it clear that she wanted to listen to Indigenous peoples and use their priorities to guide her work. She got the funding. “I saw that if I tried to change it to meet what I thought funders wanted, I might not be accurately representing what I was doing,” she says. “I just wanted to be really clear with myself and really clear with the interviewers that this is who I am, and this is what I want to do.”

What not to do

Writing is hard, and experienced grant writers recommend devoting plenty of time to the task. Smythe recommends setting aside a week for each page of a proposal, noting that some applications require only a few pages while major collaborative proposals for multi-year projects can run to more than 100 pages. “It can take months to get one of these together,” she says.

Scheduling should include time for rewrites, proofreads and secondary reads by friends, colleagues and family members, experts say. Working right up to the deadline can undo weeks to months of hard work. At the last minute, Jacob once accidentally submitted an earlier draft instead of the final version. It included sections that were bolded and highlighted, with comments such as, “NOTE TO SELF: MAKE THIS PART SOUND BETTER.” She didn’t get that one, and has never made the same mistake again.

Add an extra buffer for technology malfunctions, adds Smythe, who once got a call from a scientist at another organization who was in a panic because his computer had stopped working while he was trying to submit a grant proposal half an hour before the deadline. She submitted it for him with 23 seconds to spare. “My hand was shaking,” she says. That proposal was not successful, although the scientist sent her a nice bottle of champagne afterwards.

Grant writing doesn’t necessarily end with a proposal’s submission. Applicants might receive requests for rewrites or more information. Rejections can also come with feedback, and if they don’t, applicants can request it.

Luiz Nunes de Oliveira, a physicist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, also works as a programme coordinator at the São Paulo Research Foundation. In this role, he sometimes meets with applicants who want to follow up on rejected proposals. “We sit down and go through their résumé, and then you find out that they had lots of interesting stuff to say about themselves and they missed the opportunity,” he says. “All it takes is to write an e-mail message asking [the funder] for an interview.”

Jacob recommends paying attention to such feedback to strengthen future proposals. To fund her master’s programme, she applied for a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), but didn’t get it on her first try. After requesting feedback by e-mail (to an address she found buried on NSERC’s website), she was able to see her scores by category, which revealed that a few bad grades early in her undergraduate programme were her limiting factor.

There was nothing she could do about her past, but the information pushed her to work harder on other parts of her application. After gaining more research and field experience, co-authoring a paper and establishing relationships with senior colleagues who would vouch for her as referees, she finally secured funding from NSERC on her third try, two years after her first rejection.

Negative feedback can be one of the best learning experiences, Rissler adds. She kept the worst review she ever received, a scathing response to a grant proposal she submitted to the NSF in 2003, when she was a postdoc studying comparative phylogeography. The feedback, she says, was painful to read. It included comments that her application was incomprehensible and filled with platitudes.

After she received that letter, which is now crinkled up in her desk for posterity, Rissler called a programme officer to ask why they let her see such a negative review. She was told that the critical commenter was an outlier and that the panel had gone on to recommend her project for the grant, which she ultimately received. “I learnt that you do need to be tough,” says Rissler, who now helps to make final decisions on funding for other scientists. She emphasizes that whereas reviewers’ opinions can vary, all proposals undergo multiple independent expert reviews, followed by panel discussions and additional oversight by programme directors.

Grant writing tends to provoke anxiety among early-career scientists, but opportunities exist for people who are willing to take the time to develop ideas and push past rejections and negative feedback, she says. “We can’t review proposals that we don’t get.

Nature 577, 133-135 (2020)doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03914-5

****Interested in contributing original content to the blog? If so, contact Morgan at 

Physical Activity and Healthcare, How Can We Make Physical Fitness Part of Medicine?

One month into 2020, how is your New Year’s resolution holding up? If you are like most people, your New Year’s resolution involved something along the lines of exercising more, cutting out bad habits, or simply making better lifestyle choices. But unfortunately, a study of over 30 million people showed that nearly 80 percent of resolutions fail to make it into February. Why?

When I was a personal trainer at Southern Illinois University, we consistently lost clients on the basis that they were simply not seeing results fast enough and that personal training was getting too expensive. Unfortunately, this is the national trend. The stressful process of exercising consistently is too expensive and scientists and healthcare providers are stuck with the outcomes of an increasingly more obese and physically inactive population.

According to data collected by the CDC published as the National Ambulatory Health Care Data, the average U.S. adult sees a primary care provider almost 3 times per year, but only 32% of Americans report receiving any kind of physical activity counseling during those visits. Fortunately, clinical tools such as the Physical Activity Vital Sign through Exercise is Medicine have begun to improve the efforts of healthcare providers in assessing and promoting regular physical activity.

The simple question that I have here is; Why have we not made physical activity part of healthcare? We understand the need, we have the tools (Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans), so why is exercise not part of basic healthcare? Your guess is as good as mine, but something needs to be changed. In an election year that has a focus on the future of healthcare, we need to address this major gap in our society.

A good friend of mine recently shared with me an amazing program that is starting to bridge this gap between healthcare and physical activity. It is called SilverSneakers. SilverSneakers is a group that works with local gyms and healthcare insurance companies to provide physical activity as part of their healthcare plan for members 65 and older. At no additional cost, eligible members can go to a local gym and train with certified instructors on proper lifestyle habits and exercise training techniques. The program provides fitness classes designed for seniors and access to healthy living products at a discounted price.

I love the concept of SilverSneakers. They give evidence that it is possible to make exercise part of our healthcare plans! But we can be doing so much more! With the way our current society is moving, we can take advantage of innovations such as wearable technology to implement plans such as this for all of America. If healthcare plans were to partner with local gyms and implement proper provider training to personal trainers, we could use the gym as a place that people receive physical activity and lifestyle healthcare. A place where you not only have access to lifestyle healthcare, but can be educated about proper lifestyle habits. A way to get credit for your insurance can be as simple as scanning your provided Fitbit, Garmin, or Apple Watch when you go into the gym.

Now the answer is never this simple, and those of you who know me best know I could go on for ages about my ideas and opinions on healthcare. But what I want this post to accomplish is to show that our ability to do something is within our reach. It is time we start making a move towards a healthier and more active America.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution that is still going strong? Do you have ideas about how we can improve healthcare in America? Share in the comments!

Interested in contributing original content to the ASIP blog? Contact me at to get involved!

ASIP 2020 Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology in San Diego April 4-7.

Are you going to Exerimental Biology 2020? If its your first time or if you are returning member, do not be afraid to reach out for help or advice! You can find all the information you need at or feel free to email me at


Do not forget to attend the ASIP Education Committee Events at ASIP 2020 at Exerimental Biology in San Diego! All the events can be found on our program at

PISA 2020 is happening! Join your fellow ASIP members at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston November 7-9, 2020.

Intersted in becoming a member of ASIP? Contact me at