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The missing piece to changing the university culture

Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis

A new type of initiative is empowering graduate students and postdocs to reshape their academic training, providing another avenue to express their passion for research.

Original paper:
Nature Biotechnology 31, 938–941 (2013) doi:10.1038/nbt.2706
Published online 08 October 2013

Brief Overview

PhD programs presume an academic career upon graduation, despite the lack of available positions. A student-led non-profit has been effectively using a sustainable model to broaden and strengthen the Washington University at St. Louis program.

It does so by connecting teams of graduate students with startups and companies, in 6/8 week consulting projects.

This model serves the young researchers, the university, the companies, and the local community.

Current State: disheartening outlook for PhDs, misaligned initiatives for change

PhD programs are focused almost exclusively on academic track, despite the growing gap between the number of applicants and the number of available positions.

Current initiatives to broaden PhD training by making it more interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial, are often top-down, not aligned with faculty interests, and fail to appreciate the role of grad students/postdocs themselves in eliciting change.

Current PhD programs focus on academic track, despite disheartening outlook

Each year, the number of science and engineering PhDs awarded is seven times larger than the number of available positions.

  • The number of PhDs awarded continues to grow faster than the number of available positions [1][2].
  • Independent research job openings have also slowed due to fiscal pressures [3].
  • PhD time to graduate has not improved in the last 20 years [4] (half requiring 7 years or more).
  • Only 25% of biomedical sciences PhD recipients are in tenure-track positions five years after earning their degree [4][5].
  • One third of candidates never finish [1][4].

Current incentives for change are top-down and misaligned

A New, Bottom-up Model for changing PhD and postdoc training

A non-profit organization founded and led by graduate students and postdocs is changing how PhD students and postdocs are trained at the Washington University in St. Louis .

It does so by connecting teams of graduate students and postdocs with resource-constrained local companies and startups to help them solve real business challenges in the form of 6- to 8-week consulting projects.

BALSA: a grad-student led group connecting PhD students to local startups

Serving the university and entrepreneurial communities

Serving the young researchers and local communities

Challenges and Future Work

The main ongoing challenges to this are:

  1. Nonacademic careers looked down on: Many students/postdocs hide their participation with BALSA for fear of judgement by faculty who are not supportive of nonacademic careers.
  2. Student-led organization has high turnover: Establishing continuity and stability of the organization amid these high turnover rates.

These are being addressed by:

  1. Demonstrating benefits: Approaching individuals at all levels of the university, to demonstrate the benefits that BALSA offers to the university, the faculty, graduate students and postdocs. Exposing young researchers nonresearch opportunities such as teaching, consulting, or determining government policies. This allows them to make a see if any other options suits their interests and skills better.
  2. Fully Documented Framework: Establishing a clear mission, bylaws, organizational structure, and standard operating procedures (SOPs). These SOPs also set in writing the expectations for each team member, from the first-time consultants to the experienced project advisers.

Challenge: de-stigmatizing non-academic careers

Challenge: continuity amid high-turnover in this student-led organization

Near term future: expanding into other programs, and local universities

Long term future: wider influence, supporting similar initiative elsewhere, broadening the services and support we provide

Conclusion: BALSA gives students and post-docs hope, serves as model for changing university culture

This model demonstrates that students and postdocs can take an active role in shifting their university’s culture. Students participating in the program remain more engaged during the ups and downs of their PhDs, and will have more confidence and a broader outlook on their future career decisions. This leads to a reduced graduation attrition rate, more fulfilling careers for the students, and and a stronger university.


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