illustration of 4 statues of ancients in thought or reading

Put the “Ph” Back in PhD

We need big thinkers, but the current system teaches students to think small.

By Arturo Casadevall • Illustrations by Xiaohua Yang

Itraveled light when I moved earlier this year from New York. The walls of my office here are still bare, and I’m debating even hanging my diplomas—except for one I’m particularly proud to display: a degree in pest control operations. My father thought that killing rats would be a good way for me to make a living. I listened to him but ultimately refused to accept that I couldn’t do better.

Some 30 years later, I feel the same way about science and the way we prepare scientists. As the new chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI), I’m eager to unpack a big, bold plan that challenges postgraduate training as we know it.

My goal is to put the Ph back into a PhD. I want to restore more philosophical thinking into the doctoral degrees that students earn here.

Ambitious and provocative as revamping the PhD may sound, it’s actually just one part of a sweeping reform of scientifıc methodology, culture and structure that I am advocating. You might ask, why change something that’s not broken: Science has cured disease, unleashed the Green Revolution, taken us into space and shrunk the world through rapid transportation and instant communication. I would respond: The question is not whether science is failing us, but rather, whether the current scientific enterprise is as healthy as it should be.

It’s abundantly clear that in many respects it is not.

Science remains humanity’s best hope for solving its most vexing problems, from feeding the malnourished, to finding alternative energy sources, and protecting us from pandemics and meteorites. But the way we train scientists now is not optimal for tackling these big challenges. Rather than thinking big, the current system encourages students to think small. It provides potent incentives for behaviors that are sometimes detrimental to not only scientists but also science and, by extension, to society as a whole. A winner-take-all hyper-competitiveness discourages cooperation, encourages poor scientific practices and deters new talent from entering the field. Graduate programs since World War II have produced excellent postdoctoral fellows. However, attempts to create well-rounded scientists have been thwarted by an increasingly demanding, grant-focused environment. As a result, we channel students into already narrow and highly specialized areas, teaching them more and more about less and less. One sad consequence is the inability of many scientists to talk about their work and ideas in a way that’s comprehensible by voters, politicians and even scientists in other fields.

illustration of an ancient bearded  figure and a modern graduate, back to back

Real reform requires a culture change, one that obliges us to get to the root of the issue: education. We need to address how students learn to be scientists to prevent their indoctrination into the very narrow culture of one particular field.

The time is right. Science has been so successful over the past few centuries that it should be sufficiently secure to return to its philosophical roots. It is time to go home. And there’s no better place to embark on a mission of change than at a university that a century ago revolutionized medicine and launched a school that today is the model for public health education.

The kind of introspection and retooling I’m proposing would hopefully benefit all doctoral science programs, so I welcome other departments, schools and universities to join me in this effort. My focus now is on the first year of doctoral work within MMI with the modest initial goal of improving three primary areas:

  • Epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we go from making an association to establishing causation? There is a need for independent verification at every step but no formal training in logic to teach students how to do that. An adherence to the principles of epistemology and logic could reduce the number of errors in scientific work by making science methodologically more rigorous.
  • Quantitative skills. We are living in a world in which the manipulation of big data is as important as the ability to write, if you are a scientist. An emphasis on probability and statistics in the graduate curriculum should be noncontroversial, given its importance in experimental design and interpretation. The ability to code would give our students many more opportunities in the age of information revolution.
  • Ethics. The success of science and technology will always lead to new ethical dilemmas. How do you spot them and try to work with society before they become problems? A better appreciation of ethics is likely to address what has become an epidemic of retractions in the scientific literature.

By re-embracing the relevant branches of philosophy—a central field of the humanities—scientists will see and think more broadly, perhaps rediscovering what drew them to the field in the first place. In the end, it’s not the number of high-impact-factor papers, prizes or grant dollars that matter most—but the joys of discovery and the innumerable contributions, both large and small, that one makes through contact with other scientists.

It would be naïve to believe that competition and personal ambition could or should be eliminated from science. But a first step toward true reform involves acknowledging that a winner-take-all culture may not be the most effective way to do science. I can’t wait for that cultural shift to start in the labs and classrooms of MMI.  

Since I sat in a classroom—first learning about rat poison, and later, about molecules—my world has changed drastically. The challenges facing our world have changed dramatically. But much about the way we train scientists has not. History has shown that great institutions can benefıt from reform, and science is no exception. I refuse to accept that we are doing things the best that we can for our students, for humanity.

I refuse to accept that we can’t do better. 

Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, MS, is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and the Alfred and Jill Sommer Professor and Chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.