At a Crossroads

We need to develop a broader curriculum ...
to better prepare students for non-academic career paths.

Bryan Noe, Professor of Cell Biology

Academic Exchange
September 2000

At a Crossroads: The Future of Graduate Education at Emory

We need to develop a broader curriculum . . . to better prepare students for non-academic career paths.
--Bryan Noe, Director of the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Changing the curriculum to prepare students for non-academic careers could be a gross mistake.
--Pam Hall, Director of Graduate Studies in Women's Studies

A tale of three Ph.D.s

New findings on Emory graduate students

Bryan Noe has been director of the eleven-year-old Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS) since 1991. The division trains some three hundred Ph.D. students in eight separate programs composed of faculty from many departments, the medical school, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Yerkes Primate Center.

The Academic Exchange
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing graduate education, nationally and here at Emory?

Professor Brian Noe Right now, we're doing a fine job of preparing students for academic positions and not so well for people seeking a different career path. The decline in the last decade in the number of faculty positions means that some of our students will have very different careers from their academic mentors. Yet most of our trainees' experience is limited to their mentors' laboratories and the scope of the research university.

We and many other institutions need to develop a broader curriculum with more options to allow us to better prepare our students for non-academic career paths.

AE What kinds of careers?

BN New career opportunities have evolved in intellectual property and in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors. The GDBBS and the new office of postdoctoral education in the medical school have sponsored a career development seminar series. Speakers who come to talk with graduate students and postdocs are trained in the biosciences and are now working in biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry, law, or science journalism. For students who would like to enter these non-academic careers, we could offer joint degrees or specialized training in law or business, along with the bioscience Ph.D.

AE Do you have any sense of how many of your graduates go into academia and how many into industry?

BN Our data is somewhat incomplete. Most of our graduates are still doing their post-doctoral training. Of those who have completed that, many have secured faculty positions at research universities, and a few have teaching positions at smaller colleges. But a significant number of our graduates are going into pharmaceutical and biotechnology arenas. Currently, I would say our graduates are probably 70 percent in the academic arena and 30 percent in the other direction. But over the years, I think that will even out to 50/50.

AE What do you see as the role of your division in the preparing graduates for alternative careers?

BN I don't like the term "alternative." That sounds like it's not really an acceptable career path. I would prefer to say that students are choosing for themselves a career path that differs from academics. "Alternative" smacks of consolation prize. We have to get away from that attitude to be successful in developing a broader curriculum.

AE A few years ago, Elaine Showalter, the head of a major humanities association, was heavily attacked for suggesting departments do more to increase their students' viability on the non-academic job market. Does that kind of controversy color this conversation in the sciences?

BN Yes, it does. I think most of our faculty were trained in the traditional way. The attitude is, "what's worked for me should work for my students. This has gotten me where I wanted to be. I don't see the need for changing things significantly." But it becomes incumbent upon us to examine what we're offering students and whether we're giving them everything they would like
in terms of preparing them best for careers they might wish to seek.

AE Are you attracting the students you want?

BN Yes. We lose some to Harvard, Duke, and other top schools, but
we get our fair share too of students with offers of admission into those schools who decide to come here instead. The national trend, though, is for potential applicants to bioscience Ph.D. programs to be lured away from graduate school by opportunities provided by the current strong economy. This is a major challenge that we in bioscience training are going to have to face very aggressively. I don't believe we should dilute our effort to offer "classical" research training. By offering more options in the Ph.D. curriculum, however--adding something like an MBA, for instance--we would attract a subset of applicants that currently might not apply to Emory. It's something not too many schools are doing, so it might be quite attractive.

AE What are some barriers to doing that?

BN Bioscience faculty are already fully committed to teaching and research. It would be difficult, and perhaps even inappropriate, to persuade these faculty to develop and teach new parts of the curriculum. Emory has a business school and law school, however. Perhaps we could provide ways for our students who so desire to tap into these other disciplines. I suspect that neither business nor law has any difficulty attracting students, but they could help fill a unique niche by providing additional training for tuition-paying students with bioscience backgrounds.