Bench to B'More: “They just couldn’t cut it.” How the old school rhetoric in modern PhD programs selects against diversity

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Sometimes when a student fails out of a Ph.D. program, the same old school rhetoric gets passed around: “They just didn’t have ‘it.’”

Professors often cite the dubious evidence that because they were able to succeed in a PhD program, if someone else can’t then they “don’t deserve to be here.” But are we culling out great scientists because our programs are designed for a narrowly defined type of student?

Ph.D programs are designed for students who test well on the GRE, who can learn through traditional didactic lecture and independent self-teaching, and who can perform well on written exams. This system leaves no room for diversity in learning styles and skill sets. Moreover,these skills have little to do with what will make a successful scientist post-graduate school.

Unfortunately, the US STEM graduate program completion rate in the United States is a discouraging 50% (Miller, C., & Stassun, K. (2014). A test that fails. Nature, 510(7504), 303–304.). To be fair, students can leave a program for several reasons.

Some leave because of personal or family emergencies, while others are failed out of the program. For those in the later group, some might fail because they were not motivated enough or diligent enough to learn the material. If so, why aren’t we screening those types of students out before admission into the program? Or at any point during the two years of required coursework? What about the student, who is highly motivated, loves research, passes all their coursework, and reaches the qualification exam, only to fail?

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