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Friday, September 29, 2023

Guest Commentary

One size doesn’t fit all in grad school


A doctorate in biology is required for a diverse array of careers, but the University of Houston’s graduate degree program disregards the long term goals of its students with its stifling uniformity. This “one size fits all” approach fails to adequately prepare many Ph.D. students for their chosen areas of work, and, consequently, acts as a deterrent for others to enroll in the graduate program.

I am entering my third year of a Ph.D. program in cell biology, and have become increasingly frustrated with the department’s instructional approach. The current program is tailored under the naïve belief that all those who enter the Ph.D. program intend to work at research oriented academic institutions similar to UH. I wish to pursue a career in teaching biology at the junior/community college level with no plan of ever conducting research. Despite my intended goal, I must meet the exact same requirements as those who wish to engage solely in research. The same is true for the person wanting to be a patent lawyer or to work in the pharmaceutical industry. While I agree that there should be a minimum baseline that all Ph.D. students meet in order to graduate, some consideration should be given to the desired plans of the students as well.

Just as a requirement that all undergraduate biology majors take the exact same courses would make little sense, the stringency of the graduate degree program is equally absurd. Would a potential botanist need or even want to take all of the same courses as a pre-med student? We are not even given the option of expanding our curriculum. Biology graduate students are strongly discouraged and in many cases not allowed to even take courses outside of those offered by the department. As a result, we do not have the opportunity to take any classes in business practices, law, sociology, chemistry, or any other areas that may serve our long term goals. In my case I would benefit more from teaching additional biology labs than from conducting additional research. Alternatively, some students gain little by teaching and would be better served by only conducting experiments. What benefit does either of us gain by having our future plans ignored? The department should take this into consideration when it mandates such a rigid Ph.D. curriculum.

A Ph.D. is typically the highest degree awarded in any field. But in a field as diverse as biology, a graduate program that leads to a doctorate should be somewhat adaptable to the long term goals of the students. I believe a more career focused approach would increase the number of students entering graduate school, as they would have a stronger sense of purpose and more vested interest in their academic endeavors.

Marc Anderson is a 3rd year graduate student working on a Ph.D. in cell biology in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry.


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