29 August 2017

Why a proposed UTRGV doctoral program will probably struggle

When I took my current job, one of the things that attracted me was that I was told the department would probably have a Ph.D. program, maybe in about five years. It’s been a lot more than five years, but a biology related Ph.D. is finally on the horizon for my university. This should make me happy. It does not.

Last week, the UT System tweeted:

.@utrgv Pres Bailey looks to create PhD in Cellular, Molecular & Biomedical Sciences and Doctor of Physical Therapy programs. #UTRegentsMeet

And yesterday, it was confirmed that the university has the go ahead for preliminary planning for this proposed doctoral degree.

I want to go on record as to why I think this is not a good idea. (You get tenure in part so you can make these kinds of analyses.) For context, I have been the graduate program coordinator for biology at this institution for over a decade. So yeah, I know the backstory here.

First and foremost, the primary issue I have with the proposal for this degree is that it is being driven by institutional wants. Not to meet clear needs in the community. Not students’ interests. Not faculty research strengths. The university is trying to get to ten doctoral programs as fast as it possibly can, so it can meet the criteria for an “emerging research university.” Getting to that number of Ph.D. by any means they can is more important than coming up with a program that has faculty support and that will ultimately serve the students.

Second, the proposed program – “Cellular, molecular, and biomedical sciences” – might as well say, “and the kitchen sink.” There is no theme or connection there. There is no department of “cell, molecular, and biomedical sciences.” It seems like the plan is to conscript any faculty member in any department that knows how to use a PCR machine. With no single department to house the program, there will be tremendous problems of organization and cohesion. It will be difficult to instill that intangible but critical sense of community.

Third, there are already four cell and molecular biology doctoral programs in Texas (not to mention broader general biology programs). They are at University of North Texas, UT Austin, UT Dallas, and one of our closest neighbours, UT San Antonio. There is an case to be made that the proposed degree would unnecessarily duplicate existing programs, which the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board warns against.

Lastly, the graph that no administrator has an answer for is this one (from here):

The article has UTRGV president Guy Bailey talking about job growth projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But knowing demand don’t tell you much unless you know the supply. Administrators will ignore the existing backlog in students being trained, and the growth of programs training them.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics lists one biology related occupation that requires a doctoral degree: “Biological science teachers, postsecondary” (i.e., professors). They project a total of 21,200 job openings from 2012-2022. Using 2011 data on doctoral production, the projected 10 year need can be met in less than three years at recent rates of doctorate creation at the national level.

The only other biology related occupation listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that requires a doctoral degree is animal scientists (1,200 job openings, 8.8% growth). Again, this need can be met by current levels of doctorate attainment in the United States.

There are not clear projections for how much demand there will be for biology doctoral recipients outside academia, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separate “Life sciences” jobs on whether they require a B.S., M.S., or Ph.D.

I think the students and the region deserve a good doctoral program they can be proud of. Instead, we’re likely to get a rushed, rudderless, “me too” doctoral program that nobody asked for and nobody wanted.

External links

UTRGV gets green light to seek two new doctorate degrees

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