Which is the faucet and which the leak?

If you work in universities, or even in corporate R&D settings, the Council of Graduate Schools just released a very important report on the education of graduate students by US Universities: “Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers.” In particular, its findings on the career development of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in engineering and the life sciences are timely and sobering. In essence, for the great majority of our doctoral students that go into industry, innovation, leadership, and communication are essential for success. And these are also the skills most notably absent from their training.

“We talk about graduate education as a ‘pipeline’ to the professoriate,” [Jeffery Gibeling, dean of Graduate Studies at UCD and advisor to the report] said, "but having students head into business or government should not be viewed as a ‘leak’ in the pipe.

Indeed, in an earlier post, Pursuing science in and out of the Ivory Towers, I noted 2008 NSF statistics that showed “somewhere between 60–70% of graduating PhDs in the life sciences and engineering are going into jobs outside of academia.” This new study found similar statistics, in that 85% of graduating doctoral students in engineering are going into industry, government, or non-profits. Yet they are being taught by the 15% who remain.

Moreover, this leak may be the dominant means by which university research impacts society. While we usually think of patents and startups as the primary mechanisms of technology transfer in university, my colleague Martin Kenney has been studying the relative impacts of UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science on the growth the information technology industries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Much has been made of Stanford’s intellectual property and faculty entrepreneurs (President John Hennessy perhaps most visible among them). Martin doesn’t attempt a line-by-line comparison of these two departments but instead explores some of the paths by which “key technical contributions made by UCB’s Department of EE&CS diffused into the regional economy.”

In an as-yet-unpublished manuscript, Martin documents how many of the core technologies of the information revolution were driven by UCB scientists who went, for instance, to do some of the crucial work in disk drives at IBM Almaden; by Doug Englebart, who went to SRI to conceptualize the mouse, graphical user interface etc, early development of hypertext and more; by Bill Joy, who created Berkeley UNIX (arguably the most impactful software program ever) then goes to Sun, where he creates Java; and by Dave Patterson, who helped develop RISC.

We should certainly remove the stigma of doctoral students ‘leaking’ into industry but, given these numbers and accounts, you have to ask: which is the leak and which is the faucet? According to the data, many of our engineering and life science doctoral programs are producing scientists for industry first and academic second. And often to great impact. At what point will our curriculum reflect this critical flow?

This is why we’ve been introducing PhD students and post-docs from UC Davis (and around the world) to the commercialization process—understanding the innovation process, communication, team-building, and business development—through our programs at the Child Family Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. I have seen first-hand how valuable it is to students who are at the bleeding edge of knowledge in their fields but also utterly new to understanding how to turn that knowledge into innovations that companies can produce and markets can benefit from.

This report should be a challenge to Deans everywhere, as well as to individual faculty who advise (and often control the destiny of) their graduate students and postdocs: are you preparing your students for successful careers in industry? If not, why not?