VARIED PERSPECTIVES ON CURRENT ISSUES, PROBLEMS & CONCERNS
John R. Welser, DVM, PhD, Chair
CURRENT ISSUES IN PhD PROGRAMS
Douglas D. McGregor, PhD
Recent advances in the life sciences have created unprecedented opportunities to improve the production efficiency and health of animals. Veterinarians have much to contribute in this connection as research scientists, but only when they have been educated and trained to a high level of proficiency. Providing that training is both a responsibility and a challenge to our academic institutions. The responsibility lies in preserving a broad and meaningful role for veterinary medicine in the health sciences by preparing veterinary graduates as scientists and research administrators. The challenge is to structure graduate education to best meet those objectives. Strategies that were once effective may no longer be adequate. Individual elements of the training experience should be reevaluated with a view to ensuring that training is offered at a uniformly high level and that program graduates are prepared to function independently in a rapidly changing and fiercely competitive research environment.
Graduate programs in veterinary colleges have traditionally been preceptor-based learning experiences. Individual guidance in research and the acquisition of knowledge and research skills have been supplemented by formal instruction and professional enrichment activities calculated to develop the individual's critical capacity and communication skills. The strategy is effective when the process is guided by a successful scientist and effective mentor. However, too often guidance is inadequate. When mentoring, coursework, and the enrichment elements of graduate programs are weak, trainees may not realize their full potential and will find it difficult to compete successfully for the scarce resources that sustain the research enterprise.
Greater emphasis should be given to quality control of the educational process and to tailoring graduate education to the interests and career objectives of individual students. The goal should be to prepare trainees to function independently as well-informed, technically sophisticated and creative scientists. Acquisition of knowledge and development of skills in areas peripheral to the individual's primary research discipline may be desirable in some circumstances. Special training in biostatistics and opportunities to develop new clinical skills could provide a competitive edge for veterinarians who anticipate careers that entail significant responsibilities for animal patient care. Likewise, students who contemplate a career in industry might benefit from training in management, human relations, and the acquisition of teamwork skills.
I would just mention briefly two relatively new degree programs which we have initiated at Cornell in which the faculty mentors have to meet certain standards for the quality of their research program to be considered for serving as an advisor for the graduate student. The first is the graduate program in Veterinary Clinical Sciences. It is intended for individuals who will have a significant responsibility for animal patient care but they are also expected to have a national competitive research program in their area of interest. It is a lengthy program consisting of 3.5 years of clinical training and 4.5 years of research training for a total effort of 8.0 years. Although this is a long time, if you examine the credentials of the individuals who have been appointed to the clinical sciences faculty at Cornell in recent years, you will find that a substantial number of them have had a similar background of training or experience and this program formalizes that process. The second program is in Cellular and Molecular Medicine and is a 5-year program with the expectation that the graduate will also have a 2-year postdoctoral experience prior to taking a faculty position. These individuals might go into jobs in basic sciences departments in a veterinary college. They would also be well prepared for similar careers in medical colleges, or in private research laboratories.
As academicians, we must avoid the temptation to truncate the training experience. Veterinary graduates often have a significant debt burden and family responsibilities. These realities must be recognized. Veterinarians who contemplate graduate education must be adequately compensated and provided with incentives that will encourage them to remain in training for a period sufficient to realize their career objectives.
As far as the training experience itself is concerned, greater attention should be given to the quality of graduate level courses and their relevance to the individual's career objectives. It is imperative that students be literate in the disciplines of biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology, the cornerstones of contemporary biology. Also, competence in biostatistics is necessary to ensure that graduates can properly design experiments, conserve resources and spare the use of animals as research subjects.
Monitoring of graduate students should extend beyond a qualifying examination and periodic oversight by a graduate committee. Direction throughout training is required to ensure that students develop a finely tuned critical capacity and well-developed communication skills. These, and an acceptable code of ethics, are essential if graduates are to become persuasive advocates of science, the veterinary profession, and their own research programs.
Graduate programs also should make provision for the orderly progression of trainees to independence. In some cases, programs leading to the PhD degree should be followed by postdoctoral training, preferably in a different institution and in a related discipline. The objective should be to broaden and deepen the individual's knowledge and technical competence while simultaneously affording an opportunity to conduct research unfettered by teaching, administrative or service obligations.