BY JEFFREY LETOURNEAU
When I talk to peers in my PhD program about career plans, I commonly hear the same half-joke that they plan to “sell their soul” to big pharma. During my undergraduate years at engineering-centric Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), there were plenty of equivalent comments made by chemical engineers joining the oil industry or aspiring software engineers applying to health insurance companies.
These comments have always unsettled me a little, and not because I genuinely believe people who work at pharmaceutical companies have sold their soul. In fact, I’ve interned at some of these companies and worked alongside great people who chose that path in order to bring new drugs to patients faster than they could in academia, or to work towards novel treatments for rare diseases. What I do think, though, is that these comments betray personal insecurities over one’s ability to make a positive impact in the world. More importantly, they speak to a broader, collective failure: moral values do not currently have a place in discussions about career development. Training doctoral students in moral reasoning would both benefit trainees in their own career development and have broader impacts on academic climate and culture.
What makes an ideal career in the first place? The Japanese concept of ikigai, meaning “a reason for being” serves as a nice starting point. Ikigai exists at the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what you can get paid for, and what the world needs. While at WPI, I worked at the university’s Career Development Center, where I learned that there are plenty of great resources out there to address the first three elements of ikigai. There are interest inventories like the Holland Codes to identify activities you enjoy, skills assessments like CliftonStrengths, and salary databases like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Glassdoor. By contrast, the “what the world needs” element is relegated to the occasional vague survey item, and it should not be this way. Just as an inadequate salary, disinterest, or skills mismatch will lead to job dissatisfaction, so too will a mismatch of values.
Injecting a little philosophy back into doctoral programs is not an entirely radical or new idea. For years, Johns Hopkins faculty Gundula Bosch and Arturo Casadevall have been advocating that we “put the ‘Ph’ back in PhD”. Bosch argues that it is time to teach students to “view their work through the lens of social responsibility” and the two have sought to achieve this goal by implementing a new program called R3. The R3 program (which stands for Rigor, Responsibility, and Reproducibility) diverges from traditional PhD curricula by having “fewer mandatory discipline-specific classes” while spending more time on active learning activities aimed at getting students to think critically about their science and its impacts on society. These kinds of initiatives make sense in light of a growing body of evidence that curricula where students apply what they are learning enhances conceptual understanding and may help reduce achievement gaps.
Beyond the fact that most people want to find a career where they feel they are making a difference, there is evidence that such an initiative would garner student interest and engagement. A survey about Duke’s Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training found that students wanted not more or less of this training, but a different type. Having gone through this training myself, it was pretty transparent that the whole thing was about preventing another data fabrication scandal, simply instilling in participants not to falsify data. By contrast, survey respondents reported a desire to spend more time discussing ethical gray areas. Departments could immediately jumpstart interest in this program by offering RCR (or equivalent) credit for participation.
The potential benefits of teaching students to think about moral philosophy extend far beyond the individual. The current lack of discussion of moral philosophy in PhDs also helps to maintain the status quo in a system that protects harassers, denies rights to grad student workers, and perpetuates racial inequalities. If we can promote dialogue around moral philosophy and empower students to explore their own personal values, perhaps more people will start to engage in conversations around some of these systemic issues within academia. Beyond academia, helping graduates identify career paths that best align with their values has the potential to lead to fewer brilliant minds making the world a worse place and more making things better.
I am a PhD student in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University. I study how the hundreds of species of bacteria that make up the gut microbiome work together to break down dietary fiber in the foods we eat. I also enjoy participating in K-12 science outreach events and experimenting in the kitchen with fermented foods and baking. You can follow me on Twitter @letourjeff.