Recently there has been some talk in the blogosphere that PhD students in biomedical fields are a particularly unhappy bunch. One of the reasons given is the claim that as part of their PhD training, students in life sciences acquire no transferable skills, and if they fail to land an academic position, then they are left with bupkes (ie. nothing). That the training is so specialized that it can only be used within the context of biomedical research, and to go further it can only be applied to the research that is going on in the lab where the training is received. In contrast to other scientific disciplines, students in life sciences do not acquire more generalizable skills such as high-level math or programming. Moreover, due to the rapid progress of science, that these skills will even become obsolete within a few years as new techniques are developed.
Frankly, I think this is all a bunch of hoo-haa. While I agree that in graduate school you do learn some pretty obscure techniques and become the world's expert in one little corner of the scientific literature, if someone thinks that getting a PhD is solely about getting technical skills then they are completely missing the point of graduate school and should not be getting a PhD. Going to graduate school is not about learning techniques, but about learning to think and problem-solve like a scientist. Learning to identify and tackle an important scientific question and to design experiments to answer that question. To evaluate the data from those experiments and draw appropriate conclusions. To learn to test hypotheses. Even to learn to develop new techniques to answer those questions if available techniques are not sufficient. Furthermore, one goes to graduate school to learn to evaluate the scientific literature, to find holes and identify important questions. You are also learning to write coherently, to put together a logical argument and to be prepared to defend it. And I'm not saying this is an easy process, and it is often frustrating. However these problem-solving skills are definitely transferrable and applicable beyond biomedical sciences.
In my lab, most of the techniques, even the more difficult, ones can be learned by a motivated undergrad or by a lab tech, there's nothing special about a PhD student (or even a postdoc) that allows them to perform these difficult techniques. What's different about the grad students and postdocs, is that they are also thinking about the whole project, and carrying it to completion from start to finish. This ability to complete a large-scale project is also a very transferable skill.
Apparently many complaints from grad students also stem from the feeling that their PI's discourage them from pursuing difficult projects, that they are usually pigeonholed into doing one specific technique for the lab and that's all they do for their PhD. Also, that they are often discouraged from gaining additional skills that come with a PhD, such as teaching, outreach or public speaking. If this is the case, then you are in the wrong lab or graduate program. This has to do more to do with bad mentoring rather than with an inherent problem with getting a PhD in life science.
So my advice to students who feel like their PhD is a waste of time is to think about the broader picture, don't let yourself be pigeonholed, make sure you get your own project, and if your mentor discourages from any of these things, then find a new one. If you are thinking of joining a lab talk to the other students, see what kinds of projects they are doing and how happy a ship a given lab is. What you shouldn't do is pick a lab because you want to learn a specific technique, then you will likely end up with a single, soon to be obsolete skill.
I'm curious to hear from my readers. If you are a grad student or postdoc, what has your experience been like? Do you feel you have not acquired any skills that you could use outside of academia? For PI's, how do you view your students, as specialists or generalists? Do you encourage them from acquiring further skills outside the lab such as teaching or participating in science outreach?