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Improving graduate education: Career paths and competencies

by Jennifer B. Nielson, Chair, ACS Society Committee on Education
October 27, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 43


Photo of Jennifer Nielson.
Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Nielson

The case and call for substantial changes to graduate education have been made, once again, and the timing couldn’t be better for the American Chemical Society and the chemistry community. The actions we have already taken and several new initiatives position us to help our students and postdocs, our faculty, our programs, and our society to be successful in a global enterprise that is dynamic and full of uncharted opportunities. Looking forward, how do we refine our definitions of success and continue our momentum in improving graduate education?

At the 256th ACS National Meeting, the ACS Society Committee on Education (SOCED) reviewed the 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine consensus study report titled “Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century.” The report identifies a shifting landscape, including demographic changes and occupations that need science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) expertise. It makes recommendations for a more student-centric graduate education system to prepare more students for the diversity of STEM careers in the 21st century.

ACS continues to increase the involvement and support of graduate students. Since 2012, efforts have also been informed by the ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences.” Two areas in which ACS is facilitating improvements in graduate education are career paths and competencies.

Career paths

Career paths are a central part of how we define success for our graduates, our research groups, our programs, and our society. Numerous reports emphasize the importance of transparency and open discussion about the career paths available to students with advanced degrees. A growing number of academic institutions are committing to collect and share data about the careers of their graduates. Many programs are providing more career development resources that aid students in exploring available options and transitioning into the workforce.

With its ChemIDP program, ACS is among professional organizations offering resources for preparing and carrying out individual development plans (IDPs). The Impact Indicators & Instruments for IDPs project, recently funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovations in Graduate Education Program, will develop a tool kit for assessing and improving the use of IDPs.

We can enhance and demonstrate the impact of programs for graduate students with diverse backgrounds and career goals.

ACS is one of five scientific societies establishing the Inclusive Graduate Education Network to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in graduate studies in the physical sciences. Key components include improving mentoring of undergraduates, modifying graduate admissions practices, and recruiting large numbers of underrepresented students who would otherwise not enter graduate studies.

An alliance grant from the NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering & Science (NSF INCLUDES) program is supporting the establishment of the Inclusive Graduate Education Network and the ACS Bridge Project. Two components, the ACS Bridge Program and ACS Bridge Travel Awards, are designed to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who receive doctoral degrees in chemical sciences.


ACS participation in these initiatives will broaden representation and career development. Working across the chemistry community, we can enhance and demonstrate the impact of programs for graduate students with diverse backgrounds and career goals, shifting graduate culture to be more inclusive and more effective.


“Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century” articulates the core competencies that all students should acquire, at both the master’s and the Ph.D. levels. SOCED began considering the nature of the core competencies in the context of chemical sciences. At the end of a graduate program in the chemical sciences, what should students be able to do? Answering this question will be the focus of a task force of SOCED members and other stakeholders. Extensive consultation with the community will ensure that competencies are appropriate for those pursuing a range of career paths in a dynamic and global chemical enterprise.

The 2018 report is not the first—nor will it likely be the last—report focusing on STEM graduate education. SOCED supports ACS’s efforts to use these reports to better prepare graduate students for the global chemical enterprise of today and the future.

As SOCED engages in these discussions, input is needed from others across ACS. How does the shifting landscape affect our definitions of success and our investments in graduate education in the chemical sciences? What role can ACS play in responding to recommendations, particularly those related to career paths and competencies? Send your thoughts to

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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