Volume 84 Issue 10 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: March 6, 2006

Reforming Doctoral Education

Department: Editor's Page

A few weeks ago, Columbia University chemistry professor Ronald Breslow alerted me to the publication of a new book, "Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education: Preparing Stewards of the Discipline." The book is the first product of the five-year Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) undertaken in 2001 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

CID was a response to problems that seem to continually plague doctoral education in the U.S. Carnegie Foundation Senior Scholar Chris M. Golde writes in the introduction to the book that these problems include the following: Many Ph.D. recipients are ill-prepared to function effectively in the settings in which they work; in most disciplines, women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented among doctoral students; and doctoral student attrition in many departments approaches or exceeds 50%.

CID focused on six disciplines-chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics, and neuroscience-that span a range of areas and traditions. Golde writes: "We propose that the purpose of doctoral education ... is to educate and prepare those to whom we can entrust the vigor, quality, and integrity of the field. This person is a scholar first and foremost. ... We call such a person a 'steward of the discipline.' "

"Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education" consists of three "Commentaries" that examine in broad terms the challenges of reforming doctoral education in the U.S. and 16 essays on the specific disciplines the project focused on by leading figures in those disciplines. According to Golde, the essayists "were invited to reconceive or reinvent the forms and structures of doctoral education in their particular discipline. We offered a framing question: If you could start de novo, what would be the best way to structure doctoral education in your field?"

The three essays on doctoral education in chemistry are by Alvin L. Kwiram, chemistry professor and vice provost for research at the University of Washington; Breslow; and Angelica M. Stacy, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley. All three essays make valuable points about doctoral education in chemistry and many useful suggestions for improving that education.

Kwiram, for example, writes: "Most of the recent discussions of reform for doctoral education in chemistry have focused on functional improvements that would give new Ph.D.s a more complete repertoire of professional skills. Although professional skills are not the core or essence of the Ph.D., these skills are considered important for all graduates of chemistry doctoral programs, especially those planning to work in industry and government." Interestingly, he then presents two lists of possible "missing elements" in chemistry graduate students' training, one from a 1947 study and one compiled from three studies conducted between 2000 and 2002; the overlap in the two lists is remarkable.

Kwiram suggests that there are two major structural problems for U.S. doctoral programs in chemistry: time to degree and the "failure to provide an integrated and comprehensive training program ... for those planning an academic career." He proposes 12 topics that new faculty members should be exposed to before taking on the role of supervising the development of the next generation of educators, including education as a profession, apprenticeship in teaching, history of the discipline, exposure to other disciplines, management and personnel skills, and leadership skills.

Breslow suggests numerous approaches to increasing the depth and breadth of knowledge imparted in a graduate education in chemistry without increasing the time to degree. Among many other topics, Stacy focuses on approaches for making the graduate experience more interesting for a broader range of students. She writes, "Unfortunately, in chemistry we turn off some talented students, especially creative students with the kind of wide-ranging interests that the field needs." Stacy proposes a number of what are sure to be viewed as radical prescriptions for reforming the situation.

All of "Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education" is interesting and provocative. It is noteworthy that, despite the profound differences among the six disciplines represented in the essays, many of the same themes recur again and again. If you just read it for the "Commentaries" and the three essays on chemistry, however, I think you will come away with a renewed appreciation for how our discipline is changing and how educating the future stewards of chemistry also must change.

Thanks for reading.

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