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Improving Ph.D. Education

May 23, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 21

Having just read letters to the editor about the article “Doctoral Dilemma” and Rudy Baum’s editorial on the subject, I feel that I have to chime in (C&EN, March 14, page 5, and Jan. 31, pages 46 and 5). Nearly one in four students in the U.S. drops out of high school, and graduation rates are lower in undergraduate and graduate programs nationwide.

Thus, in a country that practically does not value education but needs skilled workers, we “import” them at all levels. So we are certainly not producing enough American Ph.D.s. Are we producing too many overall? Realistically, universities are unlikely to set limits on graduate class sizes in the sciences because it hurts their bottom line, so the numbers debate becomes a theoretical exercise, though arguably pointless. I believe the real debate is not “are we training too many Ph.D.s?” but are we training the right Ph.D.s?

Neither graduate school nor postdoctoral training includes any explicit training in managing people, time, or money, which is critical for any chemist irrespective of career. Sadly, however, the benefits of such comprehensive training aren’t recognized by many older decisionmakers. There is merit in the medieval apprenticeship origins of our current training system, but such merits are ever diminished as professors, departments, and schools spend more time chasing a relatively shrinking funding pool instead of training their apprentices.

Theoretically, more senior members of a lab aid in training younger members, but I have spent more of my postdoc time writing grant proposals than training anyone, and my situation is typical. Thus, trainees often bang their heads against a wall until something works, or not, then leave. The current system leads to an extreme degree of field specialization, relatively high levels of frustration, and little love of knowledge in today’s Ph.D.s—in chemistry or almost any field of science and engineering.

If we were to produce Ph.D.s who were rigorous thinkers instead of masters of vanishingly small fields, with comprehensive training and skill sets, they would be far better prepared for academia, industry, and any other career options. As someone still interested in academia, I can’t help but note that many academics I know continue mostly due to inertia and a sense of comfort with the familiar. And almost everyone I know who has left academia is more intellectually stimulated, better compensated financially, or both.

Modi Wetzler
Stanford, Calif.

I am writing to thank Baum for “Educating Ph.D. Chemists” (C&EN, March 28, page 3). The last recommendation in particular caught my attention for improving graduate education in the sciences. This deals with nonproprietary training curricula on intellectual property (IP), ethics, safety, etc. IP training usually is omitted from most science graduate training. It appears that the Council for Chemical Research strongly backs its workshop findings.

As a retired industrial chemist, I have been involved with the ACS Office of Professional Education in developing and offering a short course on IP. In 2006, we began offering “Practical Approaches to Patents & Other Forms of Intellectual Property.” The course is run about twice a year. I sincerely hope that interested parties continue to develop “how-to” and “practical” courses on IP. In so doing, recommendation four, to improve graduate education about IP, becomes a reality after years of debate.

Francis Waller
Allentown, Pa.

While working toward a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, I noticed that many Ph.D.s in industry eventually moved out of the lab and into management (and perhaps picked up an M.B.A. along the way), hoping never to soil their hands with research again. Also, conversations with industry recruiters usually got around to the career ladder, with implications that after a few years one would move up and out of the lab.

My love for the lab bench was the reason I chose a chemistry career to begin with, so this trend of moving from Ph.D. to off the lab bench was not for me. I decided to finish my studies with an M.S. degree. After five years, I still wound up managing a quality-control lab as chief chemist at an industrial plant, but I made sure to always have some bench time.

Sure, it would have been nice to have a Dr. in front of my name when sending out Christmas cards, but if that meant not being able to train young chemical technicians in the lab and solve those chemical mysteries, then it would not be worth it. After a few downsizings, I wound up again running a small lab with one or two young chem techs, solving problems and enjoying getting my hands dirty at the lab bench. Too many Ph.D.s? Maybe, maybe not. I think one should have an idea of what they want to do with the degree that they are pursuing and not just get the degree and see what happens.

Peter Doorley



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