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Graduate Student Fellowships

August 15, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 33

In his guest editorial, Ronald Breslow proposes that the Department of Education extend funding of graduate fellowships for U.S. chemistry students (C&EN, June 13, page 3). Although I do not disagree with his proposal, I wish to comment on some of his points.

I was fortunate to receive a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship in the early years of the program, soon after Sputnik was launched and the support of science became a national priority. I am grateful to Breslow, then a lecturer in chemistry, who provided a recommendation letter on my behalf. However, I had chosen chemistry as a career and had been accepted at three prestigious graduate departments, each offering a teaching assistantship, before my fellowship was awarded.

I do not believe that winning a fellowship convinces a student to go into chemistry. Almost all chemistry research departments need graduate students to supervise undergraduate laboratories and problem sessions. Graduate students are assured of free tuition and a reasonable salary as teaching assistants. Despite the financial incentive, fellowship or assistantship, associated with graduate school in chemistry, it is not enough to steer students away from medical school, where they will graduate heavily in debt.

One of the consequences of government fellowships is that U.S. graduate students will not engage in teaching, and that responsibility will fall on international students. NSF-funded Cooperative Graduate Fellowships are now long gone. These fellowships provided for a voluntary modest teaching component, with the teaching stipend provided by the chemistry department. This allowed the student to engage in a valuable activity, and the department had an excellent teaching assistant at a bargain price.

In addition to this win-win arrangement, the co-op program awarded fellowships to the universities in proportion to the number of Ph.D. science degrees awarded. When the fellowships are awarded in a national competition, the awardees tend to congregate in a few universities. The co-op program allowed the smaller graduate programs to claim some of the NSF fellowships. I hope that this type of fellowship, which has several advantages to the student and the chemistry department, will be revived.

Finally, I suggest that the now-revived chemical/pharmaceutical industry provide funds for graduate fellowships. These fellowships could be awarded by a government agency or the American Chemical Society, for example, but students who would later be employed as chemists would be supported by their future employers.

By Martin Feldman
Silver Spring, Md



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