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Too Many Ph.D.s?

by Rudy M. Baum
January 31, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 5

apprentice: 1 a : one bound by indenture to serve another for a prescribed period with a view to learning an art or trade b : one who is learning by practical experience under skilled workers a trade, art, or calling

This week’s lead Science & Technology Department story by Senior Editor Bethany Halford addresses a question that is on the minds of many people associated with the chemistry enterprise: Is chemistry facing a glut of Ph.D.s?

Halford has been working on this major story for several months. It has not been an easy story to report. Not surprisingly, some sources aren’t enthusiastic about being quoted on the topic. Vested interests are involved. Ph.D. students, after all, and the postdoctoral fellows they become are the source of cheap, highly skilled labor in the laboratories of our leading research institutions. Many organizations, the American Chemical Society included, work to encourage young people to go into chemistry.

Halford does a fine job of laying out the basics of the issue. As she points out, “The answer to the question—Are we training Too Many Ph.D.s?—comes down to supply and demand. How many Ph.D.s is the U.S. graduating and how many does it need?” Her article addresses both issues, drawing on data from the National Science Foundation and the ACS Committee on Professional Training for the supply side of the equation and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Chemistry Council, and a variety of other sources for the demand side.

What she finds is that we are producing a lot of chemistry Ph.D.s, and many of those Ph.D. chemists are having trouble finding jobs. That’s not news to many C&EN readers, I know. Several of her sources suggest that the changes in the employment landscape facing chemists may well be permanent. University of Maryland chemistry professor Michael P. Doyle, for example, told Halford: “I think we’re in a serious time of restructuring in the U.S. The people who have been trained in graduate departments in the U.S. have to expect that their employment will not be in the areas that they thought they would be in.”

Halford cites a number of recent commentaries in her story, including an essay in Nature by Harvard University chemist George M. Whitesides and Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist John M. Deutch entitled “Let’s Get Practical” (DOI: 10.1038/469021a) and an essay in The Economist entitled “The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a Ph.D. Is Often a Waste of Time” (Dec. 16, 2010).

Interestingly, to me, both essays refer to graduate students as “apprentices” or graduate training as an “apprenticeship.” Among their suggestions for improving the situation chemistry faces, Whitesides and Deutch write: “Teach students, rather than using them. Many subdisciplines of chemistry still use an apprenticeship model in which a professor conceives the problem and strategy, and graduate students execute the bench work. It is hard to imagine a worse way to prepare tomorrow’s chemists to work at the integration of many disciplines. Instead, professors should teach students the tools of curiosity. An independent, engaged student, exploring as a colleague in a promising area, will do better work than a simple apprentice.”

While I agree with Whitesides and Deutch at a practical level, I think the apprentice model for graduate study is more insidious than they suggest. Apprentices train to become their masters. That means that too many chemistry graduate students are training to become chemistry professors, which is probably not what we need more of, at least not in the traditional sense.

To be fair, Whitesides and Deutch advocate a radical restructuring of graduate training in chemistry that moves away from the apprenticeship model and emphasizes a focus on societally important questions and a more holistic curriculum. And while they state that “academic chemistry is overpopulated,” I’m not sure they’re advocating training fewer Ph.D. chemists.

I don’t think it’s really a question of whether there are too many Ph.D.s in chemistry. I think it’s a question of whether Ph.D. students are learning what they need to know to succeed and benefit society.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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