Volume 90 Issue 51 | p. 7 | News of The Week
Issue Date: December 17, 2012

Improving Chemistry Graduate Education

Education: ACS commission calls for major changes in programs, funding nationwide
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: doctoral education, Ph.D., funding, American Chemical Society
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Shakhashiri (left) and Faulkner release the ACS presidential commission report at a Dec. 10 press conference.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Photo shows Bassam Shakhashiri and Larry Faulkner at press conference releasing ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences.”
 
Shakhashiri (left) and Faulkner release the ACS presidential commission report at a Dec. 10 press conference.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Chemistry departments need to take a hard look at their graduate programs with an eye toward improving the student experience, according to a report released by the American Chemical Society at a Dec. 10 press conference.

The ACS presidential commission that produced the report, “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences,” posits that graduate education, although “productive and healthy,” no longer aligns with the current employment opportunities for chemists. The report urges steps such as decreasing the time required to earn a Ph.D., decoupling student funding from research funding, and establishing a database of graduate student outcomes. In total, the report makes 32 recommendations related to five overall conclusions.

ACS President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, who holds the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, appointed the commission in October 2011 “to undertake a wholesale review” of graduate education in chemistry and related sciences. Larry R. Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas, Austin, chaired the 22-member commission.

Report Conclusions

Current education opportunities for graduate students do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school.

The system for financial support of graduate students is no longer optimal for U.S. needs.

Academic chemical laboratories must adopt best safety practices.

Departments should give thoughtful attention to maintaining a sustainable relationship between the availability of new graduates at all degree levels and genuine opportunities for them.

Postdoctoral training and education is an extension of graduate education that is important for success in a variety of career paths. A postdoctoral appointment should be a period of accelerated professional growth that enhances scientific independence and future career opportunities.

The report contends that today’s graduate programs provide insufficient preparation for students’ postdegree careers. “We’d like to see academic departments take a much more active role in the professional growth of each student, which would include an individual development plan for every doctoral student,” said commission member Gary Calabrese, senior vice president for global research at Corning.

The commission also calls for increased efficiency in graduate education. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.”

The commission recommends decoupling most graduate student funding from professors’ research funding. Instead, the report urges government and private funders to adopt a new strategy of “graduate program grants,” analogous to the training grants funded by NIH. “While increased overall funding would be welcome, this recommendation is mainly about improving the deployment of existing funding,” said commission executive director Paul Houston, dean of the College of Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology.

U.S. universities are currently “overproducing Ph.D.s in the chemical sciences,” Faulkner said. The commission urges departments to better balance the number of new graduates with available employment opportunities.

The report calls upon ACS to collect and make available privacy-protected data on student outcomes, including time to degree, job placements, salaries, and overall student satisfaction. Such a database “will shine a spotlight on what students are feeling during and after their degrees,” Calabrese said. “It will be a catalyst for change.”

“This is a bold and provocative report,” Matthew S. Platz, Chemistry Division director at NSF and not a member of the commission, told C&EN. “If its recommendations are adopted, it will have a transformational effect on higher education and graduate research.”

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Comments
Jim Davis (Mon Dec 17 11:28:33 EST 2012)
At many universities, the number of doctoral students in Chemistry departments is driven by TA needs for undergraduate laboratories. For some schools, diminishing the number of grad students will create real difficulties for meeting staffing needs. Full-fledged PhDs are probably too expensive to fill the lab instructor gap, and those holding an MS degree would likewise be hard pressed to make a living off of what schools could pay for a strict laboratory instruction role. In our particular university (University of South Alabama), we do have full-time MS people in professional instructor roles, but finding qualified people has been tricky. We would love to be able to employ people at the BS level in this role, but accrediting agencies don't permit this. That is odd, since PhD students doing lab instruction in departments with grad programs are themselves "just" BS holders. If ACS could prevail on national accrediting agencies to bend on this particular issue, implementation of reduced PhD program populations at many schools might be made more readily achievable.
Bob Buntrock (Fri Feb 15 16:14:40 EST 2013)
Sounds like wise policies. ACS take note.

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