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Improving Chemistry Graduate Education

Education: ACS commission calls for major changes in programs, funding nationwide

by Celia Henry Arnaud
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Shakhashiri (left) and Faulkner release the ACS presidential commission report at a Dec. 10 press conference.
Photo shows Bassam Shakhashiri and Larry Faulkner at press conference releasing ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences.”
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Shakhashiri (left) and Faulkner release the ACS presidential commission report at a Dec. 10 press conference.

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.”



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