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Web Date: December 11, 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
Report Conclusions At A Glance

• 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.

SOURCE: “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences”

Chemistry departments need to take a hard look at their graduate programs with an eye toward improving the student experience, according to a new 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.

The report contends that today’s graduate programs provide insufficient preparation for students’ post-degree 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 the National Institutes of Health. “While increased overall funding would be welcome, this recommendation is mainly about improving the deployment of existing funding,” said commission member 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 the National Science Foundation 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
Anonymous (Wed Dec 12 17:58:10 EST 2012)
I am graduate student,and fell that there is no need to the courses we are taking and we are looking for PhD research based degree that makes the student much more aware about what are they doing. Also I am agree to reduece the PhD time to 3 and half- four as maximum.

Svetlana Mitrovski (Thu Dec 13 21:23:55 EST 2012)
Being a 2006 Ph.D. graduate from University of Illinois at Urbana and currently an Assistant Professor at Eastern Illinois University, I do not believe that the ACS proposal, if accepted, would result in higher quality of graduate education in the USA. If I interpret this proposal correctly from the CEN article, students would be asked to evaluate their research experiences in ways that are similar to the student evaluations performed in regular classwork. One of the purposes of graduate education is to provide students with "real-life" experiences -- ones that would primarily increase their level of maturity. Decoupling "real-world" research performed by their advisors from their student experiences will not lead to higher quality education - I believe that the result would be quite opposite from what the proposers expect.
Gary (Fri Dec 21 08:02:18 EST 2012)
reply to Svetlana:
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I believe you are directing your comments to the proposal on having the students complete a survey after they complete their degree. The commission did not provide much detail on exactly how this survey would be accomplished or the specific questions to be asked, but the spirit of it is to help the "system" understand what is working well and what is not after students have had some time to try to make use of their degree experiences in employment in either academics or industry. I would personally not like to see the survey done immediately after the degree is awarded, but rather I think it would be best to wait a year or two so things can become clearer for the students. A few years ago, I used to ask "new in career" industrial chemists and chemical engineers what would have been more helpful to them in their PhD programs. They offered many suggestions that included gaining more understanding of how businesses worked and innovated, IP, and what it really takes to operate safely. Interestingly enough, these are major themes in the report!
You wish I gave my name (Sat Jan 12 16:42:13 EST 2013)
Of course assistant professors would be against this as they need slaves in their labs so that they can get tenure. The reality is this, you get a PhD and you are under qualified in this economy, so you need a post doc (an underpaid job), so that you can do what a regular PhD was doing normally until 5 years ago with no experience. I loved my classes, I loved my research, I love chemistry, but I am also a human and need to have a reality check when other scientists are telling us that a career over 10 years of studying in Chemistry makes you under qualified. . . not even MDs go through this. Graduate school has become some sort of funnel of exploitation of students and favoritism towards certain scholars and their students, and not being at all fair with the rest of the community. Ps. I am coming out of a top school and can see this happening to other colleagues and even post docs. . . Good luck to all new PhD's is all I have to say

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