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Graduate Education Report Evokes Mixed Reactions

Community lauds ACS report on improving graduate education in chemistry but doubts the feasibility of many recommendations

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

Credit: Steven Scherer/Purdue U
Recommendations from the report could improve outcomes for future graduate students.
Purdue graduate student Ellen Matson performs an air-sensitive addition in an inorganic laboratory.
Credit: Steven Scherer/Purdue U
Recommendations from the report could improve outcomes for future graduate students.

The current model of chemistry graduate education dates back decades. But is it the right model for the 21st century? That’s the question that 2012 American Chemical Society President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri asked an ACS presidential commission to grapple with last year.

The commission’s efforts culminated in the report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences,” which was released in December. The report made 32 recommendations related to five overall conclusions. Key recommendations deal with aligning the number of new Ph.D.s and job opportunities; improving the graduate student experience, including reducing the time to degree; revamping the system of graduate student funding; establishing a culture of safety; and treating postdoctoral associates as professionals.

Now the chemistry community is getting a chance to assess those findings and recommendations. Among the people C&EN contacted, overall response was positive. But potentially affected parties—from graduate students to department heads—expressed skepticism about the practicality of some recommendations, particularly those related to graduate student funding and time to degree.

The report “does a good job of identifying the key issues,” says Michael A. Marletta, chemist and president of Scripps Research Institute. For Marletta and others, the biggest issue identified in the report is the mismatch between the number of newly minted Ph.D. chemists and available jobs.

“It was extraordinarily refreshing to read something coming from ACS that was reasonably frank about what most graduate students and postdocs would describe as a dismal job market,” says Christopher J. Cramer, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “It was also refreshingly frank about how, much as generals fight the last war, graduate faculty tend to educate the last generation.”

“It was surprising to hear them say we’re producing too many Ph.D.s for the current employment market,” says Chemjobber, an industrial chemist who blogs about employment issues. “The standard line is that things are pretty good in chemistry.”

In response to this employment mismatch, the report urges departments and programs to focus on the availability of “truly attractive” job opportunities for graduates. It also urges graduate programs to base their size on a realistic assessment of opportunities for graduates, says Larry R. Faulkner, chair of the commission. If such a strategy results in fewer graduate students than those needed to fulfill a department’s teaching and research needs, those positions should be staffed “through other professional paths,” he says.

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.

Gregory A. Petsko, a chemistry professor at Brandeis University, isn’t convinced that too many Ph.D. chemists are being educated. But he suggests a simple solution to reduce the overall number of graduate students.

“Let’s suppose we decide as a society that we’re training twice as many graduate students or postdocs as we should,” he posits. “Double their salaries over a three- or four-year period. That will have the effect of shrinking the pool by a factor of two because you won’t be able to afford the number you have now. You’ll keep the best ones, and they’ll finally make a living wage.”

Petsko notes if such a step is necessary, now may be the time to act. “Federal funding is flat, and it’s going to stay that way for a few years. It’s the perfect time to do it.”

Aside from the numbers issue, the report questions whether students are being appropriately trained for current and future career paths. The commission advocates maintaining scientific depth and mastery while enhancing students’ nonscientific skills, such as communication, teamwork, and business acumen.

The commission proposes that these things be done while decreasing the overall time to the Ph.D. degree. They urge programs to strive for a target time to degree of four years, with a departmental median of less than five. According to the 2011 National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates, the most recent data available, median time to degree in chemistry is six years. Although many people agree that overall time to degree has become too long, they question whether a target of four years is practical.

“I don’t understand why they’re putting such an emphasis on four years as the ideal time,” says Nancy S. Goroff, a chemistry professor at Stony Brook University. “The first thing you’re thinking about when deciding when a student should graduate is have they accomplished a Ph.D.’s worth of work? But that’s a very nebulous quantity. Each project is different. Have they reached the intellectual maturity to be a creator of new knowledge on their own?”

“Four is a tough number to hit, especially for interdisciplinary programs that have more coursework,” Marletta says. “I don’t think four is realistic.”

Matthew R. Hartings, a chemistry professor at American University, is pleased by the focus on time to degree. When he chose where to get his Ph.D., the department’s average time to degree was a deciding factor. “Five years is reasonable for a Ph.D. if you’re doing good work,” he says. “Maybe that means the principal investigator has to be more involved in understanding where projects are.”

Current graduate students themselves think that a four-year target is infeasible. “I had a four-year goal when I entered,” says Joshua Beaver, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Over the past five or six months, I’ve learned that I really haven’t hit my stride until now. It took that much time to be able to develop the essential problem-solving skills to earn a Ph.D.” Beaver is nevertheless on track to finish within a year, for a total of less than five years.

To help graduate students finish their degrees in a timely fashion, the report recommends increasing oversight of their progress in the form of individual development plans. Some schools already touch base with students frequently. For example, at Stony Brook, graduate students meet with their thesis committee in the fall of their second year and submit written progress reports every year, Goroff says.

Federal agencies fund most as research assistants on professors’ grants. SOURCE: 2010 NSF-NIH Survey of Graduate Students & Postdoctorates in Science & Engineering
This graph shows how many graduate students are funded by government agencies and what titles the graduate students have.
Federal agencies fund most as research assistants on professors’ grants. SOURCE: 2010 NSF-NIH Survey of Graduate Students & Postdoctorates in Science & Engineering

Similarly, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the chemistry department recently developed a database in which students must comment on their progress at regular intervals, with the adviser commenting on the student’s comments, says Jeffrey S. Moore, a chemistry professor and interim head of that department.

“It looks like it’s not going to be too burdensome and will facilitate moving students through the program,” Moore says. “If nothing else, it will catch some of the glitches that arise when a student gets sidetracked and no one seems to have noticed.”

The recommendation that elicits the strongest responses, both positive and negative, is the proposal to redeploy funding for graduate students and decouple it from the funding for specific research projects.

“The most important recommendation is to reconsider the funding mechanisms for graduate students,” says Richard N. Zare, a chemistry professor at Stanford University. “In the past, funding has come from the professor through a grant. The result of that is that the student often feels obligated to follow very closely whatever the professor is doing in terms of research or in terms of desires about what gets done. It makes the student less independent.”

The report suggests that graduate students could be funded by program grants, similar to training grants already offered by the National Institutes of Health, and by an increase in predoctoral fellowships.

Zare prefers that the funding be given directly to students as fellowships. “If it goes to the department, the department will distribute it to professors,” he says, “and you really won’t have changed the system.”

Zare is a veteran of efforts to change the graduate funding system. When he was chair of the National Science Board in the 1990s, he proposed that NSF increase the number of grants to graduate students, especially grants given after the first year of graduate school. Zare’s efforts at the time led nowhere, and he’s pleased that the topic is being revisited.

Others worry that such a shift, which is intended to be revenue neutral, would have a detrimental effect on the quality of research. “If it’s cost neutral and coming from monies that would have gone to individual researchers, I think those investigators accomplish less,” Marletta says.

“This worries me a great deal, in part because national-scale funding for science is a zero-sum game,” says Paul B. Shepson, head of the chemistry department at Purdue University. “If you add money to some new component of national need, then you have to take away from somewhere else.” If professors no longer have to find the funding for graduate students, they might not think hard enough about particular projects, he says.

David P. Giedroc, chairman of the chemistry department at Indiana University, questions how such graduate program grants would be awarded. “For how many slots and how much money? How are the allocations reviewed? That’s the most difficult recommendation to implement.”

Any change in the mechanism for funding graduate students will require support from the funding agencies. Shakhashiri and representatives of the commission have started visiting government agencies to present the report. In January, they met with program officers and administrators at NSF.

Across NSF, about 80% of graduate student funding comes from individual investigator awards, says F. Fleming Crim, assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences at NSF. The other 20% is divided between graduate research fellowships and other funding mechanisms.

Crim doesn’t know how NSF’s graduate student funding model might evolve, but he emphasizes that NSF won’t proceed unilaterally. “We have to have community buy-in and enthusiasm,” he says. “Something that is done strictly from the foundation side without real discussion and buy-in from the community is preordained to cause problems and not work.”

The report calls for “experiments” in funding mechanisms and for phasing in new models over 10 to 15 years. “We are very open to the idea of experiments,” Crim says. “We have a lot of training models, like IGERT [Integrative Graduate Education & Research Traineeship], that are experiments in how you train the workforce.”

The recommendations on lab safety elicit mixed reactions. Everyone agrees that safety is important, but not everybody thinks this report was the appropriate place to discuss it. “I don’t think the emphasis of the report should be on safety in the lab,” Zare says. “I think it’s very important, but I don’t think it belongs in this report. This should instead have been about preparing graduate students, about the future.”

“I hardly paid attention to that section, because it’s obvious we need to change,” Moore says. “Graduate school needs to do a better job of preparing its students for the culture they’re going to encounter when they leave.”

Chemjobber suggests that changing the academic safety culture will be harder than people think. “Many of the best safety cultures come from organizations that are extraordinarily large,” Chemjobber says. Such organizations have enough resources that they can afford to spend a relatively small slice on safety, Chemjobber notes. “That’s not necessarily the case for universities or small companies.”

Amy Hamlin, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, was pleased to see the focus on safety. “I would like to see more collaboration between academics and industry with regard to safety,” she says. “A lot of students move to industry labs and don’t know the safety rules.”

Such changes need to come from the top, she says. “Change is not going to start with the graduate students.” That’s something Hamlin welcomes, noting that easy-to-implement safety rules won’t drastically change students’ day-to-day work. In fact, students will probably be more efficient as a result, she says.

Ryan Pavlicek, a second-year graduate student at Northeastern University, agrees that safety is important, but he places less emphasis on it. He suggests that the report “paints a grimmer picture than most people encounter.”

Shakhashiri is spearheading efforts to get the report out. In addition to visits to federal agencies, he has organized symposia at scientific society meetings, including the ACS national meeting next month in New Orleans. He and commission members have been invited to make presentations to chemistry departments around the country. Last month, he hosted a webinar about the report with presentations from Faulkner and commission member Jacqueline K. Barton, a chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology.


But the most important effect of the report may be the conversation it sparks. “A big virtue of the report is that it’s going to stimulate a lot of discussion,” Crim says.

“We’re in the midst of an extended conversation among ourselves about the number of people we train and how we train them that has been precipitated by the financial crunch we’re in,” Petsko says. “The dialogue has to be protracted, and the din has to get louder. If this report does nothing but form part of that conversation, it was worth writing.”


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