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Graduate Education

Overhaul of scientific incentives needed to fix Ph.D. system, report says

National Academies committee calls for more emphasis on career counseling, teaching, and mentoring for grad students

by Andrea Widener
May 31, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 23


Graduate education programs should be centered on the needs of students rather than on those of principal investigators (PIs), a new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine says.

The current system works for academics, who need students to power their research; “it does not work well for some employers, and it does not work well for students, particularly those who are not going to have an academic career,” says Alan I. Leshner, chair of the report committee.

Previous panels have recommended reforms, but few changes have taken hold. Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, hopes this will be different because the NASEM committee laid out specific expectations for training, including a greater emphasis on teaching and mentoring students and preparing them for careers outside of academia. The report also suggested grad students receive a broader education in science literacy and ethics and that universities be more transparent about student outcomes and diversity.

For that to happen changes will have to come from state and federal governments, which should require PIs to prove they are giving students support, the report says. Universities should build rewards for effective teaching and mentoring into the promotion and tenure system.

Bassam Shakhashiri, who pushed for chemistry graduate education reform as ACS president, hopes every chemist will read this important report. Its findings echo many of the recommendations an ACS committee made in 2012. Shakhashiri adds, “This really is about the future of the university.”


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