Grad Education Must Meet Needs of Students, Society
Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, a report released by the American Chemical Society (ACS), identifies major changes critical for ensuring that graduate education in the chemical sciences serves the needs and aspirations of students and society as a whole.
Although the report concluded that the state of graduate education in the chemical sciences is productive and healthy in many respects, it found that the education of doctoral-level scientists has not kept pace with major changes in the global economic, social and political environment that have occurred since World War II, when the current system of graduate education took shape.
“We haven’t looked at the goals and the concepts for graduate education in chemistry in the U.S. in decades,” says Larry Faulkner, who chaired the ACS Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences. Faulkner is President Emeritus of the Univ. of Texas at Austin and a former professor of chemistry at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“The time for a close look was long overdue,” says ACS President Bassam Shakhashiri, who organized the Commission as one of his presidential initiatives. Shakhashiri is a chemistry professor at the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison. “We hope the Commission's work will create the best possible experience for future scientists upon whom society will depend so heavily to address the great global challenges facing us all. They include climate change, population growth, finite resources, malnutrition, spreading disease and water management.
The Commission found that:
• Current educational opportunities for graduate students, viewed on balance as a system, do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school.
• The system for the financial support of graduate students, as currently operated by private, institutional, state and federal funds, is no longer optimal for national needs.
• Academic chemical laboratories must adopt best safety practices. Such practices have led to a remarkably good record of safety in the chemical industry and should be leveraged.
• 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. Replication in excess is wasteful of resources and does injustice to the investment made by students and society.
• Postdoctoral training and education is an extension of graduate education that is important for success in a variety of career paths, particularly for faculty appointments. Postdoctoral associates should be treated as the professional scientists and engineers they are. A postdoctoral appointment should be a period of accelerated professional growth that, by design, enhances scientific independence and future career opportunities.
The report’s recommendations have been crafted to address fundamental concerns. First, employment opportunities for chemical scientists and engineers have changed and will continue to do so. Graduate programs must prepare Ph.D. candidates for the present and future marketplace of opportunity. Second, science has become much more collaborative; colleagues may be located next door or around the globe, which necessitates stronger communication skills across disciplinary and cultural lines. Third, as many nations worldwide have greatly strengthened their scientific capacity, by building universities and developing new businesses and markets, it is essential for the U.S. to revitalize its own capacity for the scientific enterprise by engaging more women and students from underrepresented populations to bring new talent and energy to the chemical enterprise.