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Chemistry Society Looks to Shake Up Training

Erlenmeyer Flasks
CREDIT: Bongoman/Wikimedia Commons

Two reports released last year—one from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, and another from a presidential commission of the American Chemical Society (ACS)—explored questions about the training of graduate students and postdoctoral scientists. Although the two reports were focused on different disciplines—biomedical science and chemical science, respectively—they reached many of the same conclusions. The ACS report, however, directly addressed a crucial question that the NIH report sidestepped: Are academic institutions graduating too many Ph.D.s for the job market to handle? The ACS commission's answer is a qualified "yes."

The two reports share several conclusions—which is not surprising because, according to chemistry professor Paul Houston, the commission's executive director and dean of the College of Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, members of the ACS commission read early drafts of the NIH report as they put their own report together. Both reports concluded that:

"If we can convince NSF to shift … some of the funding from PIs to program grants, what we feel is that will empower the students more." —Paul Houston

  • Graduate school training is too narrow to prepare trainees for the wide array of careers that graduates pursue.
  • Too many trainees are supported by research grants instead of training grants, with the result that graduate students and postdocs are too often valued mainly as a labor source rather than for their future scientific potential.
  • Postdocs aren't paid well enough or given benefits proportionate to their value and training.

Diversifying training

Although language in the report specifically highlighted the crowded market for Ph.D. chemists, in interviews with Science Careers, members of the ACS commission downplayed the idea of shrinking graduate student enrollment, focusing instead on the need for departments to broaden the range of skills they teach so that there is less redundancy among Ph.D. graduates. One of the major obstacles to young chemists finding jobs, they say, is that too many departments prepare students with the exact same sets of skills.

"There are a lot of Ph.D. programs out there in chemistry, and they shouldn't all be trying to be top-10 research university programs," says Jacqueline Barton, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a member of the commission. "They should each find their niche. Different departments have different strengths. … Maybe some departments should be focusing on environmental sciences, and another program should be focused on joint programs in biotechnology."

"Obviously, the biotech industry has collapsed in terms of employment, but that doesn't mean that chemists are not being employed," Houston says. "There is a large chemical industry, and there are still some very good jobs at the bigger chemical companies, but there are a lot of jobs at start-up companies and smaller outfits, too. So one of the things that we thought a lot about is what kind of training does a graduate student need to be successful in that kind of market."

<p>Jacqueline Barton</p>

Jacqueline Barton

Courtesy of the California Institute of Technology

Courtesy of the California Institute of Technology

Jacqueline Barton

How can ACS encourage departments to broaden or diversify their training? One approach that ACS will take is to try to persuade funding agencies—primarily the National Science Foundation (NSF) but also NIH—to redirect training money from research grants toward training grants. Rather than narrowly training students in their principal investigators' (PIs') particular areas of research, training grants could be awarded to departments who have strong training curricula, or to target programs training students in particular areas of need. "If we can convince NSF to shift … some of the funding from PIs to program grants, what we feel is that will empower the students more," Houston says. "I think there's a sympathetic ear, particularly at NSF."

<p>Paul Houston</p>

Paul Houston

Courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology

Courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology

Paul Houston

If that idea sounds familiar, it's because the NIH report made similar suggestions. NIH, though, decided not to implement that idea. Apparently, members of NIH's Advisory Committee to the Director were worried about the reduction in PIs' autonomy; there were also concerns about unspecified legal issues. If ACS is to be successful on this point, they'll have to do a better job than NIH's own workforce working group of convincing funding agencies—including NIH—of the importance of this kind of change.

Tracking graduates

Another strategy for empowering students recommended by the ACS commission is to track career outcomes for students graduating from all chemistry departments across the country and publish them; this way, students would have a better idea of the range of careers open to them and would know beforehand whether graduates from a particular department fared well in the area they want to work in.

Whether ACS's recommendations will be implemented depends mostly on the society's ability to convince departments and funding agencies—but tracking graduates is a task that ACS itself can take on. Gary Schuster, a chemistry professor at Georgia Tech and a special adviser to the commission, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers: "ACS has an important role to play in gathering and disseminating relevant data on chemistry graduate programs. The availability of those data will help guide faculty, student, and institutional choices. Those choices will create the future."

NIH is implementing similar recommendations from its working group report.

"Population control"

<p>Gary Schuster</p>

Gary Schuster

Courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology

Courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology

Gary Schuster

The ACS report explored a theme that the NIH report flirted with * but never outwardly addressed: ensuring that the number of scientists trained is proportionate to the number of job opportunities. "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," the ACS report says. The phrase "genuine opportunities" is notable, suggesting that graduates should expect good jobs in the field and not an endless series of postdocs, menial positions, or jobs only tangentially related to the degree.

Even with better tracking of career outcomes and broader training opportunities for graduate students, chemistry departments may still continue to produce more graduate students than there are opportunities for genuine employment, Houston says. And one of the main drivers of high graduate enrollments in chemistry is the use of graduate students to teach large undergraduate classes. That's a bad idea, Houston says.

"Many departments have a Ph.D. program because they have to teach undergraduates, and that's a way to get undergraduates taught," he says. "We don't think that's a sufficient reason to have a large graduate program. Quite the contrary. What we'd prefer to see is places that have large undergraduate programs … hire more instructors, maybe postdocs who've been trained in teaching."

Houston notes that on this point, ACS "doesn't really have a stick" to motivate compliance with this recommendation. The best it can do is encourage departments, through site visits and sponsored talks, to disentangle graduate student enrollment from undergraduate teaching needs, he says. He knows it will be a struggle. "I think anytime you shift the paradigm, there are going to be people who resist it," he says. "People have fine-tuned their system to take advantage of what's there."

Resistance can be found even in the commission's ranks. Schuster, for example, does not believe that chemistry departments should reduce their graduate enrollments. "Opportunities in chemistry, viewed as the 'molecular science', are growing as disciplines such as biology and materials science become ever more 'molecular,' " he writes. " 'Population control' is not necessary or desirable. What is required is increased diversity of skills and perspective so that students see and embrace all of the opportunities of the 'molecular science.' "

NIH shied away from major changes in implementing recommendations from its working group report, despite its ability to directly influence departments' behavior via funding and policy. The ACS commission advanced a bolder agenda than NIH's working group did, but the professional society must rely on persuasion to win implementation of its recommendations. It remains to be seen which approach can be most successful in reforming graduate and postdoctoral training.

*For example, the Vannevar Bush quote that leads off NIH's report: "The plans should be designed to attract into science only that proportion of youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science in relation to the other needs of the nation for high abilities."

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