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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences: Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences: Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop.

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2Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences

Edel Wasserman

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company

With the fluidity of the industrial landscape, as companies merge and restructure, as one relevant science matures to be replaced by another rapidly developing field, it is appropriate to ask how graduate education in chemistry functions in a rapidly changing environment. Here I focus on graduate and postdoctoral education as a prerequisite for a technically based career in industry. Given the many varieties of education and their many roles in the workplace and in professional development, this discussion deals with only a few issues.

  • It is important for the scientist newly employed in industry to be able to make a contribution within months of joining the laboratory. Some specialized expertise to be tapped is normally necessary in these early months. However, the nature of industrial needs can change over a period of years and the individual has to adapt to new opportunities. To this end, the graduate curriculum should contain a broad range of science experiences.
  • In the graduate and postdoctoral years, the students should be exposed to chemistry broadly through classes, seminars, and opportunities to participate in outside meetings, as well as being encouraged to read broadly outside their own thesis or research topic. Balancing the needs for the student to be productive in research with the longer-term educational needs for the student in a later career is a challenging task for the research director.
  • Students must realize that chemistry in many areas is a young science. While we have made great progress in specific fields, closely related domains provide vast opportunities in both the fundamental science and in applications that may be of particular interest to industry. An interdisciplinary thesis can demonstrate how existing knowledge from different fields can be combined in a new intellectual synthesis.
  • In trying to provide this balanced environment one should try to design a program that is appropriate for the good and very good students. The truly outstanding students will find their own way and frequently resist the more formal structures that exist within a department. They will create their own world. All the university need do is to provide the environment in which they select and absorb and work in their unique ways.
  • We should avoid a prolonged graduate experience. There is anecdotal evidence that programs that go beyond 5 or 6 years may narrow students rather than increase broadening. It is best to keep the graduate experience limited and then let the students learn more in whatever new environments they face after leaving the university.
  • Most important, the student must be taught how to learn throughout a career.
  • In industry people have the opportunity to seek out colleagues with complementary skills to tackle problems that an individual alone might not be able to solve. Preparing students for the transition to this more diverse world is another way mentors can make a major contribution to student development.
  • As a professional, some time should be spent on absorbing new science in other areas. Given the wide range of interests of colleagues in industry, some of the best educational opportunities are informal exchanges with other scientists. Learning how to describe one's own interests and capabilities, and learning how to question others so as to learn theirs, provides the scientist with a toolbox that can be used effectively for many years. Graduate school is the best incubator for such skills.

We often refer to chemistry as the or a central science. However, in practice it is effectively a decentralized science appearing as a significant component in what passes under the names of many other disciplines. We should attune ourselves to the opportunities for making contributions on the basis of their content rather than whether they are labeled as one form of chemistry or another.

  • In school we are faced with educating a variety of quite different individuals. No two students are the same. Finding ways to play to their strengths and advising them on how to compensate for their weaknesses is an important part of the graduate process. Some individuals in the organic chemistry and molecular biology areas do not take easily to quantitative concepts, but they may develop instead a fine feeling for structural and spatial relationships. The faculty advisor may be more aware of the student's capabilities than is the student. Careful guidance of each person can provide the information that allows entry into the outside world with a sense about where one is likely to be most effective.
  • Students should realize that a large number of opportunities are available and will be available throughout the decades of their careers. But it will be largely their responsibility to become aware of them. Increasingly, people must manage their own careers, although advice from many others is necessary before they make their final choices.
  • Given the rapid pace of scientific change we are often forced to deal with individuals in midcareer (typically in their 40s or early 50s) who find themselves not competitive with new graduates in specialized areas. This is a great tragedy and one we should do all we can to avoid. By planting the seeds in graduate school we can prepare for a continually developing professional able to adapt, synthesize, and contribute for decades. Industry wants to employ its experienced scientists as long as they remain contributors. It is a great loss for all if someone with 20 years of experience has to leave a company because of being less productive than a new hire might be. The chemist who learned how to teach himself or herself in graduate school is likely to remain a long-term contributor.

Many more specific suggestions could be made as to what would constitute good practices in graduate school. A list of some of these came out of a workshop chaired by Professor Ronald Breslow of Columbia in late 1995, and I've attached most of the “Comment” he wrote summarizing that workshop. These suggestions, if incorporated broadly within graduate schools, will do much to improve the capability, contributions, and long-term effectiveness of the professional chemist.


The Education of Ph.D.s in Chemistry

December 11, 1995, Chemistry & Engineering News

(From “Comment” authored by R. Breslow; reprinted by permission)

A conference was held at Columbia University to discuss U.S. doctoral education in chemistry. Participants were invited from major graduate programs and from other concerned groups, such as industry. Many participants are heads of departments, others direct graduate students. They represent some of the strongest university chemistry departments, which produce 20% of chemistry Ph.D.s in the U.S.

Conferees from industry described qualities they find most valuable in prospective Ph.D.-chemist employees, while the academic participants described the content of their graduate programs and any planned changes.

There emerged a remarkable agreement on what doctoral education in chemistry should accomplish and how the goals might be achieved:

  • Ph.D.s should achieve mastery of a specific area of chemistry such that they can perform as true professionals. Extensive involvement in research, leading to a thesis, plays a critical role.
  • At the same time, Ph.D.s should gain educational breadth that covers chemistry and related fields. This should help graduate students realize how knowledge can be applied in other areas, familiarize them with experts and literature outside their own sub-discipline, and extend their thinking about science. It should also serve as the basis for continued intellectual growth.
  • To help achieve these goals, a graduate program should normally involve a full year of advanced course work. In most of the departments represented, one-third or so of this course work must be outside the student's general area of research (for example, physical chemists taking courses outside of physical chemistry) to provide educational breadth.
  • Advanced courses need not occupy an entire semester or quarter. Several departments are experimenting with modular courses, each module extending over half a term or less. Breadth of education might be particularly well served if early modules deal with the basics, while later modules serve the needs of the experts. Students should also regularly audit courses outside their own fields.
  • Students should attend seminars, and not just in their special areas. Departmental colloquia given by outside speakers should be attended by all chemistry graduate students. Faculty should also attend to make it clear that narrowness of interest is not a virtue. Speakers should be told that the audience is general and that some overview is needed.
  • Some visiting speakers should be from industry to expose students to nonacademic research. Close connections between university departments and industry can help students plan and obtain industrial careers.
  • Scientists need to speak well. The graduate years should offer several opportunities to deliver public seminars, both on personal research and on topics from the research literature. Students need to learn how to describe their research, and that of others, in order to convey its relevance as well as the details of the work. Speaking at a national or regional chemistry meeting can be a particularly maturing experience.
  • Scientists need to write well. Regular written research reports, properly critiqued, will lay the groundwork for a good thesis and for good scientific papers.
  • Original written research proposals, defended orally, play an important educational role. One proposal might be closely related to thesis research, perhaps elaborating on ways it could be extended. Another proposal, on a topic different from the student's research, should make it clear that the student's own ideas are involved. Research proposals are critical in interviews for academic positions. They also indicate creativity, something that is helpful in obtaining an industrial position. These assignments help build the habit of reading the chemical literature, a hallmark of professionals.
  • “If you want to learn a subject, teach it.” Teaching experience is a valuable part of graduate training and an important service. Laboratory supervision is useful, but graduate students learn even more if they can give laboratory lectures or recitation sections. Departments should make sure that graduate students receive adequate training and supervision for these duties.
  • At orientation, new graduate students should receive instruction in good scientific practices, including matters related to scientific ethics.
  • Time needed for the degree must not extend too far. Graduate education should not require more than five years. Some institutions cut off support after five years. Future employers are concerned when they see lengthy periods of time spent in graduate school.

Some of the points listed above are properly the subject of departmental rules and norms, but much also depends on the careful mentoring of students by faculty. For example:

  • A thesis committee for each student, including the thesis director, should be set up early. The committee members should hear and critique the public seminars and research proposals of students, monitor research progress, and participate in any special examinations required. The members should be part of the final dissertation committee. They will be important references in future job searches.
  • Thesis directors have special responsibilities. They must follow the progress of research and furnish advice. They must coach students on speaking and writing skills. They should preview and critique the talk that students will give in job interviews; a poor talk can be damaging. Faculty mentors should recognize that a chemistry Ph.D. degree can lead to a variety of worthy and rewarding careers: they should support the decisions of students who choose nontraditional career paths.

Conferees were pleasantly surprised to see how many of these ideas are being followed already or are being instituted in leading universities. The U.S. graduate programs that produce Ph.D. chemists are quite strong. By considering the above recommendations, some programs can become even stronger.


Michael Doyle, Research Corporation and the University of Arizona: Dr. Wasserman, I agree with many of the things you have stated except one. That is, the importance of leadership is diminished. To look for the second tier is what you were implying. We are now involved with an enterprise in which bright students are entering graduate schools and looking for opportunities for career advancement. First of all, they are looking for the best opportunities in the academic and industrial world. Where are they going to go? They are going to go to the places that industry and other academic institutions regard as elite experiences. DuPont, for example, does not come to the University of Arizona to recruit. I don't know the list of institutions at which DuPont does recruit, but this selectivity is true of many companies. They come to certain institutions that they believe will allow them to draw the elite into their enterprises.

Second, when students enter a graduate environment and they see that they do not have the opportunity for the best possible education that would lead to the best career opportunities, they are going to look to other ventures and operations. This is true of a growing number of students who are moving from the Ph.D. program to a master's program with the thought that they will have an opportunity to work at DuPont with a master's degree from institution X, because they are not at institution Y, which would provide them with that opportunity.

The third is that, by not working toward that sense of excellence, by not being attentive to the capabilities of the students that we admit, we are allowing students to obtain Ph.D.s who are then going back into the enterprise with poor experiences. This is not necessarily because of institutional problems in training, but may occur because the students were not well matched to their institutions. They are taking up careers for which there is a continual bemoaning that they do not have opportunities. I look, for example, at undergraduate institutions and the faculty being brought into them. These individuals, who have gone through a graduate program, are saying that research was not the career they wanted to have, and they are entering the undergraduate institution because they want to be good educators and do not care to do any more research. Basically what I am saying is that it is excellence that we want. We have to be selective, and we have to provide good opportunities in a variety of ways.

Edel Wasserman: I agree with you. I want to add the point that many of these students do not know the available choices when they are choosing their careers. Once they have chosen a career in one subject and their advisor is providing the best possible advice, suggesting a postdoc with someone who is a world leader in the field, their flexibility is quite small. This is true even if their minds are open to new ways of thinking, new areas of training, and following a different direction that might provide them with skills that nobody else has in exciting areas.

The need to mentor is critical. Certainly, in industry, we find that people need mentoring until they retire. Individuals are constantly changing. A number of authors have pointed out that every decade or so there are major changes in the way our minds work. Our bodies deteriorate, but our minds change and get better.

I think a number of people end up disappointed by the prospect of spending decades in a laboratory, which is essentially all they see until they leave the university. Some of them solve that problem by going into other areas in industry in which there are many possible career choices within the same company.

What I am asking is that we take a hard look at students as early as possible. Sit down with them and tell them about possible graduate thesis topics that may be something they could work on for the next 40 years because these are new areas and exciting things are likely to continue happening. On the other hand, they may become obsolete, in terms of exciting new developments, in 10 to 15 years. The students will have to be prepared for what to do afterward. They will want to build on what they know. Going into a totally new area where previous experience has no significance will not help them. They need to prepare for continuing development and continuing education.

Students should talk with their graduate advisors, other people in the department, and alumni and one way or another find the information that prepares them for a continually changing world.

Isiah Warner, Louisiana State University: You made a statement, and I am not certain whether it was facetious or not, but I totally agree with it. It is that we should concentrate on educating the very good to good students, as opposed to the superbright. I believe that we often tend to ignore the very good to good students. However, if we look at industry, it is those students who are there representing academia, as well as producing for the betterment of this country.

If it were true that the student had to be superbright to be a productive Ph.D. in chemistry, for example, then graduates from the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would populate all of our academic institutions as well as industry. That is not the case. It is obvious that the good to very good students are also capable of outstanding productivity. In fact, schools such as Louisiana State University are concentrating on those students, like the ones at the University of Arizona that Mike Doyle talked about, and are finding that they are producing a very excellent product. I think that more academic institutions should concentrate more on those students, and I want to applaud you for making that statement.

Edel Wasserman: I was not being facetious, and I also did not mean to exclude the very best. What I mean is that it is almost impossible to produce an appropriate course of formal study for someone with a truly original cast of mind. By making a variety of resources available, the university makes it possible for such individuals to gain a deeper education. We want to make sure that those resources are available.

For example, some of the best people never attend class. I had a research director who was proud of the fact that he cut most classes in school. He would boast about it to us, but he said that if someone cut his class, he would not take it kindly. The world is not always fair.

I believe that we can have a great impact by focusing on the formal requirements for the good and very good students.

John Warner, University of Massachusetts, Boston: We discuss graduate education as preparing students to be successful in industry. I would like to make a distinction between being successful in industry and being hired by industry. We have talked about the needs of industry, breadth, and economic realities, but typically the hiring practices are highly focused. So there is a dichotomy, and there needs to be some way of addressing that.

Edel Wasserman: I agree. One time, years ago, when I was talking along similar lines but in a somewhat different context, someone said that the people from industry talk with forked tongues.

The CEO, on one side, talks about broad training for a 40-year career. The person actually responsible for hiring is concerned with finding somebody to do a particular job now. The net result is that we need a combination of capabilities. A broad overview of many areas of science combined with considerable experience within one or more specific areas is a powerful combination.

On the other hand, when we see somebody who is trained in a different area, but whose intelligence and fundamental understanding is first rate, we make them an offer. We will worry about the details later. We do not see many like that. I agree that we are not consistent. But while there is a difficulty, there is also an opportunity.

I have had people call me about a great candidate who has sent her résumé to two different personnel departments in DuPont, but nothing has happened. I get more information and I take it to the human relations department. I obtain letters of recommendation, which are rare things these days, and I make a case. It takes a significant amount of time, but for a good candidate it is worth the effort.

We have had several candidates come in on that basis. If you know somebody at a company where a student would like to interview, contact that individual. Sometimes, of course, you run into a hiring freeze. Then it is best to wait and try again.

J. Michael White, University of Texas at Austin: My question deals with Moore's law, a law in microelectronics that says that basically you are going to have a new, smaller-dimensioned product every 18 months. My colleagues in the microelectronics industry say that the people we send to their organizations should be thinking of reinventing themselves based on roughly that time scale. Does this fit with your model of people being willing to move about among various tasks that they are assigned to?

Edel Wasserman: There is a limitation on how easily people can reinvent themselves. One of the things I am concerned about is whether we are taking advantage of the possible flexibility in people during the graduate period to try to give them a broader view. The normal outcome that I think most of us have had is that if students see a variety of experiences in their graduate years they are more amenable to interdisciplinary programs. This could mean working with several professors who have a joint grant. It could mean working with one faculty member who has a diversity of things going on in a research group. Once you have a long period of graduate school without that broader view it is more difficult to reinvent yourself.

J. Michael White: I think that is an important point for those of us who are in the graduate education business. We must recognize that there are opportunities for at least part of the Ph.D. dissertation to introduce, perhaps systematically, something akin to a mentoring experience with some other faculty member or some other project. It doesn't actually have to be funded. It can be something written down on a piece of paper, such as, “I will learn this skill in the next 6 months.”

Edel Wasserman: I want to mention an approach that has been used in a few departments. They call on graduates who have been in industry and have had varied experiences there to come and spend three or five days in the department. They have lunch and dinner with students and faculty, give a few talks in classes, hold seminars, and so on. The graduates bring diverse backgrounds to the academic community.

J. Michael White: I would say that the effort needs to be extended over a long enough period of time to have some significant impact. Otherwise, it will tend to be like this meeting, in that we will go home and forget about it.

Edel Wasserman: The important legacies from my graduate research advisors were basically three sentences. They didn't necessarily strike home then, but within a few years they did. It is amazing that, if you get people at the right time in the right environment, you can make a very strong impression.

We should continue to reach out to students at all stages of their education. For just the reasons I mentioned, some will respond, others will not, and some will have delayed responses. The one thing we should not do is say it is inefficient and hopeless, and therefore we don't do it. That would be a big mistake.

David E. Budil, Northeastern University: I am pretty new to this game, so I guess I have more questions than comments. You mentioned a study, at MIT, I believe, in which students who finish their Ph.D. earlier tended to be broader in terms of their pursuit of chemical research, and the students who were in school longer tended to have a narrower focus. I am wondering to what extent there is institutional control over this. To what extent does it reflect the program rather than the student's ability? Different people have different styles of learning. It is not clear how much you can do to force students to finish in a certain amount of time and force them to be broad. Obviously, that is a desirable thing. I think I hear general consensus on that, but how well can that be controlled?

Edel Wasserman: You are raising a challenging issue. We have set up the academic system so that individual research directors have essentially total control of what happens within their research groups. There are modifiers in some places more than others. But fundamentally, it is an apprentice system, a system that has worked well but does not change easily. However, beneficial changes are occurring.

An individual faculty member may not see that a shorter graduate period could be advantageous and not realize that keeping the student two years longer could make the student narrower with detrimental consequences down the line. But some departments are limiting the total residency or years of support.

Reaching out to faculty members can be extremely difficult. Let me just indicate one recent occurrence. We are trying to run communication workshops in the American Chemical Society to help students who have never given a talk outside their research groups to reach a broader audience. It is amazing what two 15-minute periods can do to their skills. They know everything they have to; all they need is a little practice. Our biggest difficulty is getting the students to participate, because faculty often do not see the need for such a skill. What we can do is to carry the message back home that such skills are needed. We can make improvements.

R. Stephen Berry, University of Chicago: I want to amplify the two presentations we just heard. A physicist at the University of Chicago, John Platt, tried to find any variable or variables of behavior in graduate school that correlated with later success in research, which was measured by number of publications, a variable Platt recognized as an imperfect measure. The basis of his study was the physics department and its graduate students at the University of Chicago. He found only one variable that correlated in any way with later success: there was an inverse correlation between later productivity and the time spent in graduate school.

His most alarming finding was that the data—that is, the students—fell into fairly well defined groups, which corresponded to the research groups in which they worked, i.e., to the faculty members directing their research!

Lynn Melton, University of Texas at Dallas: One of the respondents raised the specter that decreased time in the Ph.D. program would lead to increased time in postdoctoral training. My conversations with industrial hiring managers indicate that there is no genuine need for postdoc training prior to an industrial job.

The D-Chem program, a structured program to have students finish in 5 years, has a 90 percent direct placement rate from campus to industrial career positions, without doing a postdoc. I think that the argument that decreased time in the Ph.D. program would lead to increased time in a postdoctoral position is not sustainable.

Edel Wasserman: We find that the stated needs for new hires vary dramatically. Some recruiters believe that candidates must have a year or two of postdoctoral chemistry before managers or directors will hire them. Others will say that they have no rules but evaluate each candidate individually. Some students are ready to contribute to industry by the time they leave graduate school. On the other hand, in certain areas of the life sciences in which specialized techniques have been important, there is a strong consensus, at least in parts of industry, that a candidate should have had one or two years of postdoctoral experience.

Lynn Melton: I would say that applies to the pharmaceutical industry more broadly.

Edwin A. Chandross, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies: You began by talking about innovation in industry, a topic of great interest at Bell Laboratories, where innovation is defined as taking an invention and making products out of it. Finding the best scientists to do this makes innovation more difficult than just inventing.

I think that to a large extent industry has created a problem for itself. The best people will not come and stay if you don't encourage them to take part in the overall scientific enterprise. They have to go out and talk about what they are doing, to publish, and so forth. There is a monotonic decrease in doing this within the industrial world today.

Second, many students are not going into the usual employment areas. They go to small companies, many of which are start-up companies. Frequently, they are the brightest students, who see the best opportunities there to have an impact in the short term. It is not only the stock-option benefits that drive them. I think it is the opportunity to really get in and be an important part of what goes on, rather than be a member of a huge team. It is a good thing that we should not discourage.

Finally, I want to quote the conversation that I had yesterday with one of the top scientists in the United Kingdom, without identifying him, although I will say that he occupies one of the best-known professorships at one of the best-known universities. He pointed out that he thought the model was changing now and that it seemed that universities are driving much of the innovation, as opposed to companies. There is a lot of truth to that, and it affects the question of how cooperation with industry should affect research. What do students get trained to do? Do you let them talk about it? How do you patent it? are all increasingly difficult questions connected with trying to get students to work on real-world problems.

Edel Wasserman: To some degree, universities have always been the source of innovation. The difficulty and the opportunity are that the university has become more entrepreneurial. Some of the people who might have been good candidates for industrial research are now faculty with their own research groups, and they have started one or more companies on the side. Very good things are coming out of that. It also means that some of the critical reasons for industrial research are being transferred out of industry. You have to ask, what is the job market going to be for students in some segments of industry if this continues on for many years?

James S. Nowick, University of California, Irvine: Your comment about the good to very good students resonated with me. It is easy to get in the habit of sorting students, like eggs, into grade AA, grade A, and so forth, and I think this is a dangerous thing to do.

A student of mine, an undergraduate, was a low B student. When he applied to graduate school, no one accepted him. I believed he had a lot of potential, so I encouraged our program to accept him. He proved to be a bright and successful research scientist and after four years with me had published 10 papers and obtained his Ph.D. When it came time to look for a job, he competed against people who had postdocs and succeeded in winning the position. As a matter of fact, he was hired at DuPont, and I understand that he is doing very well there.

Copyright © 2000, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK44890


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