result in low-risk projects. “If graduate students have to have their PhD in hand in three years, you can’t have them do interesting, innovative research.”
The time to the PhD was shorter many years ago, noted Robert Bergman. Though some of the more complicated problems undertaken in graduate school today require more time, “the issue of doing imaginative or unimaginative research is more a question of the mindset of the supervisor than it is the opportunities in the science,” he said. “Lots of really interesting stuff can be done in three years.”
Bergman suggested that if students take more than three years to become well-trained investigators, they could do research with multiple groups and advisors. The resulting diversity of approaches could be “very helpful to the students in recognizing that there are multiple ways of thinking about problems.”
Bergman also suggested that having multiple advisors could help graduate students from being mistreated by a single advisor. Also, students should have some recourse if they are in a research group where they are not being treated well.
Boering pointed out that graduate students could have a single faculty advisor but still engage in extensive collaborative work. Students could spend time either in other universities or in industry; for example, she sends her students all around the world to participate in research collaborations. Matthew Platz added that researchers are free at any point to ask NSF for a supplemental award for such purposes.
Siddhartha Shenoy observed that not every graduate student needs to get a PhD. Many people could leave with a master’s degree and have a great career doing something they enjoy, which is focusing on one problem in the lab. “Forcing them to write an independent proposal that was completely different from their research—it was pushing them into an area that they didn’t want to be in. It was outside their comfort zone.” One possibility would be to have all graduate students earn master’s degrees and then have them demonstrate why they want to go on to get a PhD.
Similarly, Michael Doyle pointed to chemistry graduate education in Japan, which is focused largely on producing technically trained master’s degree recipients to work in industry. In Japan, PhD degrees are often preparation for leadership positions, and a comparable shift could occur in the United States.
Several workshop participants described the strengths and weaknesses of existing master’s degree programs. For example, Cornell University has a master’s of engineering program organized around issues like energy and industrial biotechnology. Some of these students go on to get a PhD, but most go to work in industry.
The masters’s program at Georgia Institute of Technology is also interdisciplinary.