12
Broadening the Scientific Ph.D.: The Princeton Experience

François M.M. Morel

Princeton University

It is a banal observation and a source of oft-repeated jokes that academic specialization is getting out of control: we all seem to know more and more about less and less and worry that soon we might know everything about nothing. At the doctoral level, graduate education is designed to reproduce ourselves, so that we expect our graduating students to know more about some arcane bit of our own field than we ourselves do and than anybody else in the world does. We value nothing more than complete dedication to research and scholarship. We are suspicious of students with outside interests and activities and worry that they are not “serious enough” about science to succeed in research or academia.

The reasons we organize our educational system this way are obvious: it works, and it is self-replicating. Our understanding of the world is slowly increased by all those doctoral students who are pushing, with sharp tools and pointed questions, small corners of the envelope of human knowledge. These students also make a name for themselves in the process. They can then have successful research and teaching careers in which they train the next generation of students to do the same.

The problems with this system are also obvious. Not all doctoral students pursue a research career or stay in it for their entire lives, even in academia. They are then poorly prepared to deal with the broader, nonscientific questions that are part of their jobs; in some important way we fail these students in their doctoral education. We also fail society, which needs to have trained scientists participating effectively in the management of public affairs and private concerns.

Mindful of these issues, an experiment in broadening the doctoral education of scientists and engineers was undertaken in spring 1997 at Princeton University under the leadership of Robert Socolow of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, and Thomas Spiro of the Chemistry Department. The program, first dubbed PEI-RISE (Princeton Environmental Institute-Research Initiative in Science and Engineering), and hereafter, PEI-STEP (Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy) has received support from the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is administered by PEI. The program is addressed to all science and engineering Ph.D. students with interest in the environment and aims at providing them with a solid foundation in environmental policy without decreasing or diluting their technical or scientific training. To make the program an exemplar



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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop 12 Broadening the Scientific Ph.D.: The Princeton Experience François M.M. Morel Princeton University It is a banal observation and a source of oft-repeated jokes that academic specialization is getting out of control: we all seem to know more and more about less and less and worry that soon we might know everything about nothing. At the doctoral level, graduate education is designed to reproduce ourselves, so that we expect our graduating students to know more about some arcane bit of our own field than we ourselves do and than anybody else in the world does. We value nothing more than complete dedication to research and scholarship. We are suspicious of students with outside interests and activities and worry that they are not “serious enough” about science to succeed in research or academia. The reasons we organize our educational system this way are obvious: it works, and it is self-replicating. Our understanding of the world is slowly increased by all those doctoral students who are pushing, with sharp tools and pointed questions, small corners of the envelope of human knowledge. These students also make a name for themselves in the process. They can then have successful research and teaching careers in which they train the next generation of students to do the same. The problems with this system are also obvious. Not all doctoral students pursue a research career or stay in it for their entire lives, even in academia. They are then poorly prepared to deal with the broader, nonscientific questions that are part of their jobs; in some important way we fail these students in their doctoral education. We also fail society, which needs to have trained scientists participating effectively in the management of public affairs and private concerns. Mindful of these issues, an experiment in broadening the doctoral education of scientists and engineers was undertaken in spring 1997 at Princeton University under the leadership of Robert Socolow of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, and Thomas Spiro of the Chemistry Department. The program, first dubbed PEI-RISE (Princeton Environmental Institute-Research Initiative in Science and Engineering), and hereafter, PEI-STEP (Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy) has received support from the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is administered by PEI. The program is addressed to all science and engineering Ph.D. students with interest in the environment and aims at providing them with a solid foundation in environmental policy without decreasing or diluting their technical or scientific training. To make the program an exemplar

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop of what a broadened doctoral education could be, we also aim at attracting the strongest possible students, and we organized PEI-STEP as a competitive fellowship program. To ensure that the environmental policy aspect of their education is substantive, PEI-STEP students must take a series of three courses (two required, one elective) in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and write a policy research paper. The courses qualify the students for the Graduate Certificate in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School. The policy paper is included as part of the students’ theses and intended to be of publishable quality. To help in this endeavor, PEI-STEP students have a second advisor (often from the Wilson School), who supervises their environmental policy research. The obvious challenges from adding such substantial requirements to a doctoral program are these: How to support the students financially while they are not pursuing funded research or helping teach in their home departments; and How to fulfill the added requirements without unduly lengthening what is usually an already long graduate career (at least by historical standards). The first problem is solved fairly adequately by providing half-fellowship support to the students for the two years that they are devoting part of their time to policy work. The second problem has no good solution, and we simply hope to mitigate it by selecting particularly strong students. This makes the selection process critically important. In addition to having a good academic record and strong letters of recommendation the PEI-STEP candidates are expected to present a detailed plan for their policy research. This research plan is developed with the help of the PEI-STEP coordinator and the student’s would-be policy advisor. (See the 1999 PEI-STEP advertisement in Attachment 1.) The organization of the PEI-STEP program resulted from thoughtful reflection, careful planning, and numerous discussions. Three years after its inception, how in fact has it worked? What effect has it had on Princeton’s graduate education? What have been the consequences for the students involved? The first conclusion to be drawn from the PEI-STEP experiment is that such a program is of interest to only a small number of students. The potentially interested population, i.e., the graduate students with a professional interest in the environment at Princeton includes a sizable fraction of those in civil and environmental engineering (CEE), geosciences (GEO), and ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB); a smaller, unknown fraction of those in chemistry (CHM), chemical engineering (CHE), and electrical engineering (EE); and a smattering of individuals from other departments. The pool of possible applicants is probably on the order of 20 to 30 per year, somewhat more than 10 percent of the graduate student cohort at Princeton. The program has gotten 22 completed applications over three rounds and only a few more expressions of interest; a total corresponding to about a third of the potential pool. This is so even though the environmental field is unusually well suited for a broadening of the Ph.D. education: the students it attracts have interests that go beyond pure science and in their careers they will often benefit from a background in policy. Thus, a generalization of a PEI-STEP-type program to other fields would likely attract an even smaller proportion of eligible students. The 14 students who have enrolled in PEI-STEP over the past two years are distributed evenly among five departments (CHM, GEO, EEB, EE, CEE) and between engineers and scientists. Their projects have ranged widely, encompassing analysis of environmental risk, economic cost, and ecological impact (see list of publications, Attachment 2). The quality of these projects has also ranged widely from modest papers to full peer-reviewed articles. As seen in Attachment 2, of the first 10 projects, at least 5 should result in published articles. While the numbers are too small at this point for useful

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop statistics, it does not appear that the PEI-STEP program has much lengthened the graduation time of the enrolled students—perhaps 3 to 6 months based on examination of individual cases. The impact of the program on the long-term career of the individual PEI-STEP students is likely to be profound. At least one student in each of the first two cohorts is likely to pursue an academic career at the interface of science and policy. These two students have effectively changed their career plans as a result of their enrollment in the PEI-STEP program. Of the other students, several—perhaps half—will pursue careers in public service where their policy background should prove very helpful. These students, like many with interest in the environmental field, want to make a difference—they have found their foray into policy to be enabling. Despite the relatively small number of students enrolled, the PEI-STEP program has had an impact that goes beyond the careers of the individual students. A surprising finding in our review of the program was the general opinion, among the regular science advisors, that their whole research group had been affected by, and benefited from, the experience of their PEI-STEP students. Broader discussions had resulted, and a number of students not enrolled in PEI-STEP had decided to take policy courses. The program has also had an impact on the recruitment of new graduate students: at welcome parties for new graduate students in various departments, a number of students explained that they had been attracted to Princeton by the existence of the PEI-STEP program. Interestingly, there is no evidence at this point for a resulting increase in the PEI-STEP applicants. In fact, several students who had explicitly stated their initial interest in the program have not applied to it. It seems that they are now immersed in the prevalent ethos of the graduate school: they think that enrolling in the PEI-STEP program would somehow mean that they are “not serious” about their scientific work—or, more crucially, they believe that it might appear that way to their advisors. Clearly, this last observation is the key to the issue of broadening the doctoral education of scientists and engineers, and it may serve as a useful conclusion to this paper. The personal attitude of the individual advisors effectively controls the participation of graduate students in any such program. In many cases, as a matter of course, advisors will simply not allow their students to apply. In others, the explicit or implicit message is that such programs are for second-rate students who are not able to pursue a career in research or academia. Practically all the students enrolled in the PEI-STEP program at Princeton have come from research groups where the professor takes an unusually wide view of graduate education. These professors are themselves interested, and often involved, in issues wider than strictly scientific. (No doubt this is a major reason for the positive assessment we have gotten in our reviews of the program.) As a result, we should expect that programs designed to broaden the doctoral education of scientists and engineers, though perhaps very important, will only attract relatively small numbers of students. Any attempt at generalizing such programs will knock against the hard reality of the self-perpetrating ethos of narrow specialization of academic scientists.

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop ATTACHMENT 1 ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY FELLOWSHIPS FOR PH.D. STUDENTS IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING The Princeton Environmental Institute announces the fourth annual competition for the Princeton Environmental Institute Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (PEI-STEP) Fellowships. Halftime fellowships (stipend and tuition) are provided for 24 months, to permit Ph.D. students in science and engineering to address environmental policy implications of their thesis research through supplementary course work and policy-oriented research. The goal of PEI-STEP is to make students more effective and more versatile in their careers as scientists, teachers, and leaders in the public and private sectors and to increase awareness among science and engineering students and faculty of how their discipline-based skills can be brought to bear on environmental problems. PEI-STEP Fellows have an additional advisor from another department who, in cooperation with the primary advisor, will supervise the environmental policy research. The student writes an independent paper on the policy research, the equivalent of a chapter of the student’s thesis. In addition, PEI-STEP students are awarded the Graduate Certificate in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. To meet the requirements of this certificate, the student normally takes three courses in aspects of science policy and technology assessment. APPLICATIONS: Currently enrolled graduate students in their first, second, or third year in all science and engineering departments are eligible to apply. The application should include a c.v. and a detailed research plan, worked out in cooperation with the student’s thesis advisor and the proposed PEI-STEP advisor. Letters of support from both advisors are required. Criteria for selection includes a strong academic record, a well-thought-out research plan, and engagement of the thesis advisor in the research plan. PEI-STEP fellowship support will begin in the summer or fall of 2000. Application forms and additional information are available at <www.princeton.edu/~pei> or at the PEI office, Guyot 25. Prospective applicants should contact Valerie Thomas (address below) no later than April 3, 2000. Final applications are due April 30, 2000, at the PEI office, Guyot 25. Valerie Thomas Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, H-214 E-Quad. Tel: 258-4665. E-mail: vmthomas@princeton.edu.

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop ATTACHMENT 2 PAPERS (PUBLISHED AND ADVANCE DRAFTS) “Risk Assessment for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon NAPLs Using a Fraction Approach.” D.G. Brown, C.D. Knightes, C.A. Peters. Environmental Science and Technology, December 15, 1999. “The North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation Collapse as a Constraint on Economic Optimal Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” K. Keller, K. Tan, D.F. Bradford. 1998 Draft. “Commercialization of Photovoltaics: Long-Run Cost Estimates.” A. Payne, R. Duke, R. Williams. September 1998 Draft. “Worker Exposure and Health Risks from Volatile Organic Compounds Utilized in the Paint Manufacturing Industry of Kenya.” K.L. Purvis, I.O. Jumba, S. Wandiga, J. Zhang, and D.M. Kammen. Submitted to Environmental Science and Technology. “Ecological Impact of the Venezuelan Economic Crisis.” J.P. Rodriguez. August 1999 Draft.