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.