“Depth, breadth, and communication could be three anchors around which graduate education could be transformed.”
—Wilfredo Colon, Renesselaer Polytechnic Institute
The broad goals of chemistry graduate education were a prominent topic at the workshop. As research becomes more interdisciplinary, international, and socially relevant, should graduate students receive a different kind of education? If so, how would the projects they undertake and their relationships with faculty members change?
This chapter begins by summarizing the presentation of Gary Schuster, Vasser Woolley Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who spoke about the changing roles of universities over the course of U.S. history. It also looks at the topics of breadth versus depth in graduate education and at the expectations of students and faculty. The specific skills that could be imparted by graduate school and the structure of graduate programs are discussed in the next two chapters.
What is the work that the world wants universities to do?
The answer to that question, said Schuster, has varied over time. During what he called the first epoch, from the founding of Harvard University in 1636 to roughly the Civil War, the major objective of colleges was to educate members of the elite. Attended almost exclusively by white males, they produced ministers, physicians, and lawyers and were primarily teaching institutions.
With the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, the focus of many uni-
versities became educating people to lead the United States through the Industrial Revolution. During this second epoch in the history of higher education, the federal government, for the first time, had a role in higher education, though the great land grant universities created by the Morrill Act focused largely on local economic development. Nevertheless, this economic development helped fuel the Industrial Revolution in the United States and raised the living standards of large masses of ordinary people.
The third epoch began in 1941 when the federal government created the Office of Scientific Research and Development to coordinate scientific research for military purposes during World War II. The tremendous success of scientific research during the war in developing innovations like radar, nuclear weapons, and penicillin led to a great expansion of science both during and after the war. Sponsored largely by the federal government and centered largely at universities, this expansion of science led to the creation of a massive infrastructure of facilities, people, and procedures serving the purposes of both research and education.
The third epoch came to an end, in Schuster’s analysis, in 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly the government’s rationale for supporting science was greatly diminished, which was symbolized by the cancellation of the superconducting supercollider project that year after $2 billion had already been invested in the project. During this fourth epoch, which continues today, many of the large corporations that hired chemists in the past have faded from the scene or are shells of what they once were. Other companies, such as many pharmaceutical companies, are moving many research jobs overseas to be nearer to growing markets and to take advantage of lower labor costs.
As a result, students today face a very different work environment than in the past. More students are going into small start-up companies, but the skills required for these jobs are different than those in large corporations. These companies need people with the experience and skill to solve problems immediately, because the company may need that problem solved to survive.
Given these changes, what should be the objectives of graduate education in chemistry? Schuster listed several:
• Students need discipline-specific knowledge and enhanced critical thinking skills.
• Employers need a skilled workforce.
• New discoveries are needed to enrich science.
• Companies need new ideas from which they can develop intellectual property.
• Local economies need jobs created by technologies based on research results.
Schuster argued that graduate education in chemistry should meet all of these objectives. But not all departments need to pursue all goals. Different departments and universities can specialize in different aspects of the work that needs to be done.
The important thing for universities to recognize is that epoch three is over, Schuster said. Today, academic chemistry continues to have a massive infrastructure focused on doing research and publishing papers. But the infrastructure built in epoch three is no longer sustainable. Other universities will not be far behind the University of California system in dealing with severe budgetary constraints, he predicted. The single objective of doing fundamental research, writing papers, and getting grants is no longer enough.
The new epoch will need to have new objectives. For example, the current PhD education is narrowly focused. This model has worked well to advance science, but it may be less effective in achieving the other objectives. Instead of a student working on one project for five years, perhaps a student could work for three different mentors over those five years on three different but related problems. “You sacrifice a bit of the depth, but increase the breadth considerably.” (This subject is discussed later in this chapter, while the structure of graduate education in chemistry is discussed in Chapter 5.)
Another option to consider, and one discussed throughout the symposium, is the professional master’s degree (which is also discussed in Chapter 5). Georgia Tech has master’s degrees in a variety of areas like computational biology and human-computer interaction, Schuster noted, though not in chemistry or physics, because in those fields the master’s degree is seen more as a consolation prize than as a desired credential. A reinvigorated master’s degree program could provide students with breadth without the great depth of a PhD program. The problem for faculty is that these options would not generate as many papers, which would be a detriment for them in the current system.
Universities are in an evolutionary period, Schuster concluded. Some will devise new structures and procedures and will succeed, while others will fail. He quoted A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933, who said in his inaugural address, “Institutions are rarely murdered. They meet their end by suicide. … They die because they have outlived their usefulness or fail to do the work that the world wants done” (Lowell, 1909).
During the discussion period following Schuster’s presentation, Bergman pointed out that universities cannot do everything society
wants, such as not teaching evolution. Nor should universities shut down departments like art history or sociology that do not produce useful products. “The university is more than that, and I would hope that … the ideas that come out of this meeting view the university as part of a larger context.” The university needs to show society where it should be going rather than just responding to what the world wants, Bergman said.
Schuster responded that political forces can be very powerful in shaping what will and will not happen in academia. If universities keep doing exactly the same things that they have been doing, they will fail, he said. “We need to move into this new era and decide what it’s going to look like.”
A topic raised by Schuster—breadth versus depth in chemistry graduate education—was revisited throughout the workshop.
Wilfredo Colon from Renesselaer Polytechnic Institute said that the one nonnegotiable requirement of graduate education is deep fundamental knowledge in chemistry. Even if people are working together to solve an interdisciplinary problem, they need deep knowledge in their respective areas to make a contribution. At the same time, workshop discussions noted the need for breadth, both in other disciplines and in areas outside science, along with accomplished communication skills, Colon said. “Depth, breadth, and communication could be three anchors around which graduate education could be transformed.”
The problem with many discussions of depth versus breadth, said Paul Houston from the Georgia Institute of Technology, is that everybody wants everything. Industry wants PhD recipients who have engaged in a deep research project, but they also want students with communication skills, the ability to cooperate with other people, familiarity with concepts throughout chemistry, safety training, and entrepreneurship, management, and intellectual property skills. “How do you design a PhD program that takes five years or less [that] includes all of these things? I think that’s going to be a real challenge for us, to figure out how to keep focused on a deep research problem, which is the crux of a PhD in any field, and still have room for all these other areas that are desirable to our customers.”
Several workshop participants questioned whether the current structure of graduate education distorts the principles on which graduate programs are based. Warren Jones from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) recounted his experiences in stakeholder meetings in four cities for the training programs that NIGMS supports. He said that too often the graduate student experience was dominated by data
gathering and the pursuit of the next paper. It was not sufficiently underpinned and driven by producing a creative problem-solving scientist. The technical demand was stressed rather than the intellectual.
Robert Bergman from the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that this is a critical point. Part of the problem is the pressure put not only on graduate students but on junior faculty to generate papers and earn tenure, as well as senior faculty to achieve other kinds of recognition.
Michael Rogers of NIGMS said that the institute is planning to strongly encourage, though not require, that graduate students and postdocs supported by NIGMS on either research grants or training grants have written individual development plans. He asked whether such encouragement or a requirement would be a good thing or would add too much to the workload of faculty members. Julie Aaron of DeSales University responded that the best approach would be for faculty members to sit with students informally and talk with them about where they want to go and how they plan to get there. “You don’t want it to be just more paperwork for everyone to do.”
She added that “in graduate school, we all had weeks where you got a lot accomplished and a week where you didn’t do a whole lot. It was easy to fly under the radar once in a while. … Students [need] to define their goals: ‘I want to present a paper or I want to go to a meeting this year so what do I need to get done by this date and how am I going to assess that.’ It is definitely good to encourage that without making it just more paperwork.”
Another prominent theme during the workshop was the need for students and their faculty advisors to have consistent expectations. For example, Peter Dorhout of Kansas State University said that differing expectations between students and faculty members were the single largest source of conflict at his institution. Communicating expectations from faculty to student and from student to faculty would go a long way toward improving the student and faculty experience in graduate education.
John Schwab, formerly from NIGMS, noted that most graduate trainees are supported through research dollars, which generally do not include expectations regarding the breadth and depth of the graduate experience.
One possibility discussed at the workshop is a manual for graduate students that would be available to all students and faculty members. Such a manual could outline how many hours of work are expected, when to come to advisors with a question, and how to report a mistake correctly.