“Each university has to look at the environment that it is in, look at its history, look at its objectives, look at its resources, and set goals. If that goal is the same for every university, we have failed in leadership. But if we can provide different paths for success for universities that meet societal needs, … we will have been successful.”
—Gary Schuster, Georgia Institute of Technology
The structure of graduate education reflects both the broad goals of that education and the specific skills graduate training is meant to impart to students. This chapter summarizes comments from the workshop participants on four structural aspects of chemistry graduate education: the degrees earned, the funding of graduate students, engaging in interdisciplinary research, and partnerships with industry. It concludes with a brief discussion of how chemistry graduate education might change as it responds to current pressures and trends.
The time it takes to earn a PhD and the activities undertaken during that time were major topics of discussion at the workshop. During his presentation, George Whitesides suggested several alternatives to current structures. Students could earn a two-year master’s degree that has independent value in the workforce and then a three-year PhD. Alternately, students could do a three-year PhD and a two-year postdoc. Graduate students could take one year out of graduate school to do public service or work in a foreign country. Another possibility is reinstating a serious vocational master’s program such as those that have been so successful in Germany, where high-wage manufacturing workers can compete on a global stage because of their high-quality technical training.
Regarding three-year PhD programs, Kristie Boering noted that such programs are required in Europe. But there the requirement tends to
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 inter-
disciplinary. For example, the master’s in quantitative finance is shared among the computer science department, the psychology department, and the business school. Most are coursework master’s programs with a research component during the summer, which is usually done through an internship.
Several participants also pointed to some of the drawbacks of existing master’s degree programs. They have the potential to be focused more on making money for universities than giving students useful workforce skills. Several of the industry representatives said that they do not look toward students with master’s degrees to fill important openings in their research divisions. Joe Francisco pointed out that universities that produce many master’s degrees tend to be ranked lower than those that produce large numbers of PhDs, which may act as a disincentive to such approaches given current ranking systems.
Barbara Gerratana from NIGMS pointed to another position that tends to be overlooked in universities: that of a lecturer who does not conduct research. At universities, lecturers are often treated as second-class citizens. However, lecturers can make valuable contributions to teaching, and these can be good careers for students with PhDs. She also observed that in Finland, which leads the world in measures of student performance, it is harder to get into a master’s program for teaching than to get into medical school. Skilled teachers in U.S. schools could have a tremendously positive influence on how students are educated and prepared for the workforce, she said.
Graduate students currently draw on four major sources of support: research assistantships, teaching assistantships, fellowships, and traineeships. All have pros and cons.
Research assistantships make students very dependent on faculty members for both research guidance and financial support. If a faculty member loses financial support, a student is unlikely to get through a PhD program quickly. However, research assistantships also can create strong and enduring bonds between a student and a researcher that can pay many dividends to both parties.
The type of teaching undertaken as part of a teaching assistantship makes a difference in the skills a student acquires. For example, teaching a large undergraduate freshman lab is not necessarily a valuable experience for a graduate student, Aaron pointed out. But learning how to teach lecture classes is very important. “My advisor allowed me to guest lecture for him when he was traveling for meetings, and the experience of putting together an hour lecture was really valuable.” Similarly, Samuel Thomas
said that outreach activities are most fulfilling when they are something students or faculty members are passionate about. For instance, he has been working with community colleges more than other educational institutions because he is more interested in community colleges.
Several workshop participants said that students with fellowships often enroll at a small number of elite universities, which tends to undermine broad political and policy support for these programs. Such fellowships also may deprive graduate students of useful experiences, such as teaching assignments. For example, Jennifer Schomaker agreed that she would have been well served by more experience as a teaching assistant, which she did not do because of her fellowship. “I was able to get it in other ways, but I think it is very important to get up there in front of a class and take a group of students who understand basically nothing and try to make the material accessible to them.” Students with fellowships also may not have as strong a relationship with their faculty advisors as other students because they are not dependent on that advisor for support.
Bergman raised the issue of encountering objections from NSF about students with fellowships teaching because it amounts to using NSF funding to benefit the department rather than the student. Platz responded that the fellowship office at NSF felt that departments were using the fellowship program to help solve financial problems, which was not the intent of the program.
Traineeship programs in which particular institutions are funded to provide training for students avoid some of the problems associated with assistantships and fellowships. Students would not be dependent on faculty research funds, while departments would still have autonomy in deciding how to distribute support. As a provocative proposal, Platz asked how the funding situation would change if NSF devoted only 30 percent of its funding to individual investigators and gave much of the rest to institutions to distribute to faculty members as they chose.
A combination of support mechanisms for any given student is an intriguing option. For example, Paul Houston proposed supporting a student for one year as a teaching assistant, for two years on fellowships, and for two years doing research in a particular faculty member’s laboratory. “It would be nice if we had some flexibility in the funding to allow that to happen.”
Many workshop participants noted that as the research carried out in universities becomes more collaborative and interdisciplinary, the structural divisions among departments are likely to diminish. Funding agen-
cies could promote this process by funding interdisciplinary projects and centers. Joint appointments also help to break down barriers, so long as structures are in place to deal with such issues as promotion and tenure. Colocating people also reduces barriers, though then department members may not be found near each other. They may be scattered across multiple buildings.
Such changes are likely to have significant effects on graduate education. For example, students could have different interactions with faculty advisors when working on interdisciplinary projects. This need not be a problem, several presenters said, so long as faculty members are not exclusively focused on their own interests and to the exclusion of students’ interests. The most important aspect of these interactions, said David Tellers, is quality rather than quantity. Students need honest feedback about how they are doing so they can make good decisions about their futures. Heather Gennadios added that advisors should not micromanage, but allow students to explore and make their own. “It’s a careful line to tread for the advisor. You don’t want to tell the student how to do everything. You want them to learn for themselves.” Shenoy said he has worked on projects where he saw the faculty advisor too frequently, mostly because the advisor was more interested in that research area than others in the lab.
Some students may not be well served by working on more broadly based projects. Jake Yeston, for example, said that he particularly liked graduate school because it is an all-consuming endeavor. “You live, eat, and breathe chemistry,” he said. “When I was in graduate school, the world outside of the Berkeley campus could have fallen apart and I barely would have noticed.” Making graduate school less focused would be good for some people and worse for others. “It’s possible that … you would lose something among the people who really do want to spend all of their waking hours doing that [working in a laboratory].”
A complication of a more interdisciplinary research environment is how students and young faculty members will be evaluated for jobs and promotion, many workshop participants noted. One possibility is to use interdisciplinary review panels such as those convened to evaluate interdisciplinary research proposals. Such panels could evaluate a person’s contributions to solving a problem rather than to a specific discipline. Quantitative metrics will still exist, such as publications and the success of individual students, but somewhat different perspectives may be required.
Bill Beaulieu said that the potential for universities to work with companies has barely been addressed. “A lot of businesses would enjoy the opportunity to leverage off the talent in universities to augment what we can do internally.” Both partners can learn from the other, producing more rapid progress in both discovery research and development.
In his presentation, Whitesides said that university research programs should not be built around technology. When a research project is finished in the academic lab, it can be moved out to a spinoff company or an established firm. These technologies can create jobs for the future and should not be ignored, he said. In particular, ideas that originate in the United States should benefit this country, not other countries that pick up the ideas and develop them into products.
Rajiv Dhawan emphasized the role of internships in providing a breadth of experience in graduate education. Finding opportunities for large numbers of PhD students may be difficult, the internships would need to be funded, and there may be issues of liability or safety. But industry has experience with internships and could overcome these barriers.
Warren Jones from NIGMS noted that the 20 or so biotechnology training grant programs across the United States supported by the institute have a required industrial internship component. “The experience has been almost uniformly positive,” he said. “The student wins, the industry wins, and the home host laboratory wins.” Students learn what it is like to do research in a different environment, pick up new skills, and bring those skills back to their home lab. However, when universities initially encounter the requirement, they tend to be opposed to it, because faculty advisors do not like losing their students for several months to another setting. Not until they see how well it works do they agree to its value.
Internships are also a pathway to future employment. Degnan said that ExxonMobil hires 50 to 60 percent of its new employees via internships, which are offered to both undergraduates and graduates. Internships are available both over the summer and during the school year, and some offer students a chance to work in industrial labs while conducting their PhD research.
Many workshop participants said that intellectual property issues can be a complication in partnerships between companies and industry. Encouraging university faculty to patent more of their ideas could ease these complications while also making academic chemistry more valuable and relevant to industrial partners. On the other hand, Degnan observed that patenting ideas and maintaining those patents can be expensive. “You have to be prepared for that expenditure on an ongoing basis if you are really going to go do that.”
Finally, Joe Francisco pointed to the value of online training to pre-
pare students before they go to a new setting, whether that setting is in another laboratory, in industry, or in another country. For example, Purdue is developing online training for international students to help them transition easily into the laboratory.
In the final discussion session of the workshop, Platz noted that some institutions may have the resources to avoid change. But effective leaders will see the current time of change as an opportunity to improve graduate education.
Schuster suggested that the key is going to be diversification among universities. Not every one of the 3,000 universities that receive some sort of federal support can or should do the same things. The missions of these universities and departments will need to be further segmented. That was the situation before World War II, when universities received much more money proportionately from the states and were more responsive to their local environments.
Universities need to graduate PhD students trained for top-level academic, corporate, and government jobs, Schuster said. But other jobs need to be filled, too. How can those students be given the experiences and skills they will need? “Each university has to look at the environment that it is in, look at its history, look at its objectives, look at its resources, and set goals. If that goal is the same for every university, we have failed in leadership. But if we can provide different paths for success for universities that meet societal needs, … we will have been successful.” Merit-based scholarships and fellowship programs could support this diversification, according to Schuster. Even if some of the funds flow to a few universities, other institutions could be funded through other mechanisms.
Wilfredo Colon pointed out that the top 10 or 20 percent of graduate students will always be fine, because they will get the best industrial and academic jobs. But what about the other 80 percent of students? One challenge for chemistry graduate education is how it can serve the entire population of graduate students.
Several workshop participants observed that a relatively small number of graduate programs have always produced the majority of PhDs in chemistry. The question then becomes what role other institutions can play and whether their programs are sustainable. Graduate education is an inherently elitist undertaking, since chemistry departments always want to attract the best students. However, times of rapid change are also when graduate programs can rapidly improve, especially among small schools and departments that have more dexterity than large institutions.
One suggested option is to look at graduate education in other coun-
tries to find how those nations are responding to similar pressures. In addition, Joydeep Lahiri from Corning urged that universities think about how they are unique. The leading universities have the resources to be strong in all disciplines of chemistry, but not every university does. Uniqueness should be considered a strength and a source of competitive advantage rather than a weakness.
At the end of his presentation, Schuster recalled a phrase attributed to ancient China: “no one is as smart as everyone.” Though the workshop participants were very broadly based, they did not represent all of chemistry. He and other speakers urged the participants to continue the conversations started at the workshop among themselves and with other chemists after the workshop ended.
Schuster also pointed out that the chemistry graduate education “over the last 60 or 70 years has been remarkably successful in doing what it has been asked to do. The science and the technology and the innovation and the job creation that have come out of graduate research in this country are the envy of the world.” As such, it will be important for universities to build on their strengths as they change and not lose sight of what they have done and continue to do right.
It can be hard for people within the system to realize that the world is changing around them, Schuster said, but a failure to change can guarantee obsolescence. “You have to be able to step out of what you are doing and find a new that works in the current environment.”
He suggested that the graduate chemistry community continue to think about how to devise experiments that will attract creative and committed people. “The risk of failure of one of these solutions is going to be high, but of several of them, maybe one is going to be successful, and that can be a paradigm-shifting approach.”