How long does it take to make a chemist?
This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN:
Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data.
Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken.
After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business.
I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish.
And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors.
But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.”
In the NSF’s survey of Ph.D. recipients in 2003, the median time to the degree in chemistry in the US was six years. In fact, chemists beat out Ph.D.s in math, physics and astronomy, and biological science, who had a median of seven years to completion. It would be wonderful, of course, both for students and for universities, to shave two years off the six-year median. But I wonder if it’s the ideal amount of time for growing a scientist.
Pressuring students to complete a Ph.D. in the time it takes to go to college, I think, would change the kind of chemists you produce. And the reason has everything to do with moments like the one I experienced down in the engine room.
Graduate students in science often spend their first two years of school absorbing the basic knowledge of their field and focusing on a project. Working out the kinks of one’s approach to the problem, doing experiments, collecting data, and understanding the results can easily take another two. The final, most important step, communicating one’s research, often takes extra time for novice paper writers. And I haven’t mentioned the countless hours many graduate students are expected to dedicate to teaching.
And then there are those engine room moments. Anyone who’s done or is doing a Ph.D. knows what it’s like to end up at sea, hitting a problem that seems unsolvable. Roadblocks, mistakes, head-banging failure: they all take a certain amount of time. But every time we hit the wall, we learn to start thinking for ourselves. That’s how scientists are made: through struggle and frustration and the ingenuity that results. I think this process can only be sped up by so much.
I worry that a four-year time to degree would encourage advisors to present students with discrete, well-defined projects and hold their hands throughout the process. Five seems like a healthier number to me.
Ideally, individual problem solving and occasional wheel-spinning are shepherded by a watchful advisor who knows when to stay quiet and when to lend a hand. And becoming a scientist also involves asking for advice, whether it’s from a fellow grad student down the hall or an expert researcher across the world. But the problem one takes on in a Ph.D. is never clear cut or easily solved, and the whole point is that nobody knows the answer—except maybe, eventually, you.