Educating Ph.D. Chemists

If you want to get a heated conversation going among a group of chemists, say something about the current state of chemical employment or about Educating Ph.D. Chemists. If C&EN even suggests that the employment situation for chemists is showing signs of improvement, I know to expect a spate of angry letters calling the magazine’s editors nothing short of Pollyannas with our heads in the sand. The responses to Senior Editor Bethany Halford’s story “Doctoral Dilemma: Is Chemistry Facing a Glut of Ph.D.s?” (C&EN, Jan. 31, page 46) have been more measured (C&EN, March 14, page 5). However, the topic does generate strong opinions about the current state of graduate education in the chemical sciences in the U.S. Halford’s story caught the eye of Seth W. Snyder, the new president of the Council for Chemical Research, and prompted him to e-mail me. CCR had conducted a workshop entitled “CTO Roundtable on Graduate Education” in December 2010 that brought together 25 chemistry and chemical engineering R&D leaders from industry (such as chief technology officers), government, and academia to identify gaps in graduate education. “In advance of the workshop,” Snyder says, “we asked the invitees to address certain specific questions: What subject matter competencies are needed for the future? What is the right balance of breadth versus depth? What behavioral competencies are needed for the future? How do we incorporate ‘soft skills’ into the Ph.D. training?” The workshop summary was posted on CCR’s website in mid-February ( From my reading of the summary, the fundamental tension at the workshop arose from the acknowledged need for Ph.D. graduate students to delve deeply into a chemical problem of fundamental importance and the need, now being unmet, to learn soft skills such as effective written and oral communication, teamwork, and management. The report states: “Research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary but the traditional Ph.D. is not. Students lack innovation, entrepreneurship, team skills, and project management skills.” However, there was also a consensus that five years is long enough for a student to get his/her Ph.D. The workshop developed four recommendations for improving graduate education in the chemical sciences:
  • Develop a new National Science Foundation program of five-year fellowships for graduate students with input on curriculum and requirements from industry and government labs.
  • Develop a suite of activities designed to leverage retirees and other interested nonacademic staff in graduate education.
  • Require or at least strongly encourage internships as part of the Ph.D. program.
  • Share industry/government lab nonproprietary training curricula on intellectual property, ethics, safety, etc.
The difference between the safety culture of academia and that of industry and government labs is apparent in the workshop report. It states: “When employers review résumés, non-academic internship experiences stand out. This is especially true when industry and government lab participants discussed the difference in the safety culture between their environments and academia; knowing a student has experienced that culture already makes employers much more comfortable in the hiring process. The attention to safety is often the most surprising aspect of starting a new position in an industry or government lab.” Later the report states that, after safety, “the priorities are growth, margin, and speed of results—the financial measurements that are the language of business. Technical people need to learn business basics so they can share that language.” It seems to me, unfortunately, that something has to give. I fully understand the frustrations industry and government are expressing with the preparation Ph.D. chemistry students are receiving for life in the “real world.” But I’m not sure that anybody—other than a superman or superwoman—could absorb all of this in five years. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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