Ph.D. program rankings lack safety considerations

The National Research Council’s assessment of graduate programs is out today. To quote from my colleague Carmen Drahl’s story, “The rankings cover doctoral programs in disciplines ranging from aerospace engineering to theater. Those for chemistry alone evaluate over 150 departments on each of 20 criteria, which fall under the broader categories of research activity, student support and outcomes, and diversity.” The goal is to provide data that can be used to evaluate the quality of programs. But it seems to me that the survey is woefully lacking on the occupational health and safety front.

On the student support front, here are some of the related questions on the institutional questionnaire:

  • Is university-supported health care insurance part of the financial support provided to enrolled doctoral students?
  • Does the university-supported health insurance for doctoral students cover mental health services?
  • Missing: Are students eligible for disability or workers compensation?

The program questionnaire asked individual programs (e.g. chemistry departments) whether their institution and/or program provides the following kinds of support for doctoral students or doctoral education:

  • Orientation for new graduate students
  • International student orientation
  • Language screening/support prior to teaching
  • Instruction in writing (outside of program requirements)
  • Instruction in statistics (outside of program requirements)
  • Prizes/awards to doctoral students for teaching and/or research
  • Assistance/training in proposal preparation
  • On-campus, graduate student research conferences
  • Formal training in academic integrity/ethics
  • Active graduate student association
  • Staff assigned to the graduate student association
  • Financial support for the graduate student association
  • Posted academic grievance procedure
  • Dispute resolution procedure
  • Regular graduate program directors/coordinators meetings
  • Annual review of all enrolled doctoral students
  • Organized training to help students improve teaching skills
  • Travel support to attend professional meetings
  • Missing: Safety training, access to environmental health and safety information

The student questionnaire asked students to rate “the adequacy of the support that has been available to you in each of the following areas”:

  • Computer resources
  • Other research, laboratory, clinical or studio facilities
  • Library resources
  • Your on campus personal work space
  • Space available for social interaction among students in your program (e.g., coffee nook, lunch room)
  • University-provided housing or housing support
  • University-provided child care facilities or child care support
  • University recreational/athletic facilities
  • Healthcare and/or health services provided by your program or university
  • Missing: Occupational heath and safety support

Granted, centralized training is only one aspect of a good safety program, and safety concerns may not resonate so much with students in humanities or social science departments (although, as a Department of Homeland Security official recently pointed out to me, survey takers can face occupational safety issues). But not everyone needs support with language, writing, or statistics, either.

Readers, what else do you think the questionnaires missed?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. These results do not surprise me and Jyllian’s observations are point on. What IS most distressing is that the publisher – the National Research Council – was not sensitive enough to the issue of (the lack of) (laboratory) safety in the academic world to have a minimum amount of feedback on safety. One of the interesting conversations I have with grad students (not just chemistry grad students) is when I ask them to relate incidents which have happened to them. Very few actually say “none”.

    Without the support of professional entities like the NRC (and the National Academy of Sciences), all of our battles to instill an attitude of safety awareness into the academic community will be that much harder.

  2. Recently, I was asked if there had been much improvement in lab safety at academic institutions over the past 40 year since the publication of LSI’s “Laboratory Safety Guideline”. Sadly, the answer is way too little. This report is just another sorry example of how health and safety is viewed by the institutions themselves an those who evaluate them.

    In many case, it’s pure criminal negligence. What do you say to falculty who tell you that their institution has offered no health and safety training in 20 years!

    Copies of the “Laboratory Safety Guideline” are free on request and available in English, Spanish, and French. Email requests to