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.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn:

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  1. “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.”

    That’s a very good point. Independent projects take far longer because the student must navigate the waters in order to find out where/how to find help when needed and exactly how to solve their problems. This takes time even for the luckiest of lucky students.

    Additionally the nature of much cutting edge work means years of optimization are often required to get something truly novel off the ground. If a 2-year post doc doesn’t have time to do it, who does? Certainly not a faculty member who must spend much of their time writing grants, teaching classes, and attending endless meetings.

  2. As I recall, Cold Spring Harbor Labs’ grad program is a four-year-long deal. Wonder how they structure things. I’d argue those students don’t get a lot of hand holding.
    Great post, Deirdre!

  3. Great post, Deirdre. I loved the descriptive language you used to put me right there in that container ship with you.

    When I think of the time it takes to get a Ph.D., I often marvel at the three- and four-year programs completed by chemists in time gone by. A mentor once said to me that all the easy projects/discoveries in chemistry have already been done/made, so that’s why programs take longer these days. I’m sure that depends entirely on the doctoral candidate, but I can’t help wonder if that’s also partially true.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful responses, all! Anon, you make a great point about the impact on innovation. Carmen–I’ll have to look into Cold Spring’s program and figure out how they do it. As I understand it, European PhD programs tend to be much shorter than US ones, but most require students to have completed a master’s. And Lauren, I’ve also been thinking about how chemists zipped through in earlier times–that’s an interesting theory. I also wonder if the average grad student’s teaching load has increased since then (given how much the size of universities has grown).

  5. I personnally think that the system is flawed in itself. Grad students are just a very cheap working force – any professor is interested in holding you long time and also in a much bigger quantity than society actually needs…
    And we cannot blame those who just take advantage of a cracked system!

  6. It took me eight years to the Ph.D. Environmental Sciences and Resources:Biology. I think the time was well-spent in exploring problems, sometimes dead ends, and finding a path to the dissertation. The university hired me as a TA and later RA and I am confident they got their money’s worth; I was rewriting lab manuals for the courses I taught, teaching Profs to use the digital projection console in the new lecture hall, developing presentations for that system, and creating & teaching summer courses. In my last year I was also teaching at another university, continued there for a year after graduation, then entered industry. My time in the university lab prepared me well for the technical adventure of working in a biotech startup. Thirteen years later I am still with that company. In my case, the eight years of graduate school worked well for me personally, for the university and for the economy.

  7. I believe, like in all education, that it is the quality of undergraduate studies that determine if a person is a successful chemist. Of course they must that the curiosity and interest, but a good preparation will set them up for gaining experience.

    By far the most important basics needed are the macroscopics (Thermodynamics) and the microscopics (quantum mechanics). This is helped a lot by a good basis in group theory.

    Upon this, the undergrads can then build applications into all areas: learn about syntheses, spectroscopies and applications.

    The big problem I see is that many profs as well as students do not appreciate the value of physical chemistry, shy away from the math and the simple derivations and miss a great deal. I find it disconcerting when some organic profs tell their students they do not need quantum mechanics. It does a huge disservice.

    No matter what anyone says, without a good basis in the fundamentals, a chemist can only be lucky to succeed.

    I see undergrad as a time students are taught to think critically. Grad students learn how to do research. However I think that grad studies should not be longer than 5 years.

  8. Thanks Glen for sharing Deirdre’s article here. I can say it’s very enlightening. I agree with you Deirdre that five years seems good enough.

  9. bryan santuary, I think you make an excellent point, im currently an undergrad in chemistry I am currently struggling with the very areas you mention, particulrly the calculus, but I can see the value in persisting with it. Thanks, darren