Getting serious about training scientific Ph.D.s

The American Chemical Society recently released a report on problems with graduate education in the chemical sciences. Some of the conclusions make interesting reading because they pertain to issues in many engineering disciplines. Here are a few highlights:

"Specifically, the Commission urges that safety as a culture must be consistently led by example in all graduate programs in the chemical sciences."

This was a problem even back in the dark ages when I was still in school, and apparently things haven't changed much. I can remember one genius back then who accidentally mixed up a small batch of TNT. It went unstable and pretty effectively demolished much of the lab. The only good thing was that, as I recall, no one was seriously hurt.

"Given what seems to be a permanently restructured employment market for PhDs, the Commission perceives a risk that the number of career opportunities in the chemical science professions may be insufficient to accommodate those qualified for and desiring entry."

No kidding. It is refreshing to see an official body finally admit that we may be training too many Ph.D.s.

"Taking chemical scientists to be roughly evenly divided between physical and biological sciences, and setting aside those in governmental and non-profit organizations, we find that roughly half of PhD chemical scientists are employed in industry, while the other half are employed in academia. Consequently, preparing graduate students for industrial positions is of equal importance to preparing them for academic positions. Most students interviewed by the Commission felt that preparation for industry was underemphasized."

I believe this statement provides insight into why big investments in R & D often don't result in innovative products. Often times, the intellectual heavy hitters working on projects are well trained in basic scientific investigation, but not as well trained in translating basic science into meaningful developments that have economic value.

"....only 62% of those starting a PhD in the chemical sciences finish within ten years....."

Ah, yes. Professional students still exist.

"Most graduate students do not arrive with good preparation for teaching undergraduates."

"Of course, the very first expectation in graduate school is that the admitted student is prepared for the work. The reality is that many are not. There is great variability in undergraduate preparation."

Yes, and the variability arises partly because those admitted to grad school were taught by Ph.D. candidate students who didn't know how to teach. Solve the first problem and you have gone a long way toward solving the second.

"Chemical engineering research is as diverse as chemistry, ranging from process control to biochemical engineering, yet there are no subdisciplines within chemical engineering departments."

This is the sort of you've-got-to-be-kidding-me statement that explains a lot. We should not be wondering why we get so few innovative developments from research dollars; we should be amazed that we get anything at all.

There is much, much more of this kind of eye-opening stuff in the full report, so I will leave it to interested readers to peruse it at the their leisure: http://portal.acs.org/portal/PublicWebSite/about/governance/CNBP_031603

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