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American Chemical Society Report Proposes Bold Reforms in Graduate Education

A new report from the American Chemical Society (ACS) recommends sweeping changes in graduate education to prepare chemists to face 21st century conditions. Entitled Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences and issued 10 December, the “deep and thorough analysis of the state of graduate education” takes a bold look at the current state of university education and concludes that it “has not kept pace with the significant changes in the world’s economic, political and social environment since the end of World War II, when the current system of graduate education was formed.”

The document’s major recommendations comprises five major and long overdue reforms, which, by the way, are also applicable to other disciplines–and worthy of the attention of other disciplinary societies:

  • Graduate training must prepare students for careers outside of academe. This will require training in the skills needed to communicate effectively with both scientists and non-scientists and to work together on teams, and an understanding of science-related ethics.
  • A new method of financing graduate study is needed that does not depend on faculty members’ research grants. The current system, the report notes, relies “too heavily on individual research grants and involves serious conflicts between the education of graduate students and the needs for productivity and accountability in grant-supported research.” Funders and universities should “take steps toward decoupling more student-support funds from specific research projects.”
  • “Academic chemical laboratories must adopt best safety practices.”  This requires a culture of safety led from “the top of the institution” and strongly supported by faculty.
  • Departments must balance the number of students they graduate with “genuine opportunities for them.” Producing a surplus of graduates “does injustice to the investments made by students and society.”  The number of “truly attractive opportunities” awaiting graduates must be “paramount in determining the scale and balance of any program. A large undergraduate teaching need [or, presumably, need for lab workers] is not sufficient justification for a large graduate program.” Departments should assign faculty or hire “other professionals” to do work that fills its own needs.
  • Postdocs “should be treated as the professional scientists and engineers they are. A postdoctoral appointment should be a period of accelerated professional growth that, by design, enhances scientific independence and future career opportunities.”

Bravo, ACS Presidential Commission! Looks like you’ve read our minds, and we couldn’t have said any of this better ourselves. Now, here’s hoping universities follow your advice–a far more questionable matter, given the great financial and other interests involved. But the report is a great first step.

I’ve given only the briefest of overviews here. The 60-page study digs into the many issues its analysis raises and offers a host of suggestions. We will also be digging into this work at a later date, so please stay tuned. In the meantime, you can read this excellent document here.