Saturday, February 23, 2013

Improving graduate education? I've got some ideas (says everyone who's ever been in graduate school for even a single day)

From over at Chemjobber: The NSF is looking for "ideas with the potential to improve graduate education and professional development" through its "2013 Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge".

Interesting idea, but I don't really think grad students (to whom this challenge is addressed) are the right people to change the system. Who is? Pretty much anyone else.*

Hey! That's me!

As an academic, my view is of course thusly tainted and all the "real world" chemists can object to me having thoughts on the matter (although please be aware that I do have experience as a chemist outside of academia to draw on as well). All that being said, I have two suggestions I think would be useful:

1) Mental health education, routine personal private screenings, and appropriate available services for all chemistry graduate students.

2) The creation of a new terminal degree, distinct from the PhD, that graduate students can obtain.

Let me briefly elaborate (but that second suggestion will definitely require a separate post to fully explain).

As to the mental health issue, I've known a lot of graduate students or former science graduate students, from a lot of different schools and in a lot of different walks of life. Probably a quarter of the ones with whom I've had personal relationships have admitted to seeking out mental health services during their graduate education. All of them who did recall the experience as beneficial. As a student, I realize now that there was at least one time I would have benefited from simply talking to someone about my life, I just didn't know that was an option and would be useful for me until much later. Grad school can be a very stressful time and that can take its toll on a person's mental state, their personal life, and their ability to function effectively, safely, and ethically in the laboratory.

Regarding the creation of a new terminal degree, it's a joke that we expect the same educational experience of completing a PhD to prepare a person to work in industry and to work in academia. We know in practice that these roles are not remotely interchangeable, yet we don't differentiate a student's training in any appreciable way, no matter their personal or professional goals. Yes, this has to do with the sickly inbred culture of academia which thrives on the reams of cheap, indentured-servant-like labor and doesn't concern itself with addressing practical answers to real world problems or attempting to understand the needs of the broader chemical industry (a claim that is not entirely true). But it also has its roots in the chemical industry itself which has abrogated the responsibility (and costs) of training their employees by pushing that job into academia, benefiting from the production of a surplus of highly educated workers that are practically interchangeable and nigh expendable (again, a claim that is not entirely true).

Point being, we need a way to get graduate students prepared for what they want their future to be. Yes, this will involve limiting their future opportunities, but probably not tremendously. Again, this idea needs a little more fleshing out which I hope to get to this coming week, but those are my first thoughts. In the meantime I'd like to hear more thoughts from ex-grad students about what they think the should be proposed to the NSF, so we can compare with what current students may come up with (and then laugh at their naiveté).

* I don't say this to demean grad students in any way, or to suggest that they shouldn't have a voice in this conversation. However, a person's view of graduate school is often dramatically shaped by their experiences directly afterward. What students will think they need now is often at odds with what they realize they needed after the fact. Students should definitely take this opportunity to give suggestions, just remember to look back at the ideas five or ten years down the road and have a good laugh.

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