American Chemical Society report highlights systemic problems like a possible glut of chemistry PhDs and a need to bolster academic lab safety

US chemistry graduate education needs an overhaul to address a possible glut of chemistry PhDs and other obstacles, according to a new report released by the American Chemical Society (ACS).

There is ‘significant insecurity’ about career opportunities for new graduates with chemistry degrees, warns the ACS commission that wrote the report. The panel said the economic collapse in 2008 drove much higher unemployment rates among degree holders in the chemical sciences, which have persisted through the slow recovery.

It should not take more than five years to get a PhD

Prior to 2008, less than 2.5% of chemists at all degree levels were unemployed and seeking jobs and by 2011 that number had doubled to 4.6%, the report noted. For new chemistry graduates, the picture appears bleaker. The panel found that about 4% of new PhDs in chemistry were unemployed but seeking jobs in 2008, and that figure grew to 9% in 2011.

About half of new PhDs reported full-time permanent employment in 2008, but that figure fell to one-third in 2011. Postdoctoral work accounted for only 1.3% of all chemists in 2008, but that fraction tripled to 4.2% by 2010 and then fell back down to 2.6% in 2012. ‘There is little doubt that the rate of producing new chemical sciences PhDs in the US is too high for the current employment market, but the current imbalance could not have been avoided without years of forethought,’ the committee concluded.

Degree delays

One contributing problem is how long it’s taking people to obtain chemistry doctorates. The ACS panel said that the average time-to-degree is about six years, and it noted that many PhDs temporarily occupy postdoctoral appointments. Therefore, the panel recommended a four-year cut-off for PhD completion, building in some allowance for fluctuations by suggesting a departmental median time of under five years.

‘It should not take more than five years to get a PhD and universities should have formal policies to that effect in their chemistry departments,’ says Ronald Breslow, a Columbia University chemistry professor who served on the ACS committee that drafted the report. ‘People should be working in companies or teaching at universities.’

Peter Dervan, a California Institute of Technology chemistry professor who formerly chaired the school’s chemistry and chemical engineering division, agrees that chemistry PhDs are taking too long. He says four years may be slightly ambitious, but five is a realistic goal.

Dervan also agrees that the US appears to be overproducing chemistry PhDs, saying that’s not surprising. He points to the consolidation and restructuring in big pharma, with the resultant loss of domestic jobs, and to the past decade’s globalisation, which has moved chemical sciences research to Asia, particularly China and India.

‘With the recent four-year economic downturn, the situation is exacerbated,’ he tells Chemistry World. Dervan suggests that chemistry departments conduct critical self-analysis and ask whether incoming graduate classes should be downsized. He says a bolder move would be to collect outcomes metrics and to have the ACS publish departmental employment figures for PhD graduates.

‘The students could then vote with their feet,’ Dervan says. ‘The more effective programmes would remain the same size and the lower quality programmes would downsize significantly.’

‘Serious conflicts’

Among the ACS panel’s other recommendations is to restructure how chemistry graduate students are funded. The current system relies too heavily on individual research grants and involves ‘serious conflicts’ between the education of graduate students and the needs for productivity in grant-supported research, the report concluded.

The committee urged federal and state funding agencies, private funders and universities to decouple student support funds from specific research projects. The goal is to offer students a better balance between training in research and training in other career skills, while also maintaining faculty research productivity.

The report also called for academic chemical laboratories to improve safety with best practices, taking their cues from private industry. ‘Chemistry is intrinsically a risky operation,’ says Breslow, pointing to the 2008 death of a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Sheri Sangji, following a seemingly preventable lab accident with a pyrophoric chemical. ‘Everybody in the business is appalled by what happened at UCLA, but aren’t convinced that it wouldn’t happen again,’ Breslow adds.

Dervan agrees that the chemical sciences industry is way ahead of academic research laboratories on safety. ‘The goal of everyone in industry is to take all accidents to “zero”,’ he says, noting that the culture in academic labs is often set by the professor and this creates wide variability in how students are trained in prudent lab practices.