Monday, April 22, 2013

Matt Hartings on #ACSGradReport

Friend of the blog Prof. Matt Hartings in this week's C&EN:
The American Chemical Society report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” has been the source of much discussion (C&EN, March 4, pages 5 and 51). The report was also one of the highlights of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston in February, and it garnered coverage from several media outlets. 
I feel fortunate that I can add my voice to Celia Arnaud’s article and have really enjoyed hearing from others in the chemistry community and from those who care about graduate education in the U.S. 
I commend the committee members for their work and for their observations and insight. But I believe that one of the weakest points of the report is the following: There is no way to convince anyone to change their ways in order to try to develop new practices. This is especially true with respect to funding graduate students. The authors say that they hope that the National Science Foundation pushes these changes.  
However, one official from NSF told Arnaud that they are not going to make any changes without assurances that there is absolute consensus on the change. 
If the issues brought up by the commission are ones that ACS cares about and that we, as ACS members, want to see changed, then ACS should put some of its own money forward to fund “experiments” in graduate education. If ACS is on sound-enough financial ground (which we have been told was the case in the aftermath of the Leadscope trials), then the society should start soliciting proposals for changes to graduate education curricula and fund the first- and second-year graduate students from the departments with the best proposals. 
In short, ACS should put its money where its mouth is. 
Matthew Hartings
Washington, D.C.
I agree with Matt. ACS has no coercive power over the relevant universities. If NSF (which does have coercive power) doesn't want to change things without academic consensus, then it's gonna take a while. It should be interesting to see if ACS can positively incentivize change -- somehow, I'm not holding my breath.

13 comments:

  1. The report's recommendation is to essentially shutter many of the currently operating academic labs in order to stem the flow of PhDs. I'm an academic, and my tenure and promotion rely primarily on doing research. My school's administration is not going to change its mind about this. Should I throw my career away to make the lives of a select few a little easier? I'm leaning towards no.

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    1. A classic collective action problem, then.

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    2. Also ... one of the things that @CJ and @SeeArrOh and I talked about in a podcast ... the rich get richer (or don't get touched by this), while everyone else is asked/made to sacrifice. Lots of unintended consequences to that report like the one that @FeChemist brings up.

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    3. Iron Chemist: Are you willing to take more postdocs and fewer grad students? That's the thing that matters, yes?

      If taking on more postdocs and taking on fewer Ph.D. students means "throwing your career away", then we're in deep trouble, yes?

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    4. @CJ: If the funding were available, then yes, I would gladly take more postdocs and fewer grad students. Heck, if I had the option, I'd even hire a technician for a longer-term stint, as described by Polychem below. As it stands, however, postdocs and technicians are much more expensive than graduate students at my particular (state-run) institution, and in my current funding situation, this isn't really an option. The choice available to me is grad students or nothing.

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    5. And this is why we need government action to close the lowest performing programs. Profs can't resist on hiring the cheap labor. The extra skill a post-doc may bring in is not worth the extra pay in the profs eyes.

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    6. By government action do you mean choke funding until people have to leave? I'm not sure how effective that will prove. Depending on the institution you can have a lot of TA positions. It might take something more proactive. Although if the ACS follows through on transparency maybe the problem will take care of itself - if people had a better since of the difficulty of getting a position maybe they won't go to grad school in the first place.

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    7. You could also force people to increase the stipend for grad students to choke the demand. Professors will be more careful if they have to devote more resources to individual students.

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    8. If this plan reduces the supply of graduate students while increasing their individual compensation, the metrics for tenure will eventually adjust to the new reality of how much labor PIs have under their control.

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    9. Yes, eventually. Probably at the cost of the current batch of assistant professors.

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  2. This is slightly unrelated, but I'll share anyway.

    I spoke with a friend who is a bio professor one time about the holding pattern associated with the postdoc experience. He had mentioned that the "standard" postdoc length was 6-7 years for bio. He got "lucky" with 5, before getting an academic position.

    We had both come to the conclusion that there needs to be some sort of staff scientist position available to people in universities that is a more permanent position. Unfortunately, we also reached the same conclusion as Mr. Hartings. Everyone can be on board and be sure that this will make a positive change, but as long as the funding situation doesn't change, there is no economic incentive to implement the alternative. The grants aren't getting any bigger, so he can hire a fractional staff scientist, or two graduate students. While I might argue the productivity gains, the basic math is that four hands are better than two.

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  3. I can't see this changing. If the ACS's most influential members are professors and industry people, their incentives are for more cheap labor and more cheap labor, respectively. Implementing policies that make labor more expensive while not affecting either the cost of schooling (which is under no negative pressure yet) or the cost of things chemists make (which are under negative pressure in most cases - because people are cost-sensitive and companies are still aiming at high-margin goods which not so many people can or want to buy) are probably not going to go far.

    In addition, I can't see either NSF/NIH or the ACS dealing the report's consequences well. The ACS (and most scientific societies) depend on increasing scientific funding for their members, and if society is committed to not spending as much on long-term research or government-funded research (or both) then that is not possible. If funding can't stay the same, the report means that lots of professors and grad schools need to go away, which pits members against members. If the big guys win, the little guys will probably leave and with them the illusion of a chemical consensus. For NSF/NIH, removing schools takes funding away from people who provide support for their continued funding (by supporting Congresspeople who vote for their funding), and keeping schools funded at a lower level probably means less useful research and perhaps higher costs for what research is funded. In addition, if students make the decisions for schools (by going into other fields), then companies and schools will petition for most foreign students to do research, and get them. The people who have the power to solve the labor imbalance have no incentive to do so (because they actively or passively benefit), and the people with the incentive to solve it don't have the power to do so.

    Sorry to be pessimistic.

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    1. @Anon10:16 - Let me make one counterargument to what you are saying. I don't believe for a minute that any important changes (numbers, amt of funds, etc) would touch the top research programs. Most of the folks on this committee and, in my estimation, the top 20 research institutions wouldn't see an appreciable change in number of PhD students. The biggest hit would be to folks like @FeChemist above. I don't think that the "powers-that-be" would lose a thing from this. So, in that respect, if they wanted to push these changes, they would push for them. (Of course it is absolutely cynical of them, seeing as how they created and benefited from the current system... but that's not the argument)
      I do think that the committee *did think about what might happen at smaller schools. They say "schools (with no emphasis to smaller or larger ... but they absolutely mean lower tier) should join around common areas of excellence in their graduate program". This can mean a couple of things. 1) A department with a history of strong echem/battery research (for instance) should do more to build a program around that or 2) A department in a uni with a history of strong research in the area of obesity science (as another example) should build their program around that. The benefits to this are that schools can recruit better students who want to do research on these topics and can really find ways to partner with industry and place students at completion. The obvious downfall of this is that, if you are at one of these institutions and your research doesn't match up with these areas, some professors can REALLY get screwed. This also completely messes with academic freedom. (On a personal note: I do think that there is a good argument to be made for both sides of this issue). But, my point from earlier still stands. The big dogs won't have to change at all. It is the lower tier schools whom they expect to adapt.

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