Monday, October 19, 2015

Oklahoma changes graduate program in response to ACS graduate education report

Also in this week's C&EN, a report by Celia Henry Arnaud on the University of Oklahoma's changing of their graduate program in responding to the Shakhashiri report: 
The 28 students who entered the University of Oklahoma’s chemistry graduate program this fall are “newbies” in more ways than one: Not only are they beginners at the school, but they’re also the first to experience a completely revamped curriculum. That curriculum—more than a decade in the making—was inspired by the chemistry department’s participation in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate and by the American Chemical Society’s 2012 report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences,” two efforts to modernize Ph.D. education and training. 
Over the years, “we had experimented piecemeal with changing our curriculum, but it was basically putting Band-Aids on what we already had,” says Michael T. Ashby, the professor who spearheaded the revamp. “Last year, we decided basically to burn everything to the ground and start from scratch.” 
As part of the overhaul, the department switched to a so-called modular approach composed of shorter, more focused classes and eliminated chemistry divisions—such as organic or physical—at the graduate level. (It still has divisions at the undergraduate level to help organize the curriculum and manage teaching loads.) 
“The chemical sciences have become very interdisciplinary,” says Ashby, who studies the mechanisms and kinetics of inorganic antimicrobials and antioxidants. “Although I’m in the inorganic division, half my group are microbiologists and half are chemists. My actual research doesn’t have much inorganic chemistry at all. That’s part of the issue with having formal divisions at the graduate level. It doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore.” 
Because the chemistry department has such a biological bent, some students entering the grad program have gaps in their chemistry backgrounds. The new curriculum has the flexibility to bridge those gaps up front. For example, during the first five weeks of this semester, seven students took an accelerated program in physical chemistry to bring them up to speed to join their fellow students when regular introductory graduate classes began in the sixth week....
It seems to me that we won't know anything until 2 years and 5 years from now. Still, good to see that schools are facing the time-to-degree problem.

UPDATE: As promised, I'm back for a tiny bit more commentary. Here's the quote I think is interesting:
The ultimate hope is that the new program will help students graduate faster. “The key is to ramp up the students’ ability to do original research,” Ashby says. “That means getting out of the classroom. This curriculum allows us to do that.”
Is there any indication that the overall increase in the length of time-to-degree (2013 median time-to-doctorate for chemistry of 6.5 years (from B.S. degree), 5.7 years from the start of graduate school (PDF)) is due to lengthening classroom time? 


  1. As a graduate from that program, I'm glad to see them getting some press and leading an "experiment" like this to see if they can get students in and out faster. Towards the end of my time there, they already started this change when they got rid of cumulative exams, which most of us orgos hated to see go (becasue we had to do them, so should they!!!!) and shifted to a department-wide exam system that was regardless of division.

    My whole thing is, (this may be simplifying a bit) it doesn't really matter whether you have divisions or not, whether you do rotations, teach in "modules," etc. What matters is having a good work ethic, managing your time well, and getting good projects to work on (which has more to do with luck than I'd like to think).

  2. I graduated from the University of Minnesota about 10 years ago with an 'Interdisciplinary' specialization. I took a computational chemistry course, quantum mechanics, a spectroscopy course, reaction mechanisms, industrial chemistry, and apparently one course that I can no longer remember (must have been a good one!). I have been working in the spec chem industry for eight years. Once you hit industry, it definitely pays to have a broad set of interests/knowledge, because it makes team-based projects move a lot more smoothly. It will be interesting to see whether this approach leads to greater collaboration amongst university groups and also how these students are perceived by both academic and industrial hiring committees.

    1. Always wonderful to see an alum doing well -- I hope your memories of Minnesota are all good!

  3. But is getting graduate students graduated faster actually going to be any benefit to anyone? It means that TA/RA/Fellowship lines will turn over faster, thereby being used to fund more students, and leading to an increasing glut of new PhDs in career holding patterns in postdoc, adjunct, and other temporary positions. If the school were seeking to decrease time to PhD by 20%, but also insist on a 20% decrease in graduate student headcount, it would at least leave things no worse than they currently are.

  4. The longer I have spent in US academia, the more I wish we would move into a masters then PhD system like Europe or Canada. I think it would be good to ensure that everyone got an adequate background in terms of coursework prior to starting a PhD, and have the actual PhD focus on the research component. Combining research, coursework, and teaching into a PhD and having it last 5-7 years seems like an inefficient way to do it.

  5. 1) I don't think classroom experience is the main contributor to time-to-degree (TTD), but it's been a while - it's more likely the demand for more research output before graduating (lots of schools have minimized classwork and testing already). I'd also imagine that lack of funding leads students to teach more, which increases TTD.

    2) If giving people a distribution of skills could make them more employable and decrease TTD, then students would be happier and they would have an easier time getting them without necessarily saturating the labor market (and less susceptible to long-term unemployment). That assumes, though, that employers are either willing to train people with the appropriate general skills (which hasn't seemed to be the case - employers seem to be looking for people with particular skills to use and discard) and that jobs exist for people with general skill sets if employers were willing to train. They might also be better fit if they want to be entrepreneurs - I wouldn't have, but some might.

    1. Good points you make. What does Professor Cramer have to say about them?