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?