Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Podcast: Matt Hartings, See Arr Oh and Chemjobber talk grad school

Last week, ACS President Bassam Shakhashiri and his President Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences held a press conference and released a long report on the state of graduate school in chemistry. Matt, See Arr Oh and I did a Google Hangout, and we talked over some of the issues raised in the report. (Tomorrow, we're releasing a 2nd podcast where we talk about ACS executive salaries.)

See Arr Oh has helpfully provided some time points for you all; I've added some editorial comments.

0:03 - Intro
0:54 - Who we are, in a nutshell (diversity of opinions)
3:58 - Should grad students be TAs?
7:05 - Time To Degree - "Cap things at 5 years"
11:10 - CJ goes on a rant about the sunk costs of graduate school, and that they're sunk
16:14 - Adjuncts, or The Wheel of Pain
23:15 - Funding: Grads vs. Adjuncts
28:41 - Recruitment of international graduate students: top vs. mid-tier institutions
34:19 - Research Associates - the answer? Maybe not.

UPDATE: Part 2 (on ACS executive salaries, and concluding thoughts) is up here. 


  1. Great discussion guys.

    Regarding CJ's observation about the goal-oriented nature of the report - this report was compiled by a group of obviously bright heavy-hitters that, as part of their current job functions, probably do a good deal of "big picture" work. As a result, they are better than most at 1) assessing the current state and 2) characterizing the attributes of a possible solution/improvement. What they probably aren't so good at is the practical aspect of how to get from Point A to Point B. At this point in their careers, they are probably used to describing Point A and Point B to their underlings and letting them figure out the details.

  2. Secondly, regarding the kind of research associate position discussed here - in my experience, these positions seem to be more common in 1) larger groups and 2) groups with more senior (elder) PIs. Their responsibilities ranged from; training of graduate students, co-writing grant proposals, revising research manuscripts to the point where the PI can begin his own edits, running national research centers affiliated with the department, and teaching courses or sitting in on meetings on the PIs behalf while the latter was traveling.

    At the top-25 department where I got my degree, there were at least four groups that had one of these "lab lieutenants" as I called them. They were actually quite diverse in their backgrounds. One was affiliated with an NIH center in the department. One was the PI's first Ph.D. student that hopped back and forth between the research group and the PI's start-up companies. Before finally leaving for a faculty position at another school, he was paid $100k/yr. Two were brought by the PI when he left his VP position in industry to become tenured faculty at the university.

    For those that really enjoy working with students and doing academic-type research (but don't want to lead an R1 group of their own), I can see this being an appealing situation. But it does hinge largely on the PI - not only his/her temperament, but also their career path. What happens when the PI gets courted by another institute? Or retires?

  3. @CE, that's an excellent point about "what happens to RA when PI retires or moves". Also, who pays for them. Do they get three year (length of typical grant) contracts? Does the university pay for them? Its not entirely clear how the salary package works in real life. As we mentioned, I think that it was just something that the group hinted that they would like to happen. We could be wrong about this.

    1. I think you have to consider the nature of the current academic research first. The place I come from (and it's a department everyone knows) nowadays has almost no individual projects - every grant is submitted by groups of faculty members, everything is split n-way, synthesis here, characterization there, then to Mat.Sci department or to Medical School, and so on. So if my immediate boss were to retire, there would be multiple other faculty members to move to, may be even with some personal gain.

  4. I'd really like to see some reform in the adjunct teaching positions. If they need instructors, just hire them as instructors. I realize universities are trying to do things on the cheap which sort of blows my mind considering how much tuition is going up. If there is actually any reform in the number of grad students they will need instructors more than ever.

  5. 1) Are they seriously advocating that the federal government should decide how many Ph.D. studentships are to be offered each year? Does that make anyone else (besides me) extremely uncomfortable?
    2) Question: if some of the lesser departments are to close down (which will reduce supply) what specific event is going to precipitate that?
    3) Whose dog makes a guest appearance at 37:00

    1. Sure why not? It does not have to be a hard mandate though. Understand that the current glut is the result of the fact that production of Ph.D's is profitable and the money is coming from federal grants. If that financial incentive is taken away or made contingent on employment outcomes it may make universities and departments reconsider their recruitment practices.

    2. Also contingent on safety practices, for instance.

    3. Using safety record would disproportionately penalize larger departments and those doing more synthetic work. I really think that there should be clear and direct correlation between the used metric and the desired outcome. Say, you apply for a federal grant. One of the appendices then should be employment status for all Ph.D. recipients for the past 24 months. Granting agency then would apply a simple formula - 100% for fully employed, first year postdocs, and those who returned to their home nation, 50% for part-timers, adjuncts and temps, 0% for second year postdocs. So if you had 50 graduates over the said period, of whom 15 found jobs, 10 went back to China, 5 are doing first postdoc, 10 work for Kelly, and 10 are doing second postdoc your funding request is automatically cut by 30%. It won't take long to get the message.

  6. So it would penalize the people supposed to be responsible for ensuring the safety of their workers? Well, maybe that is a desirable outcome.

    I guess if you think PIs are more responsible for hiring practices and employment opportunities than the work practices within their own labs, that makes sense.

    1. What are we talking about? Are we talking about penalizing academic institutions with atrocious safety cultures? As in all of them? No, we are talking about introducing a stimulus for the departments to admit only as many students as can potentially have a meaningful career once they graduate. What you are suggesting is adding a rider, which has nothing to do with that goal. Worse, it will not improve safety. Academic safety is a large and complex problem and it requires not simplistic affirmative action type feel-good measures, but comprehensive approach and concerted effort by everyone involved.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20