8
The Graduate Student Perspective

Karen E.S. Phillips

Columbia University

I am a Ph.D. candidate in the middle of my fifth and final year in the chemistry department at Columbia University. This statement alone has a great deal of relevance to this workshop on graduate education and to questions that were raised during these proceedings. Columbia is a prestigious, Ivy League university that enjoys a great deal of respect from the chemical sciences community. This, of course, is one of the reasons why I decided to do my graduate studies there. Another reason is that the Ph.D. program at Columbia has a 5-year limit. Graduate students must complete their thesis requirements within 5 years, after which time they simply lose funding.

This question of whether or not there should be an enforced time limit to the chemistry Ph.D. has been raised here many times. In order for a time limit to work, a great deal of care has to be taken to ensure the student’s timely progress. Columbia has devised a successful formula for this by having the students stick to a schedule of written and oral reports, poster presentations, and formal slide presentations both in and out of the area of their thesis research. In addition, all students must write and defend an original research proposal outside of their fields of specialization. There is another component to this success, however, which I think is equally important. It involves the learning and development of a certain skill on the part of the thesis advisor to guide and assess the progress of each student as an individual; to monitor the student’s research more than every couple of years; and to recognize the strengths and differences of each individual. In other words, while monitoring their students’ progress with the set degree requirements, advisors must also be able to broaden their criteria for evaluation of each student in order to make the most of their individual abilities. I might not be a carbon copy of all my peers, and believe that I have a unique set of skills to offer to a research program. At Columbia and in my research group, I feel that my contribution is valued.

I chose to address this issue of graduate education in the 21st century from the perspective of an organization that I co-founded a few years ago, and from the standpoint of my own specific career goals. The Columbia Chemistry Careers Committee (C4) was born out of discussions between Spencer Dreher and myself, and began its activities in the middle of 1996. At that time, Spencer and I were both doing research with Professor Thomas Katz, and we found that our goals were similar. We both wanted to



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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop 8 The Graduate Student Perspective Karen E.S. Phillips Columbia University I am a Ph.D. candidate in the middle of my fifth and final year in the chemistry department at Columbia University. This statement alone has a great deal of relevance to this workshop on graduate education and to questions that were raised during these proceedings. Columbia is a prestigious, Ivy League university that enjoys a great deal of respect from the chemical sciences community. This, of course, is one of the reasons why I decided to do my graduate studies there. Another reason is that the Ph.D. program at Columbia has a 5-year limit. Graduate students must complete their thesis requirements within 5 years, after which time they simply lose funding. This question of whether or not there should be an enforced time limit to the chemistry Ph.D. has been raised here many times. In order for a time limit to work, a great deal of care has to be taken to ensure the student’s timely progress. Columbia has devised a successful formula for this by having the students stick to a schedule of written and oral reports, poster presentations, and formal slide presentations both in and out of the area of their thesis research. In addition, all students must write and defend an original research proposal outside of their fields of specialization. There is another component to this success, however, which I think is equally important. It involves the learning and development of a certain skill on the part of the thesis advisor to guide and assess the progress of each student as an individual; to monitor the student’s research more than every couple of years; and to recognize the strengths and differences of each individual. In other words, while monitoring their students’ progress with the set degree requirements, advisors must also be able to broaden their criteria for evaluation of each student in order to make the most of their individual abilities. I might not be a carbon copy of all my peers, and believe that I have a unique set of skills to offer to a research program. At Columbia and in my research group, I feel that my contribution is valued. I chose to address this issue of graduate education in the 21st century from the perspective of an organization that I co-founded a few years ago, and from the standpoint of my own specific career goals. The Columbia Chemistry Careers Committee (C4) was born out of discussions between Spencer Dreher and myself, and began its activities in the middle of 1996. At that time, Spencer and I were both doing research with Professor Thomas Katz, and we found that our goals were similar. We both wanted to

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop become college educators rather than university professors, and we recognized a need to educate ourselves about what would be needed to make a successful transition between graduate school and our chosen field. Although many of the types of positions that we had in mind also require a research component, the overall balance is quite different. Graduate schools, in general, provide a model for students with career paths leading toward academic environments that are similar to their own, or toward careers in industry. The needs of future small-college or community-college instructors tend to be largely ignored. It had been my experience, in fact, while visiting universities before deciding on Columbia, that teaching was seen as a four-letter word in the graduate school community. Whenever I mentioned a strong interest in teaching and asked if there were any special opportunities available to further develop my skills, I was usually told not to make this known to any professor with whom I might want to work. Somehow it was perceived that if you wanted to teach and bolster the skills necessary to become a good educator, then you could not be an effective researcher as well. This is a perception that needs to be changed. C4 was designed to answer some of the questions that we could not seem to ask anyone and to address more general needs as well. We recognized that we were also quite ignorant about basic job-seeking skills and the types of alternative career options that were available. We decided, therefore, that these could form a common foundation on which we could gather the support of other graduate students. Columbia University has a career services division that provides information and organizes workshops and panel discussions for prospective job seekers. After attending a few of these sessions, however, we thought that the demands of a career in chemistry were sufficiently specific to address separately. In our department, we had the example of a number of well-respected lecturers to follow, including our thesis advisor, Professor Katz. For advice on C4 plans and activities we sought additional help from Professors Leonard Fine and Ronald Breslow. We were lucky to garner the assistance of Joan Sberro, who was then the departmental liaison to the outside world. Joan was often the first line of contact between our department and the industrial sector or other universities. She did the groundwork for organizing all the lectures and special functions in the department. Through her we were able to get the names and contact information that we needed to start the ball rolling. With the help of a handful of other students, all with an interest in teaching, we drew up a mission statement, which we sent to the entire department. We also sent a questionnaire to the other students in the department, to find out which of the general career-based activities would interest them. The response showed that we were not alone in our ignorance. The first activity that we organized was an interviewing workshop conducted by Sigfried Christiansen III from Smith Kline Beecham. Thirty-three students attended, a fairly large percentage of our graduate student body, which numbered about 110 at the time. In addition to learning more about the interviewing process itself and the general procedure for getting employment in industry, students were also able to ask questions about such things as the industrial working environment and what they should think about while still in graduate school if this was their chosen career path, how hiring decisions are made and what different companies might be looking for, what the outlook for a foreign graduate was like, and what seemed to be the overall state of the industrial job market. At our résumé-writing workshop, Jim Burke from the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) Career Services Division gave a presentation on both résumé and curriculum vitae (CV) preparation to 22 graduate students and postdocs. Again, the specific needs of a chemist were addressed in great detail. This session was then followed by a series of scheduled critiques. Students were asked beforehand to bring in résumés that they had already prepared. There were time slots available for 14 individual critiques. All of these were filled, and there was a waiting list of additional students. Through Peter Meinke, a former postdoc in Clark Still’s group and the official Columbia University

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop liaison at Merck, I was able to organize a field trip for 25 students to visit Merck’s main research facility in Rahway, New Jersey. Here we were treated to a series of presentations by researchers working on a variety of projects as well as an overall tour of the facilities. Many of the students were able, for the first time, to get a true sense of what process research was all about and how this differed in the pharmaceutical industry from basic, medicinal chemistry. An agreement was made that such tours could be arranged on an annual basis or whenever there was sufficient interest on the part of our students. As we completed these activities, we became aware of certain issues that seemed to have far-reaching significance to us as chemistry Ph.D. candidates. These issues were brought up in the context of the pharmaceutical industry. One issue is that companies generally look for employees with a breadth of experiences and knowledge. In any Ph.D. program, the tendency is to be narrowly focused on a specific research project(to become the world’s expert in a certain field. This first issue really underlies the next two points that were brought to our attention as well. In industry, you need to be a team player, which is not often emphasized when you are working toward your own set of results for your own publication. The other is that obtaining a Ph.D., puts you in competition for jobs with others who have completed postdoctoral studies. Through a postdoc, one can acquire a breadth of knowledge, learn to be a team player, and develop leadership skills as well. Although we all knew people who had gained employment in the pharmaceutical industry quite easily with bachelor’s degrees, it seemed that once you make up your mind to do a Ph.D., then a couple of years as a postdoc should also be factored in if you want to get a good job in industry. This may seem to be a natural and known fact at this point in my graduate career, but many students go into graduate school without this awareness. With a broad-ranging series of seminars and requirements that are specified to be outside of your field of research, Columbia tries to do its part to add breadth to our base of knowledge. There is also a very free and open exchange of ideas and information within this department that I think is rather unusual for a university with Columbia’s reputation in chemistry. Students in my department are actively recruited each year by a slew of pharmaceutical representatives. Postdocs may still be given priority, but I think that there are enough good options open to our students that others at lesser known universities might not enjoy. This is an important fact that should be kept in mind. After these first events, I and the other students in C4 decided that we wanted to tackle these issues from a broader perspective—not just as they relate to the pharmaceutical industry. We wanted to find out more about the job market in general, to hear more about funding issues, to hear from people who were advocates of a more interdisciplinary approach to the Ph.D. program, and to hear more about teaching. We decided to set up a forum in which these issues would be discussed. We depended on suggestions from Professors Fine and Breslow in order to identify potential speakers, but we also had a couple of people in mind whom we had been in contact with before. Starting out with a rather long list, we narrowed it down to the names with the right balance that we wanted. First of all, we were looking for people who could provide the information that we needed. We wanted also to have a somewhat controversial edge to the proceedings—we did not want everyone to agree with everyone else. Another thing that we kept in mind as we selected our speakers was finding people who would really bring attention to what we were trying to do. We wanted our forum to have some impact on the broader community of chemistry graduate schools, and we knew that one way to do this would be to have speakers whose names were well known in the community. The title of the forum was “The Value and Future of the Chemistry Ph.D.” The panelists were Janet Osteryoung, the director of the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation; Madeleine Jacobs, editor in chief of Chemical & Engineering News; Edel Wasserman, who was then a candidate for the ACS presidency; Sally Chapman, chair of the Chemistry Department at Barnard College and former chair of the ACS Committee on Professional Training; and Eduardo Macagno, dean of the

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and associate vice president for research and graduate education at Columbia University. Ronald Breslow, then the immediate past president of the ACS, would serve as the moderator. Once the speakers were identified and agreed to participate, then Spencer and I, with some help from other C4 members, set out to do all the necessary groundwork for the event. We solicited funding from our department, the dean’s office, the vice-provost’s office, and the graduate student advisory council at Columbia University. We invited representatives from industry, and we alerted faculty and students at all the colleges and universities within our region. We arranged to have lunch with the panelists beforehand and organized a catered reception after the forum so that audience members could interact with the speakers. One thing we quickly realized as we made all these preparations was the benefit of being a student-run organization and of having this be a student-initiated event. Not only did we get the full and immediate cooperation of our panelists and sponsors, but we also enjoyed a degree of support from our peers in the larger graduate-school community that I think would not have been there for an institutionally organized event. We had an audience of 130 to 150 people at the forum. More than half of this number were from outside Columbia University. Evidently the issues that were raised were universal enough for others to take notice and make the effort to attend. Many of the issues that were brought up in the forum were also brought up here in this workshop on graduate education. We were interested in hearing the questions and comments of our fellow graduate students afterwards. They expressed similar concerns to the ones that we had about the current nature of the Ph.D. and how it affected the outlook for employment. They wanted to know what those in a position to change or implement policies concerning our futures had to say. They were interested in finding out about alternative career paths. They were also interested in being heard. The picture was not always as rosy as it might seem to be. Students were feeling underappreciated and overworked in some cases. There were students who just felt like cheap labor. The forum was held on a Friday afternoon, and I remember speaking with one group of students afterwards who were from a nearby university. They thanked us for trying to raise these issues that were of such great concern to them. Then they expressed how lucky they were that their advisor had been traveling to another state for that particular weekend. Otherwise, they said, they would never have been able to come. It’s easy to say that situations like this do not and should not exist, but this can also be the reality from the students’ point of view. This should also be taken into account. It’s easy to talk about interdisciplinary approaches to graduate education, but sometimes, unless this is institutionalized, it’s not that easy for students to gain the flexibility to pursue them. It’s easy for everyone to talk about the ideal Ph.D. experience, but it takes a while for these ideals to trickle down to the level where the graduate students can begin to feel the effects. Our organization has been relatively dormant over the past two years, because we students have had too much on our hands to continue with all the work involved. We’ve also had some easy breaks and have been asked to co-sponsor career-based activities in the department. This was because it was recognized that students would come to support us as fellow students. C4 started as a group of students with a strong interest in becoming good educators recognizing a need to educate themselves. I see no reason why allowances can’t be made within the structure of the graduate degree for such needs to be addressed, but the student initiative should also remain as a part of these efforts. We have seen the benefits of that. Through a continued series of seminars and short workshops, we could all gain the information we need without taking too much time away from our research. Founding and being a part of C4 has been an invaluable experience for me. In order to bring this experience full circle, I am currently in the process of organizing another panel discussion that will

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences — Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop focus on career options for teachers with graduate degrees. I want to have this one last activity in which the fact that I want to be a teacher will be celebrated. Again, it will take a lot of work to organize this, especially considering the fact that I am in my final year. Again, since this is not going to be provided for me, I will have to make it happen for myself. It will be worth it, though, because this would also serve as a means to pass the baton on to a younger group of students. With a little more effort, perhaps C4 will be able to go on even after I have left. In that way it will feel as if we have made a contribution to those who will come after us. There will be some continuity, and all this effort we have made will not be wasted.