Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars
Should Be Policy-Makers
Faculty generally play many roles: employees, scholars, and—
unless they stagnate intellectually—students, in their role as
life-long learners. Grad students and postdocs play the same
roles: employees, scholars, and learners. This replication is
not accidental. The current “apprenticeship model” has the
end-goal of replicating faculty. Despite this, graduate students
and postdoctoral scholars are not often treated as colleagues-in-the-making. For example, their involvement in creating the
ground rules of the departmental graduate education structure that binds them and their futures is often merely passive.
If graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are to take
part in advancing their overall situations, they must engage
with policy, hence, become part of the governance of their
departments. One natural vehicle for communicating their
collective thoughts is through a formal organization. For
instance, in my department, we have the CBR (Association of
Chemistry and Biochemistry Researchers), which is composed of all of the department’s grad and postdoc students.
It is especially important that they be heard, along all of the
other stakeholders—regardless of the mechanism—in policy
matters that concern revamping graduate education.
Take Charge of Your Professional Development:
What You Can Do For Yourself
The current graduate education model addresses some aspects
of professional development very well, such as delivering
depth and mastery of the science and some soft (professional)
skills, including oral and written skills. However, depending
on your career objectives, your personal graduate education
may fall short, as most of the national studies have shown.
This is particularly true if you intend to pursue a career in
industry. The baseline expectation for a Ph.D. is mastery of
the discipline, but this is just the beginning of expectations
for Ph.D.s who seek industrial careers. To better understand
and track development of the skills required for your career,
consider creating an Individual Development Plan (IDP). A
summary of your interests, skills, and values, an IDP serves as
a roadmap for your career and offers a clear understanding of
which skills need improvement.
Importantly, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars change their career objectives. For example, a majority of
chemistry grad students start their studies with the intention
of pursuing a career as an educator, but a minority of graduating Ph.D.s eventually select a career in academics1. Accordingly, IDPs are living documents to be revisited periodically,
at least once a year, perhaps during your annual evaluations.
Fortunately, many on-line resources can assist you in developing and maintaining your IDP, including ChemIDPTM (https://
chemidp.acs.org), a tool the ACS developed specifically for
Pioneer Best Practices
One conclusion of the ACS report is that too much similarity
exists among the nation’s graduate programs, and it has been
suggested that variety might yield more innovative and adapt-
able graduate programs. Accordingly, we should not be look-
ing for a one-size-fits-all model for training graduate students,
but rather for ways to exploit the unique opportunities offered
by individual departments.
The next step is for pioneering departments to develop
best practices to improve graduate education, thereby becoming exemplars for other departments to follow. The process
must involve all of the stakeholders, especially the programs’
current students and previous graduates. Only those departments that emphasize a healthy professional atmosphere promoting honest dialogue among administrators, faculty, and
students are poised to advance graduate education.
While everyone involved in the graduate education enterprise—students, faculty, and administrators—has a responsibility to improve the institution, one self-serving reason for
grad students and postdocs to become involved in such efforts
is to show evidence of leadership skills that employers value.
To assume a leadership role in advancing graduate education
in your own department, you must familiarize yourself with
recommendations already made to improve graduate education. For example, you could read the Summary Report of the
ACS Commission ( http://chemistry.graduate.education). A
possible next step would be to meet with your department’s
administrators, Head, or Chair to help organize a forum
wherein the entire department can discuss the issues. Once
consensus goals are identified, the next step is to take action.
Then the real work starts.
Over the past two decades, during which my department
has been developing new graduate curricula, a few principles
have proven useful. One is a commitment to make certain everyone is heard and no one is “left behind.” Not surprisingly,
being scientists, we have taken an experimental approach to
exploring new models for training students. Sometimes our
experiments in the classroom have failed, but like all good scientists, we have learned from them. Just as graduate students
and postdoctoral scholars play essential roles in advancing
research in academic laboratories, I encourage you to assume
responsibility in crafting a more effective model for training
our future Ph.D. scientists. n
Michael T. Ashby, Ph.D., is the David
Ross Boyd Professor of Chemistry and
Biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma. He has participated in two national studies on the future of graduate
education and he has been developing
new models for training graduate students over the past two decades.
Roach, M.; Sauermann, H. The declining interest in an academic career, PLoS ONE [Online] 2017, 12 e0184130 (2017).
(accessed Feb 2, 2017).