An American Chemical Society report commissioned by the society’s president Bassam Z. Shakhashiri–who gives an annual lecture entitled “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”–calls for an overhaul of graduate education. The main focus rests on increasing opportunities in the dismal job market, but the report also suggests ideas on improving the graduate experience by updating safety protocols, reducing graduate habitation, and treating postdocturals as professionals. (It hadn’t occurred to me until now how poorly post-docs are treated–made to work all hours at the whim of a capricious boss who has the same educational qualifications, but gets paid considerably more and works considerably less.)
Chemistry graduate school seems to have it worse off than other graduate programs. The average time a chemistry student spends in grad school is 5 years compared to the 3 or 4 years of other programs. And 5 is just the average! We all know plenty of 6th year students and maybe one or two 7th year students. Leisure time is spoken of in hushed tones lest the boss hears a conversation not concerning work and finds out–gasp!–that you actively participate in a hobby. Why spend time doing something you love when you could be working! All social activities get pushed to the wayside, and most of my fellow students know no one outside of chemistry graduate students–myself included. Dating outside of the department is unheard of and most students are either married or single and not looking. We toil through hard, time-consuming research for barely enough to scrape by–I make $22,000 a year before taxes and school fees, I end up taking home about $1,400 a month. We do this with the hope of graduating with a well-paying job at hand, which is increasingly a fantasy.
It’s no secret that every graduate students thinks about quitting at least once–who am I kidding? It’ more like once aweek. Would the stresses of graduate school be alleviated by more pleasant bosses and less slave-like labor? I think so. I’m a firm believer that stress hinders learning (and productivity). Yes, science takes time. But does it take fourteen hour days, six days a week? I’m not sure of ACS’s plans for the overhaul–one professor suggests doubling the salary and halving the students–but I am ready for it.