Is graduate education changing?

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.

Does Government-forced Open-access Help Science?

As scientists along with government officials in the House and Senate work to pass bills that force government-funded research to be freely accessible, one question pops to mind: Will peer review–the principal standard in scientific research–work with open-access?

With current subscription based journals, the publication process involves an editor, who is paid, a number of reviewers, who are not paid, and a boat-load of people formatting, producing and distributing the content–all paid. With open-access format, how do publications get reviewed or formatted or distributed? At the very least someone needs to coordinate reviewers maintain a website.

Will the government finance current publishers or will government-funded research go strictly in government-funded journals? Since most research is funded by government grants–judging from the funding sources listed at the end of academic papers–the later would force many publishers out of business. The specificity of smaller journals would be lost, and all research may get lumped together–though I suppose they’d separate fields like physics and psychology. Publishers, of course, are calling the open-access bills “unnecessary and a waste of federal resources.”

And who would keep track of citations? Right now, there is an intricate bookkeeping system keeping track of citations for each author–for a fun dick-measuring game of who has the most citations–and an overall “impact factor” of the journal–another game to see which journal is most cited. Though I call these games, keeping track of citations is important. It (kind of) shows which scientists and journals publish meaningful work.

While I like the idea of open-access–in a romantic sense–I’m not sure it is compatible with the current structure of scientific publication. If these bills pass, a dramatic overhaul of the entire system will have to occur. If–or when–that happens, we must preserve the peer review process even if all else is lost.