For those college seniors and graduates who dream of becoming college chemistry professors, pursuing a Ph.D. is the first step on a very long road. With about 190 chemistry Ph.D.-granting programs in the U.S. alone, choosing one can be bewildering. So if you have academic aspirations, does where you go to graduate school really matter?
The authors of two recent letters to the editor suggest that it does matter, particularly if you hope to land a job at a highly ranked university. Graduate student Michael Gottselig and postdoc Lars Oeltjen of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, attempted to quantify the influence of graduate school choice on future academic success (C&EN, April 14, page 4). "Of the faculty members at the top 10 grad schools for chemistry who earned their Ph.D.s between 1946 and 2000, we found that 61% of women and 50% of men had obtained their Ph.D.s from top 10 universities," Gottselig tells C&EN. He and Oeltjen also developed a "graduate school impact factor" that reflects the percentage of each school's Ph.D. graduates between 1992 and 2000 who currently hold professorships at chemistry grad schools ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report.
According to Gottselig and Oeltjen's analysis, only five schools--the University of California, Berkeley; California Institute of Technology; Harvard University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Stanford University--can count more than one in 50 of their Ph.D. graduates during these years that are on the faculties of the top 10 schools.
"Our analyses suggest that students who are interested in an academic career should be advised that the selection of a reputable, high-ranking graduate school with high 'impact factor' is practically a sine qua non for obtaining high-ranking professorships and probably professorships in general," Gottselig and Oeltjen conclude.
SOON THEREAFTER, adjunct professor of chemistry Valerie J. Kuck, assistant professor of organic chemistry Cecilia H. Marzabadi, and assistant professors of psychology Janine P. Buckner and Susan A. Nolan of Seton Hall University reported preliminary results of their own gender-specific analysis of graduate school impact factors (C&EN, May 19, page 6). Their investigation--which analyzed where faculty members at the National Research Council's top 10 programs who earned their Ph.D. degrees between 1979 and 2000 went to grad school--turned up a similar short list of high-impact graduate programs. Kuck tells C&EN that her team's soon-to-be-published analysis of impact factors for landing jobs at top 50 universities shows very strong parallels to her team's results for the top 10.
"We found that, at the top 10 ranked departments, for the group graduating after 1978, 91.7% of women and 71.8% of men faculty members had received their doctorates from top 10 universities," Kuck and her colleagues wrote. Her team's gender-specific analysis also shows that impact factors for men and women from the same school are markedly different, with most schools placing men in top 10 faculty jobs at a higher rate than women.
These independent analyses suggest that a minority of highly ranked graduate programs produce the majority of professors at the top 10, and perhaps even at the top 50, chemistry programs.
But some chemistry graduate school admissions directors caution students not to put their faith in graduate school impact factors, arguing that the numbers grossly understate the quality of students and research at certain schools.
"Although it is certainly true that many very successful chemists are trained at the top five institutions, it is not obvious that these same talented students would have fared worse (or better) had they attended graduate schools outside of the top five," argues Cornell University's David B. Collum.
Other graduate school admissions directors suggest that impact factors should be just one of a number of factors that prospective graduate students who dream of landing a job in a top-flight university should use to make their decision about where to get their Ph.D.s.
"There is no doubt that top-notch graduate programs produce the majority of academic professionals," notes Carolyn R. Bertozzi, part of the team that handles admissions at UC Berkeley. But her advice to students who hope to land a top academic job one day goes beyond impact factors.
She suggests that students with academic aspirations "should choose a program in which they will have opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research with the most state-of-the-art technologies." Bertozzi also suggests such students look for programs that not only offer a broad range of courses taught by experts in the field, but also provide opportunities to teach, give research talks, contribute to grant writing, join a journal club, and attend conferences. "All of this forms a well-rounded scientist with the broad skill set that is required of an academic scientist," she says.
THE ADVISER you choose also may have an impact. Northwestern University's admissions chair, Thomas J. Meade, suggests that students dreaming of a plum academic job should pay careful attention to the "track records of advisers placing their students in academia." Professor Robert W. Field, who is in charge of graduate admissions at MIT, agrees. "Students should ask the potential adviser what he or she normally does to secure jobs for graduates," he says.
In addition, many of the admissions directors whom C&EN contacted suggested that, for those who hope to get a top academic position, where one goes to grad school isn't as important as where--and with whom--one does postdoctoral research.
"My advice to my own students who have wanted a career in academia is to aim as high as possible, work as hard as you can, and network like mad," says Morton Z. Hoffman of Boston University.
But what those students with academic aspirations really want to know is what matters most to departments when they hire new faculty.
UC Berkeley's hiring committee considers pedigree to be "somewhat important but not a total showstopper," Bertozzi says. "A truly creative and novel proposal will catch the committee's eye, no matter the pedigree," she tells C&EN.
"Our faculty search committee will pay attention to top 10 pedigrees, no doubt," says the University of Arizona's Dominic V. McGrath. "But that might only get you an interview. Once you're in the door, it's all you," he adds.
THAT FEELING is reflected by a recent analysis conducted by A. Truman Schwartz, a professor of chemistry at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and his colleagues. In the American Chemical Society publication "And Gladly Teach: A Resource Book for Chemists Considering Academic Careers," (PDF file) Schwartz reports findings from his team's survey of chemistry departments about what really counts in preparing for an academic position. (For more information on this publication, see http://www.cen-online.org.) When departments were asked what factors and attributes of candidates weighed most heavily in their hiring decisions, they all agreed on one thing: The job interview matters most.
But beyond the job interview, hiring committees' priorities vary. When hiring faculty, "Ph.D.-granting universities put a high premium on the quality and quantity of publications and papers, the scientific reputation of postdoctoral and Ph.D. advisers, and the research proposals submitted by the candidate," Schwartz and his colleagues write. In contrast, the most important factors in hiring at two-year colleges are the candidate's teaching experience and teaching philosophy statement, they say.
Notably, "the importance attached to the prestige of postdoctoral and doctoral institutions and postdoc and Ph.D. advisers is clearly the highest for research universities," and matters less for four-year and M.S.-granting schools and even less at two-year colleges, Schwartz tells C&EN.
"This appears to support the conclusion that the choice of grad school, postdoc institution, and research mentor influences the likelihood of a chemist getting an academic job at a comparable school," Schwartz tells C&EN. But the importance that hiring committees place on the job interview suggests that students should focus on finding an educational path that helps develop creativity, confidence, and scientific skill.