Graduate school in chemistry is challenging under the best of circumstances- even with a great advisor and a research project that yields positive results. Incoming students frequently haven’t had enough safety training to operate in lab in a safe manner, they’ve never had a relationship like the PI/graduate student relationship, and they’re making decisions that impact longterm employment prospects under informed at best and in total ignorance at worst.
Being a chemist with a policy problem, I’ve been ruminating on ways that graduate school could be improved. I consider a lack of thorough safety one of the most important problem for chemistry departments – incoming students are often not trained in safety until after joining a group where they’re trained in an ad hoc manner by harried older students. This leads to students with incomplete knowledge and large safety blind spots. Resources for a more organized safety training exist, such as Dow Lab Safety Academy, but may remain unknown to students and departments.
In order to help correct this I believe the American Chemical Society can take a leading role in creating a designation for graduate schools that follow best practices. There’s already the ACS Approval Program for Bachelor’s Degrees and it’s time for a similar designation for graduate level education. To begin with the ACS could encourage schools to train incoming students in safety following a standardized curriculum similar to the Dow Lab Safety Academy covering basics such as chemical hygiene, basic workplace safety, and personal protective equipment use. Depending on specialty and lab, additional safety training could be added on additional topics – such as fume hood use or working with pyrophoric compounds. Departments that successfully implement this sort of training could receive a designation as an “ACS Best Practices” department.
Some departments already have excellent safety training and safety records, but the goal of the ACS Best Practices designation would be threefold. It would encourage uniformity so that hiring companies or research institutions would know what kind of training potential hires had received. It would spur departments lagging in such training to improve, and would provide resources they could use to do so. Finally installing such a program as widely as possible would allow it to be improved as departments found areas of to revise and share their findings. Incidents in the news have demonstrated a need for instilling a safety culture and it would behoove chemistry departments to implement these sorts of programs prior to experiencing their own accidents.
Safety training is only one part of my proposed ACS Best Practices designation. I would hope to include areas such as choosing career paths, networking, and professional development. Given the challenges faced by newly minted PhD and Masters students in finding employment, these are areas that departments need to expand their efforts in. Next time I will discuss what actions departments should take to improve their students career opportunities.