Survey of Ph.D. Programs in Chemistry

Survey of Ph.D. Programs in Chemistry

By Joel Shulman

How does your chemistry Ph.D. program compare to others in terms of department size and student demographics? Requirements for the degree? Graduate student progression and support? Developing skills that go beyond knowledge of chemistry? Answers to these questions and many others can be gleaned from the Survey of Ph.D. Programs in Chemistry recently reported by the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT). Highlights of the survey are given here.

The primary objective of the CPT is to facilitate the maintenance and improvement of the quality of chemical education at the postsecondary level. Not only does the Committee develop and administer the guidelines that define high-quality undergraduate education, but it also produces resources such as the ACS Directory of Graduate Education and publishes data on undergraduate and graduate education. Approximately every ten years, CPT fields a survey of Ph.D. programs. The latest survey solicited data from all 196 Ph.D. programs in chemistry and received usable information (base year, 2007) from 139 of these programs.

Figure 1. Size Distribution of Ph.D. Programs

Program size and demographics of students

The 139 reporting Ph.D. programs are divided for purposes of comparison into three groups of approximately equal size according to the total number of graduate students in the program: 44 small (defined as 0 to 40 total graduate students), 46 medium (41 to 105 graduate students), and 49 large programs (106+ graduate students). The number of students in Ph.D. programs ranges from 0 to 394 (see Figure 1) with a total of 13,280 students. Eighteen departments have more than 200 students, accounting for more than one-third (4,460) of the total graduate students in chemistry. The 30 largest programs account for almost 50% of graduate students. The average program size is 96 students (and 23 faculty), while the median program size is 67 students.

Of the doctoral students in responding programs, 27.4% are women, 5.2% are underrepresented minorities, and 42.3% are international students (Table 1). Small programs tend to have a higher percentage of underrepresented minority students (averaging 7.8%), while large programs have a higher percentage of women (28.5%) and a lower percentage of international students (37.3%).

Table 1. Demographics of Graduate Students by Program Size

 All Schools Small Programs
(0-40 students)
Medium Programs
(41-105 students)
Large Programs
(106+ students)
Avg. # of faculty23152033
Avg. # of students962570183
% International42.3%53.0%52.6%37.3%
% African American2.4%3.2%2.5%2.3%
% Hispanic2.5%4.2%1.8%2.5%
% Native American0.3%0.4%0.3%0.3%
% Women27.4%21.6%26.1%28.5%

Requirements for degree (Table 2)

Of course, a doctoral dissertation is required by all Ph.D. programs. Most (71%) graduate programs require entering graduate students to take placement exams, although this requirement tends to be less prevalent as program size increases. The average program requires a minimum of 20 credits (semester hours, corrected for programs on the quarter system) of coursework, a number that does not vary significantly by program size. In addition to course work and dissertation, 96% of programs require at least one of the following: cumulative examinations (58%), an oral preliminary exam (54%), a comprehensive oral exam (50%), and/or a comprehensive written exam (31%). All four of these exams are required by 7% of programs; 17% of programs require three; 43% of programs require two; and 28% require only one. Large programs require cumulative exams less often and oral exams more often than small or medium programs. Only four programs (3%) require students to pass a language exam for the Ph.D.

Table 2. Requirement in Ph.D. Program

 All ProgramsSmall Programs (0-40 students)Medium Programs (41-105 students)Large Programs (106+ students)
Entering graduate students take placement exams71%79%70%65%
Minimum number of credits of formal course work20 cr22 cr20 cr19 cr
Require cumulative examination58%58%73%45%
Require an oral preliminary examination54%37%53%69%
Require a comprehensive written examination50%44%47%59%
Require a comprehensive written examination31%37%27%31%
Require a foreign language examination3%2%4%2%
Require creation and defense of original proposal74%72%70%80%

Graduate Student Progression and Support (Table 3)

The mean time to the Ph.D. is 5.1 years, a number that varies neither by program size nor by public vs. private institution (data not shown). Most programs place a limit on the amount of time allowed to achieve a Ph.D. (average of 7.8 years) as well as on the number of years of departmental support allowed a student (average of 5.9 years). More than 80% of students choose a research advisor within six months of entering graduate school. A significant number of programs either require or permit laboratory rotations before a final advisor is selected.

Monetary support for Ph.D. students comes from teaching assistantships more often than from research assistantships at small and medium programs, while the reverse is true in large programs. There is wide variation in TA stipends, depending on both program size and geographic location. Most programs have a range of stipends, which on average run from $18,000 to about $20,000 per year. Teaching assistants at larger programs are more likely to teach discussion (recitation) sections than those in small or medium programs.

Table 3. Student Progression and Support in Ph.D. Programs

 All ProgramsSmall Programs (0-40 students)Medium Programs (41-105 students)Large Programs (106+ students)
Mean time to Ph.D. degree5.1 years5.0 years5.2 years5.1 years
Limit time allowed to achieve Ph.D. (if so, how long?)73% (7.8 years)78% (7.8 years)69% (8.1 years)73% (7.4 years)
Limit number of years of support? (If so, how long?)60% (5.9 years)70% (5.5 years)56%(6.1 years)55% (6.2 years)
What percentage of students select a research advisor within:

Two months?
Six months?
Twelve months?




Lab rotations are either allowed or required before selecting a final research advisor46%43%40%53%
Percentage of students supported by:
Teaching assistantships
Research assistantships




TA stipend
Ave low
Ave high




Percentage of TAs teaching discussion sections45%32%41%60%

Developing Student Skills

In addition to chemistry knowledge and laboratory skills, it is important that all Ph.D. chemists develop skills in areas such as critical thinking, oral and written communication, and teamwork. Toward this end, 74% of all programs require students to create and defend an original research proposal (Table 2). All but six programs require students to make presentations (exclusive of the thesis defense) to audiences other than their research group; the average number of required presentations is 2.4, with little variation by program size. When asked whether any graduate students receive student-skills training outside of formal course work, 67% responded that at least some students receive specific training in communications; 59% in ethics/scientific integrity; 43% in grant writing; 37% in mentoring; 37% in intellectual property/patents; and 18% in business/economics. Students in large programs are more likely to receive some training in these skill areas than are students in other programs.


The data from this CPT survey provide a snapshot of graduate student demographics, requirements for the degree, and progression and support in chemistry Ph.D. programs. Survey results highlight similarities and differences among small, medium, and large programs across the country.

Dr. Joel I. Shulman retired as The Procter & Gamble Company's Manager of Doctoral Recruiting and University Relations in 2001 and is now an adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati. He serves the ACS as a consultant for the Office of Graduate Education and the Department of Career Management and Development and as a member of the Committee on Professional Training.