Making the Jump in Chemistry – Preparing for Grad School

Posted by The Chemistry Lab on 9/24/12 9:44 AM

Your author is not only a chemistry tutor, but is more than three years in towards a doctoral degree in organic chemistry. For advanced chemistry students, a frequent question is “Do I need to go to grad school?”

The short answer is, yes, for chemistry majors grad school is essentially a requirement. But that being said, it is a lot of school, and there are definitely jobs to be had without a Ph. D, so there’s nothing wrong with carving out your own path. So here are some things to consider during your undergrad career to help you with the decision.

Know what you’re in for:

Graduate school in chemistry is a long process – about 5½ years on average (depending on your specialization and where you attend). While some of this will be spent taking courses and preparing for qualifying/candidacy/other exams, the bulk of your time will be spent on your own research. A Ph. D. thesis in chemistry requires some contribution to your chosen field. So if you don’t see yourself being motivated to study the same topic for a good 4 or so years (with all of the accompanying ups and downs), a Ph. D. program may not be your best option.

Know your options:

I said that a Ph. D. is essentially a requirement for chemistry majors. For academic careers, it most certainly is – you can’t become a professor without the “Dr.” label. However, if you’re set on teaching chemistry at the high school level, for example, you only need the appropriate license for your state – while a Ph. D. will certainly boost your resume, your time might be better spent elsewhere. Similarly, for industrial jobs, in some cases it may actually be easier to gain an entry-level job with just a B.S. degree! This is because Ph. D. applicants typically command high salaries and more managerial responsibilities, so B.S. employees are more economical and typically do more “physical work.” The trade off, however, is that a doctorate will start you off with a higher salary (at times up to 1.5 times what a B.S.-holder will earn) and open up more career options as you rise through a company.

Join a lab:

I mean, really join a lab. No matter what your field, you’ll be working on current problems in chemistry for most of your Ph. D. And while undergraduate lab courses try to give you a taste of how this may feel, nothing compares to actually working in a lab. Not only will this give you firsthand experience about how graduate students approach their work, you’ll also have a much closer relationship with your professor, which will serve you well when it comes time for recommendations. If your school doesn’t have a graduate program, try to apply for a summer program elsewhere. But a caveat – this is a case where you’ll definitely get out what you put in. So don’t think that you’ll be able to take four courses, play soccer, and sing choir and still have enough time for lab – you’ll never see a graduate student do that, and you won’t get much out of the lab experience. I’m not saying that you need to be a brilliant researcher and author multiple papers as an undergraduate. But if you are considering joining a lab, try your best to do it at a time when your other commitments are fairly light.

Look for outside experiences:

While joining a lab will help you get a feel for graduate school, equally valuable is the perspective that you can gain by meeting people who have already gone through it. Whether you’re ultimately interested in pharmaceuticals, consulting, or patent law, several companies offer internships where you can experience the work place before you’re actually there. While you work, the people around you will be more than happy to share their own experiences with you – in particular, they can help shed light on how graduate school fits in with your overall career goals. Further on down the road, many will be willing to offer references or otherwise help you out as you begin your job search.

Start making contacts:

I’ve sort of highlighted this in the previous two topics, but it’s so important that it definitely deserves special mention. Make sure you’re interacting with your professors, supervisors, or anyone else in your field. These are the people who will be writing recommendations or speaking about you when your applying for jobs, so the closer you are with them, the better your chances of securing admission to a particular program, obtaining a fellowship, or even landing a job. It doesn’t have to be a Nobel laureate or a CEO of a huge firm, but anyone who can vouch for your capacity to work hard and be willing to learn will be a huge asset moving forwards. This definitely requires you to be proactive (and if you’re a freshman stuck in huge lectures, it may still be impossible), but over a typical college career, there are ample opportunities to present yourself to the people around you. Don’t be shy about it – almost everyone takes a keen interest in interacting with the future generations of chemists!

Just as during your high school career, you can certainly get through a college chemistry program with just the basic coursework under your belt.

But graduate schools will be looking for much more than that, especially with numbers of applicants on the rise. Not only will chemistry-related extra-curricular activities help you decide if graduate school is right for you, they will also broaden your skills and knowledge, and give you that extra edge in the application process. And on occasions when things don’t work out exactly as you’d hoped, you’d be surprised what a phone call from one of your advisors may be able to do!

Tags: chemistry, graduate school