Credit: Ryan Inzana
Is grad school for you?
The chemistry graduate school experience
One night during my junior year of college, I stayed late in my adviser’s biochemistry lab to run some kinetics experiments on catalytic antibodies—data that would become part of my senior thesis. I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice at first when my adviser poked her head in. “You would make a great graduate student,” she said with a smile.
She was putting her finger on something I’ve heard from many people since then: If you’re trying to decide whether to apply to graduate school in the chemical sciences, the most important question to ask yourself is whether you enjoy scientific research and problem solving.
That’s because the core of a graduate program in science is taking on a research project of your own. By the end of it, you’ll probably know more than your adviser about your chosen focus. As the director of the graduate program I eventually attended said during our orientation, graduate school is a transition from being a consumer of knowledge to a creator of it.
“I encourage any student with academic aptitude to dabble in the lab as early in their undergraduate days as possible,” says Matthew Mio, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Detroit Mercy who often advises his undergraduate students on their postgraduate plans. He calls research the “first litmus test” for deciding whether graduate school is the right path for you.
To gain research experience as an undergrad, ask professors whose research interests you if you can work in their labs, or apply to a summer research program. Not only will such experiences help you decide if you want to spend five or more years doing a Ph.D. or two to three years for a master’s, but they are also important in making you a strong candidate for graduate school. Ana-Rita Mayol, associate director of the master of chemical sciences program at the University of Pennsylvania, says that without some research experience and a high grade point average, getting into a competitive Ph.D. program is challenging.
Next, think broadly about your future goals. Do you envision yourself as a professor in a college or university, or as a research scientist in an industry or government lab? These are the most typical post-Ph.D. career paths, and most of them require a graduate degree. But keep in mind that a Ph.D. in chemistry doesn’t guarantee you one of these jobs, and competition for tenure-track positions in academia is especially tough. Still, the degree opens up opportunities in research and teaching that are more advanced and that generally have higher salaries than positions requiring only a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, says Michelle Boucher, a chemistry professor at Utica College. Graduate training can also prepare you for myriad other career options, including academic publishing, administration or management in a wide range of scientific settings, and entrepreneurship.
But don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to do with your future degree. Part of the process of doing a Ph.D. is finding the things you are most interested in, gaining expertise, and carving a path toward a satisfying career. Many graduate programs now have each student work with their adviser and committee on an individual development plan that is designed to support progress toward a degree and career goals, Mio says.
You do need to know enough about your goals to write about them in your personal statement when applying, Boucher says; this helps convince programs that you’ll stick with them. “But chances are exceedingly good during your Ph.D. process that your interests will evolve,” she says.
At Utica, many students are the first in their families to go to college, Boucher notes. Some of them face another hurdle in deciding whether to apply to grad school: feeling intimidated or unworthy, that it’s “not the kind of thing someone like them would go for,” she says. In response, she asks them, “Do you like research—asking questions that are open ended? Do you want to be in a job where you are the one asking the questions? You don’t have to be a well-known scientist like Asimov to be worthy of that.”
Let’s say you’ve got the research bug and the grades. What are your options for graduate school? In the U.S., applying to most graduate programs in the chemical sciences means applying for a Ph.D. In many programs, students earn an M.S. along the way, which can become an “escape hatch” if they do not pass their candidacy exam or decide that the Ph.D. path is not for them, Boucher says.
An important thing to know about chemistry Ph.D. programs in the U.S. is that they are funded. Both Mio and Boucher say that most students who come to talk to them about graduate school don’t realize this. Unlike medical, law, or other professional programs, tuition is generally covered by the university or a student’s adviser. Students are paid a stipend, often in exchange for their work as research or teaching assistants. Teaching assistant stipends in U.S. Ph.D. programs in chemistry averaged $18,000 to $20,000 in 2007, according to the most recent (2008) Survey of Ph.D. Programs in Chemistry by the ACS Committee on Professional Training. More recent reports of students’ stipends at individual programs can be found by searching the PhD Stipends database, maintained by two Ph.D. graduates of Duke University, at www.phdstipends.com. “So they’ll pay me to keep doing cool chemistry?” has been the enthusiastic reaction of some of Boucher’s students when they learn this.
If you go the Ph.D. route, however, it’s not a good idea to do it just because it’s “free.” Mio says that when he was going to graduate school in the 1990s, some of his classmates went to grad school because they hadn’t been able to figure out what to do after college. “Those days are long gone,” he says, because funding is more limited than it was then and training is more tailored toward students’ individual goals. It’s important to realize that graduate school—and a career as a scientist—requires a lot of self-motivation. But it also requires the ability to collaborate with others.
Alternatively, some universities offer a terminal master’s degree in chemistry—usually a two-year program for full-time students, which may or may not be funded. Some of these, called professional science master’s programs, provide students with a background in business or law along with courses in science to prepare them for careers in industry, scientific management, or patent law. Some also offer classes at night or online, making them especially appealing to professionals looking for more education.
Other terminal master’s programs, like the University of Pennsylvania’s master of chemical sciences program, have a heavier research focus and give students training and internship opportunities to set them up for work in industry or to help them become more competitive candidates for prestigious Ph.D. programs, says Mayol, associate director of the Penn program. For example, students in Mayol’s program have done internships at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, Axalta Coating Systems, and the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization, among other places.
Pursuing graduate school versus going directly into the job market or to a professional degree like medicine certainly has its trade-offs. Boucher calls one the “investment gap”; in a Ph.D. program you’re investing five or more years of your time at modest wages to get education, experience, and a better job down the line. For some students, that may mean postponing starting a family (though many do start families in graduate school).
If graduate school doesn’t sound like the right option for you, there are many careers you can pursue with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry: going directly to work in industry, as well as working in pharmacy, pharmaceutical sales, public health, science writing, secondary education, and beyond.
Still trying to figure out which of these paths is right for you? Talk to as many people as you can about their experiences and advice, Mayol recommends. Start with your faculty adviser and other professors, and then consider asking alumni who have gone on to grad school, professors and students at the graduate programs you’re interested in, and chemists who are currently working in careers you envision for yourself. Good ways to reach out are through your alumni network and LinkedIn and by contacting workplaces of interest. Finally, regional and national ACS meetings are a great way to connect with chemists of all stripes. And don’t miss the graduate school workshops for undergraduates at ACS national meetings designed by Sam Pazicni of the University of New Hampshire, which Boucher helps run.
Deirdre Lockwood is a freelance writer based in Seattle.