So, how about a Ph.D.?

Ian Pendleton is a Ph. D. student attending the University of Michigan. He is a four year member of the American Chemical Society and a recipient of the Division of Organic Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. He is currently researching organic chemistry with a focus in methods development. When not working in the lab he enjoys rock climbing and scuba diving.  (Photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan University)

Hello everyone! I am Ian Pendleton, a graduated senior from Eastern Michigan University attending the University of Michigan for a graduate degree starting this fall, a somewhat scary and exciting fact that I will come to terms with as it approaches. My misadventure into graduate school did not begin on its own volition; it was the sum of a meandering and seemingly hopeless path that I set out on just over one year ago. From the rather tumultuous experience of applying to grad school, I have acquired some (possibly) useful and (hopefully) insightful information regarding one of the most complex, hectic and uncertain times I have ever lived through. In my next few posts, I hope to outline some of the key hurdles, what to do and look for, and most of all provide you with some key information to remove the mystery from applying to graduate school, thus making your senior year (application time) less stressful and heartbreaking than mine (Joking! Maybe!).

1. Should you go to Graduate School?

My first brush with graduate school came after a failed organic synthesis that left me in my advisor’s office, justifiably depressed, when my advisor asked (rather directly), “what do you plan to do when you graduate?”. The question gave me pause. I threw off my melancholy and got to work discovering the unknown country outside of graduation. I started my research into possible career paths for chemists, searching for the most reliable and trustworthy information I could find-the internet. My first stop was Ph.D. Comics (shown below).

The second was a blog post entitled “We are not Golem”. While not hard research, these were both entertaining and thought provoking sources, both of which allowed me to lightheartedly approach the next few, and more serious, steps. A few more practical sources of information that provided some rather useful data on just what a Ph.D. in chemistry could mean for me. Every year there is an article published regarding the current outlook for chemistry Ph.D’s, including trends the job market and the income of different degree levels. This article called, “Starting salaries” is published in C&EN. The one I viewed showed that the higher your education level, the higher starting salary. It also showed that while you are more likely to have a job as a Ph.D., a bachelor’s degree offers better chances of employment than a master’s degree, though you take a pay cut (See 2009 stats under “Employment Status”). A more recent article called “What does a Ph.D. in chemistry get you?” published through Scientific American sheds some light on the future employment outlook (beyond the scope of this post, but a recommended read!). Also, you could look at some more numbers and an assessment regarding increasing Ph.D’s and the possible consequences in the article “Gains Continue For Chemistry Grads” also in C&EN.  These disparate and seemingly unconnected facts combined into my realization that grad school was for me.

For the undecided reader, I don’t expect the proceeding paragraph to make a huge difference in your decision. But if you are a rising senior and are undecided: start thinking about it. Today. The longer this question sits in your head, the more time you have to let both sides influence your thinking. Being unsure about life after graduation is alright, but staying that way is not. You have some tough decisions to make in the coming months, and while I don’t envy you, you need to start thinking about it early and often.

2. How to Start Applying

Once you’ve decided to actually apply for graduate school the fun really begins (and by fun I mean long hours of studying, writing applications, and many other amazing and memorable experiences).  Graduate schools inhabit every direction, location, field and each one has professors doing a plethora of various projects. I was very fortunate and had a link to a site that covered every organic chemistry professor in the nation and linked to their group’s page. This website called “Organic Links” was (and still is) a useful tool for tracking professors in organic chemistry.  While I am not sure if there are websites similar to this for other fields of chemistry it would not hurt searching (Editor’s note: try DGRweb, too). Also, if you want a more “quantitative” assessment for choosing a school you can start by looking at graduate school rankings. Then simply:

  • Identify and list 5-20 graduate schools you are interested in
  • Look up professors in the areas you want to focus on (i.g. organic, inorganic, theoretical, analytical, ect.)
  • Make a list of the schools with the MOST professors you like
  • Choose schools where you have the most options and plan to apply there!

Sadly, this is a competitive field so “rankings” and such matter to people. While it is essential that you can find a job post-Ph.D. (or postdoc) it is also important to not hate life while working towards that goal. Thus, choosing MIT because it is a well-known school is not going to make you a great chemist if you drop out early.

3. Track Your Progress

Once you have a list (which can take a WHILE, don’t fret if this process takes a week or two) you can start finding out deadlines and requirements for individual institutions. There are certain specifications for each university, but we will touch on the most common. One thing that EVERY university requires is a General Records Examination or GRE. These are tests that need to be scheduled and taken at a testing center. More information can be found at the GRE website. In the next couple posts I will go into detail more about letters and such, but for now it is ESSENTIAL to know deadlines, requirements, and have an idea of what schools you are interested in. I would recommend dividing your schools into “chance tiers” with goal schools being the highest, schools you expect to get into next, and lastly fall-backs. Since organization is really helpful, I have linked you to an excel file that I used to help keep me organized while applying. Admittedly, this may not work for everyone, but you should have something to keep you organized and on track.

At this point you should have the determination to go to graduate school, a list of potential institutions, and a rough timeline you need to follow. But your work is far from over. In addition to going back to class and summer work, you’ll need to gather references, send applications, write essays, take tests, visit schools, and so much more. But there’s more to come, and we’ll help you every step of the way. Best of luck on the initial graduate school search and may your yields and selectivity be high!

The Next Few Weeks

So you can keep up with our series, here is a schedule of upcoming posts (tentative for the given dates):

  • 6/15/2012 (current)
    • What a Ph.D. is and how to prepare
    • Choosing the right graduate school
  • 6/27/2012
    • Key dates and a schedule
    • Good resume builders (good for all undergraduates!)
    • Ideas for getting research experience
  • 7/13/2012
    • Letters and Essays
    • Test preparation
  • 8/10/2012
    • Stress Management
    • Graduate School visits!!
  • 8/17/2012
    • All your questions answered!
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4 thoughts on “So, how about a Ph.D.?

  1. Pingback: So, How About A PhD- Building Your Credentials | acsundergrad

  2. Pingback: So, how about a Ph. D.: Essays, test prep, and final resume notes |

  3. Pingback: So, how about a Ph-D Part 3: Essays and test prep |

  4. Pingback: So how about a Ph.D.? Part 4 – How to Work Smart and Grad School Visits |

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