So, How About A PhD- Building Your Credentials

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)


1. Recap!

(This article continues from a previous post entitled, “So, how about a Ph. D.?)  In the last post we discussed how to plan the graduate school application battle (sometimes it feels like an uphill one…).  Hopefully by now you have some choices made, or at least decided on a couple options.  If not, well, I recommend getting to work, because there is much to do, my friends.  (This being said, procrastination will lead to an amount of stress that is unimaginable and horrifying.  Similar to what it would be like if you woke up one morning and realized it was finals week and you had slept through an entire semester.)  To prevent this, I encourage you to go buy some coffee, or some magic motivation potion, and attempt to get started. I promise you’ll love yourself for every bit of effort you put in now.

This post focuses on strengthening your application/resume, meaning this is good advice for any chemistry student at any point in their career.  We will discuss good resume builders, letters of recommendation, and most importantly, how to get research experience.  For current seniors some of this information may be a bit late to use, but for juniors, sophomores and freshman in college, this advice should be regarded as a blueprint for the rest of your studies.

2. Undergraduate research as a way to build your resume

The first and possibly the most important resume builder is undergraduate research experience.  There are a number of easy to find articles on how to get involved with undergraduate research.  That being the case there many useful resources that I am not going to provide, but I encourage you to look beyond the sources listed here.

Just to get a background on what undergrad research (UR) is I would encourage you to read this article from Science called, “The Importance of Undergraduate Research”.  It covers some of the key benefits of UR from a number of perspectives.  I also will refer you to an article from The Journal of Chemical Education entitled, “Communicating the Importance of Undergraduate Research to Legislators.”  While this article is less about why to do research, it covers the talking points and events which aim to highlight the students who participate in research at a younger age. The ACS Undergraduate Office also has online resources to assist your search.  To put what these articles say into a simple and straight forward concept, the first thing chemistry departments look at when reviewing applications for graduate school is your research experience.

3. Getting involved in Undergraduate Research

Hopefully you are already involved with research, especially if you are applying for graduate school this year.  If not, consider speaking to an advisor at your school and seeing if you can get involved in the lab as soon as possible!  If you are a few years out from applying, look into research at your university, and set up a meeting with a professor whose work interests you.  If you have specific questions on how to go about this, please feel free to leave a comment with your email and I will do my best to aid you.  There are also NSF (National Science Foundation) scholarships and grants set up to provide undergraduates with an opportunity to research outside of your undergraduate institution (this is especially useful if your institution does not have a research option).  These are called REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates: see our post on these as well!).  While you don’t need a grant to participate in one of these programs, it makes finding a position much easier.  Look at NSF for sources of funding or simply Google “Chemistry Undergraduate Research Experience”.  There’s also the ACS Get Experience Site, which we have referenced before.  Obviously, another useful place to check is on the ACS website and CUR (Council for Undergraduate Research)!  All of these sites will help you find funding, or at least start your search for more information.

These programs are just a starting point; I encourage you to seek out ways to distinguish yourself as a researcher.  If you do find yourself in a research group, ask your advisor (Professor, graduate student, or post doc) if you can present your research at local, regional or national conference.  There are MANY conferences happening year round, and the ACS sponsors 2 National and 6-8 Regional Meetings every year.

www.phdcomics.com4. Turning that hard work into letters of recommendation

The standard review committee for a good university has to process hundreds of applications for their chemistry department every year.  While I am sure they LOVE reading all of these documents, after a while it probably gets to be a little redundant.  Try to make the research part of your application, and all parts for that matter, unique and interesting for the people reading it.  This is something to consider before writing begins, but for our purposes we will discuss actually putting together writing samples (i.e. statement of purpose, research summary, and personal statement) in detail in the next post.

The next component, possibly equally or more important depending on the university, is your letters of recommendation.  While this seems like a short term and easily solved problem (i.e. just ask someone to write one for you), these should be something that you put time, energy and effort into gathering.  What I am about to tell you comes from speaking with other graduate students, interacting with admissions council members, and personal experience: the most impactful letters are the ones that speak about you as a person!  That means a teacher that you had once as an undergrad cannot write you what would be considered a satisfactory letter, no matter how well you did in their class.  Here are examples of letters, most of which reveal whether they are good or not just by reading.  You need something that indicates that you are a hard-working student/researcher, interact well with people, and have an interest in the field, but most importantly, that someone knows you personally and thinks you’re a great fit.  In order to get that letter you have to be present and make your presence known on campus.  That is easier said than done, but one good way to do that is to get involved in things that professors are working on such as research, tutoring, career fairs, and talks hosted by your school.  Overall, just being involved will help build those contacts and will also serve to bolster you resume in general.  Since every institution is different, finding the most efficient means to accomplish these goals may require some searching, but there is always a way.  I have been told on numerous occasions that having a post-doc write you a letter is NOT, repeat NOT satisfactory!  A compromise to this could be having the post-doc write the letter and the professor supervising them sign off on it (aka. co-write the letter) as a MINIMUM.

There are a number of excellent places to start researching these topics.  I hope only to provide a general outline that sets you on the correct path.  If you have any further questions please feel free to leave a comment, they are by no means simple!  I will respond as soon as possible.  I hope it at least provides a foundation from which you can start these rather large and difficult projects.  I hope that your summer work is progressing well, and may your yields and selectivity be high!

The next few weeks

Also, so you are aware of upcoming articles (tentative for the given dates):

  • 6/15/2012 (past)
    • What a Ph. D. is and how to prepare
    • Choosing the right graduate school
  • 6/29/2012 (current)
    • Good resume builders (good to look at for all undergraduates!)
    • Ideas for getting research experience
    • Letters of recommendation
  • 7/13/2012
    • Essays!
    • Test preparation
  • 8/10/2012
    • Stress Management
    • Graduate School visits!!
  • 8/17/2012
    • Possibly another article for answering more questions?
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5 thoughts on “So, How About A PhD- Building Your Credentials

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

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

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

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