Why I Don’t Plan to Go to Graduate School

As an undergraduate student, the first question I’m usually asked is, “What is your major?” When I say that my major is chemistry, the question that almost invariably follows is, “So are you planning on going to medical school or graduate school?” Graduate school, for many, is the appropriate next step after undergrad. There are real benefits for those who attend, such as potentially higher salaries and a lower unemployment rate (6.2% vs. 3.6%, according to 2012 ACS statistics); however, after extensive research, I’ve come to the conclusion that graduate school is not for everyone. For someone like me, who is interested in a non-traditional chemistry career, the potential educational and employment benefits do not outweigh the opportunity cost.

It may seem surprising to many undergraduate chemists, but there are A LOT of things you can do with a chemistry degree other than work in a lab. For example, you could become a dietitian, science writer, patent agent, public health inspector, or a teacher, just to name a few. Many of these positions require or prefer people with an education in science. Although some of these occupations favor those with an advanced degree, many of these non-traditional chemistry jobs do not require it. Not pursuing a graduate degree right now allows me to remain flexible in choosing my future career.

While the jobs market a big factor in why I’m not headed to graduate school, I am also concerned about the high opportunity cost of continuing my education. Since a Ph.D. in chemistry takes, on average, 5.1 years to complete, going to graduate school would delay major life milestones that I am looking forward to achieving—like buying a house, starting a family, and getting out into the business world. And that does not include postdoctoral studies, which can take up to an additional 5 years to complete.

For instance, it would be very difficult to save for major purchases, like a house or a car, on a graduate school stipend. It’s pretty much common knowledge that you don’t get paid much while going to grad school. As famously quipped by Jorge Cham, “a job at McDonalds pays only $15 less a year than the average graduate student stipend.” While that isn’t entirely accurate, the truth is that the average chemistry graduate student receives a TA stipend of about $18,000–$19,000 per year. Although as undergraduates we’re told that overall earning potential of those with graduate degrees tend to be higher, I don’t want to live in scholarly poverty for the next several years; I can only eat ramen noodles for so long.

In addition, grad school would most likely postpone my ability to start a family. As a modern woman, I wholeheartedly believe that you can be anything ranging from career woman to a stay-at-home mom, but working the midnight shift in a lab and writing papers would definitely take a toll on my ability to contribute to raising children. For this reason, many people choose to wait until after degrees are conferred to start having kids. Unfortunately, though, the narrow window of time that I would be able to start a family after grad school is just a little too narrow for my taste.

Finally, I can’t wait to get out into the working world! I want to be able to gain experience now, build up my résumé, and finally become a “real” adult. Personally, I realized that I loved working in an office through my internship last summer at the American Chemical Society. I discovered the type of job that suits me, and I want to start working and gaining experience in places that will help to advance my career as soon as possible.

Graduate school is a considerable investment that shouldn’t be taken lightly—and it shouldn’t be the default choice of chemistry majors. My internship last year helped me to realize that there were a multitude of non-traditional chemistry jobs out there. I wish someone had told me earlier that I had more options as a chemistry major than getting a graduate or professional degree. I would have spent more time as an undergraduate gaining experience instead of stressing out over a grad school-worthy GPA. I would have had more time to gain contacts, explore the options, and prepare for entering the working world next year.

jessica picture

Jessica Roberts is a rising fourth year at the University of Virginia studying biochemistry. While not learning about protein functions, she is heavily involved in Housing and Residence Life where she serves as a Senior Resident in a first year residence hall.

If you have any questions or comments, please comment below. And if you are interested in gaining working experience and discovering your passions, check out the ACS’s Get Experience website for internship opportunities.


2013 ACS Leadership Institute – Interview with a Student Awardee

The ACS Leadership Institute is held every year to train leaders to more effectively inspire and encourage others. Leaders from all levels of the ACS come together to network, share ideas about leadership, and learn from each other. This year, 19 undergraduates received awards to attend the Institute, held from January 25-27, and one of them was the Student Chapter Secretary at Gordon College, Hanbyul Chang. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with her about her experiences.

Hanbyul Chang, Gordon College Student Chapter Secretary

[This interview has been shortened from it’s original form]

C.J: So Hanbyul! You went to the ACS Leadership Institute!

H.C: I did.

How was it?

It was….very, very good. Before I went, I thought it was just going to be the 19 students who got the scholarship to go there, but when I arrived I realized it was a lot bigger. It wasn’t just students; there were people who worked in industry and professors who were either volunteering for the ACS or had some important position in the ACS. So I got to meet the members of the governing board of the ACS…it was crazy. It was basically a National ACS Leadership conference, and so people from everywhere were there. There were people from California, Chicago, Maryland, Oregon, everywhere. 

And what did you do at the Institute while you were there?

Most of the time the students had our own sessions about what defined leadership and what kinds of leadership positions there were in the ACS. We had a session about planning a successful event, and another one where we focused on our student chapters and what kind of problems there were in our student chapters and discussed possible solutions. We also had one class we got to choose; I was in the Fostering Innovation session, which was about teamwork and how to get people to work with us in innovative ways. We also had a networking session, where we had to go around and meet new people, introduce ourselves to new people…just exchange business cards.

What were some things you learned while you were there?

I learned a lot about leadership. But one of the bigger themes I got from it was the feeling of being a part of a bigger society. Before I went, I never knew that the ACS was that huge! We had our student chapter and I thought that was it, but it’s such a big organization, there are so many opportunities, so many resources that I want other people to know about. It was also really interesting to meet other chemists around the country, especially others who were my age, who were students. It was cool to exchange ideas, to talk about our research and our experience.  And I got a better understanding of the variety of jobs and careers available from the professional chemists.

The 2013 Student Leaders Cohort

The 2013 Student Leaders Cohort

You said you got to speak with some of the leaders of the ACS. Was there anything in their stories that spoke to you?

Well, one thing that really stuck out was their passion for the ACS. The ACS past president said at least twice that he would not be where he is now if not for the ACS, because the ACS was the organization that gave him the opportunity to lead. The current president is actually a female and Asian-American, Chinese-American, which is really nice, because I’m female, and I’m Asian…it shows me that the ACS is really incorporating the voices of the international, the minority.

As a minority and international student yourself, how does the diversity or a lack of diversity in the ACS impact you?

I love anything that is international. I really think we all need to be aware of what’s going on in other countries, all over the world. We had one night where there was a sort of informational session or fair, with different tables for different chapters and careers, and one of the tables was focused on international communication. Just looking at the ACS, and how they’re trying to share ideas and interests about chemistry across national borders, it’s really encouraging and amazing.

Awesome! Any parting words?

If you can, go [to the Leadership Institute]. It’s a really good experience. You’re going to need to network and lead all your life, and for me, it was the first time I was really exposed to networking. Additionally, I learned so, so much about leadership.

Good words. Thank you Hanbyul!

You’re welcome, thanks for having me.


Hanbyul Chang is the Chapter Secretary for the Gordon College Student Chapter of the American Chemical Society. Ethnically Korean and nationally Russian, Hanbyul is currently a sophomore chemistry major at Gordon College and has interests in analytical chemistry, forensic chemistry and law, and patent law. She is currently working with Dr. Tshudy of Gordon College on research focusing on using the catalyst TAML to conduct kinetics studies in undergraduate general chemistry laboratory experiments.

The interviewer for this post, Clyde Daly Jr., is a senior chemistry major at Gordon College with interests in nanoscience and physical chemistry. When he’s not in lab working on his research project in the Boyd group, he can be found musing on his own blog, miningasteroids, or on twitter @cjjc0. 

Nerd Heaven: Day Two of the Undergraduate Program at the ACS National Meeting in New Orleans

Welcome to the second day of Undergraduate Programming at the ACS National Meeting! All events take place in the Ernest R. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
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Check out the Undergraduate Program Guide

Understanding Climate Science: A Scientist’s Responsibility
Rivergate Ballroom
8:30-11:30 a.m. (all times are CST, of course)

Climate science issues affect us all.  As the next generation of scientists, it will be up to us to deal with consequences of pollution, natural resource usage, and changing climates. Wouldn’t you like to be better informed, so you can set the standard for responsible and beneficial scientific solutions to these problems?

Workshop: “Chemists Celebrate Earth Day” Outreach Events
Hall A/Section B
9:45 – 11:45 a.m.

Earth Day is a great opportunity to interact with your ACS chapter and your community, but you may not know just what to do. Fear not, our experts are here to supply you with fun activities with which to engage the public for Earth Day!

Workshop: Employment in Chemistry – Academics, Industry, Small Business, and Government
Room R05
9:45-11:45 a.m.

Chemists work in all sectors of the job market.  Our scientific training and rigorous educational background prepare us with the technical and communication skills to succeed in a variety of fields.  Come take a look at employment opportunities in academia, industry, small business, and government.  You might be surprised at just how much you can do with your degree.

Undergraduate Research Poster Session
Hall D
Noon – 2:30 p.m.

Your fellow undergraduates have been busy. Very busy. This poster session features thousands of posters and covers nearly every discipline of chemistry imaginable.  Learn something new and see what your colleagues have been up to. Who knows, maybe it will stimulate your research or your desire to get into a lab.

Undergraduate Speed Networking with Chemistry Professionals
Hall A/Section A
4:00-5:30 p.m.

If you could only attend one event at the ACS meeting this year, this might be the one.  A fast-paced high-energy environment in which to converse with a plethora of chemists from all sectors.  Take this opportunity to ask questions about careers and graduate school and get the opinion of several people on each topic to gain multiple perspectives.  Rarely will you get the chance to have such open conversations, with such a diverse group of chemists, in such a short period of time.  Be sure to bring business cards or at least be prepared to introduce yourself to many new people; this is a perfect time to make some new connections.

Sci-Mix/Successful Student Chapter Poster Session
Hall D
8:00-10:00 p.m.

Need some new ideas for your student chapter?  Want to meet other students who are passionate about camaraderie in chemistry with each other and in public outreach?  Stop by the Sci-Mix and check out the posters from other chapters.  Talk to the students and see what they have learned in their experiences that might make your group more effective.  It has been two long and eventful days. Come just to socialize and relax.

One little application, one big future

When the calendar says “January,” the same word enters everyone’s head: “Summer!” And that’s because you should be thinking of summer internships now, in the middle of winter. Most science and research internships have deadlines by the end of January, and more will close their application windows in February. We’ve all been told internships are worth the time, but for some reason some of us still miss the simple but crucial first step: applying. So here are a few thoughts to motivate you to, you know, apply.

Whether you’re on your way to graduate school, or to the work force, walking into your interview with internship experience gives you confidence and credibility, as well as stories you can tell to illustrate how you’ve learned one thing or another. Internships demonstrate that you have encountered experiences and obstacles both vastly and subtly different from the papers and projects you’ve completed for school. Without work experience, the best you can tell the interviewer, with all honesty, is that you guess you would be good at the job; you are pretty sure it’s what you want. In the end, it would be a hypothesis with no data.

Both graduate schools and employers are looking for new college graduates to bolster future full-time jobs, and employers frequently use interns as a hiring pool. Ed Koc, the director of strategic and foundation research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), says that “internships are becoming more of a core recruiting tool each year. Not only are the numbers going up in terms of hiring interns, but a higher percentage of interns are receiving job offers and being converted into full-time employees“.

Here are the numbers. According to the NACE 2008 Experiential Education Survey, “The percent of interns converted to full-time employees [same employer] has increased from 35.6 percent in 2001 to 50.5 percent in 2008.” The survey further highlights, “The percent of interns receiving full-time job offers as a result of their internships [any employer] increased from 56.9 percent in 2001 to 69.6 percent in 2008.”  When added to the already well known fact that employers tend to rely on internal referrals when hiring, if you plan on securing a good job after graduation, you should be applying for internships!

There’s another reason to gain work experience ASAP: If your career of choice is a terrible fit for you, you definitely want to find that out now rather than later. It actually happened to me after my sophomore year in college. I’d done three or four summer research jobs in biology labs already, and I had a solid plan to keep going for the rest of my life. I liked it, and hadn’t tried anything else. Therefore, I believed I loved it. When one of my professors asked me to consider a fellowship at the U.S. Department of Energy to research energy storage (e.g. batteries, fuel cells), I hardly gave it any thought. It was on a whim, at the last minute before the deadline, that I realized, “After college, I might never get another chance to try energy storage research again, once I grow my roots in biology.” You can’t count on chances to come again. I applied. My entire “solid plan” flipped inside out in less than one summer. It was a fantastic experience. I’d become glued to many new papers, projects, and people I would be honored to work for someday, to ever go back to my original plan.  I found my new path through one little application.

You don’t want to miss opportunities like that. It’s well worth one application that, for me, might have been tossed in the recycling bin long ago.

Emily Li is a Biochemistry major and master alchemist with Alpha Chi Sigma at the University of Maryland - College Park.

Emily Li is a Biochemistry major and master alchemist with Alpha Chi Sigma at the University of Maryland – College Park.

If you don’t have any information about internships on hand yet, ACS’s Get Experience site is a great place to start. You can also try searching your e-mails for internship opportunities sent out on your undergraduate department/college listserv, if you have one. If you’re back at school, be sure to catch your professors after class to ask if they’ve heard of any good internships they might recommend.

There’s still time left, and one application won’t use all of it. Go for it!

A Fantastic List of Alternative Chemistry Careers…and Our Contribution to It

Hello Everyone,

In honor of National Chemistry Week, See Arr Oh, who blogs about chemistry at Just Like Cooking, has asked chemistry bloggers to write about their chemistry backgrounds and experiences and tweet their posts under #chemcoach. We encourage you to check out the careers of over 40 science bloggers, and maybe fill out an entry yourself. In that spirit, here is the entry for Chris “Ziggy” Zeigler, one of the editors of this blog.

My current job:
Education Associate with the American Chemical Society’s Undergraduate Programs Office

What I do in a standard “work day”:
Ha, a “standard work day”.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those.

My job is part customer service, part administration, part editor, and part salesman. I administer our student chapter grants, recruit writers for this blog, manage our Facebook and Twitter accounts, recruit schools to host Regional Meeting Programming, plan Undergraduate National Meeting Programming, create chemical demonstration videos, assist Faculty Advisors with questions, and perform miscellaneous work to improve, create, and distribute Student Chapter Resources to ACS Student Chapters. I am never 100% sure what I’m going to do each day, and that’s half the fun.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?:
I started as a chemistry undergraduate, because I loved the subject and performing chemistry demonstrations, but for whatever reason I didn’t enjoy working in the lab. I knew graduate school in chemistry wasn’t for me, and since I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do with my life, I went to work for an instrumentation company installing, teaching, and providing customer service on ion chromatography equipment. I enjoyed the interaction with customers, but during that time I decided to pursue a second degree in Divinity in order to become a pastor, mainly due to work I did on the side with the homeless. I earned my MDiv, and emerged from graduate school unable to find a pastorate, so I went to work for a custom chemical manufacturer as a sales person. I left that job because my wife found work in DC, and I came across the American Chemical Society while looking for chemistry work in DC. It turns out, in my current position at ACS I use the writing skills from Divinity school, as well as my customer service and sales experience. So, providentially, I’m making full use of my skill set!

How does chemistry inform my work?
The field of chemical education and research has its own culture and language.  Reaching out to students and faculty members to see how I can help them and understand what we can do better isn’t always easy, but keeping up my lingo and understanding their problems helps me find solutions.  So chemistry doesn’t just inform my work- it created the environment in which I work.

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career:
My first boss, who taught me most of what I know about working in industry, was a linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. It just goes to show you, you meet some amazing people in life.

Also, once while traveling, I met someone on an airplane who told me how I could meet Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, creator of characters such as Spider Man and the X-Men, and so I did just that. A job where you travel has its benefits, like meeting the man who created many of my childhood heroes.

Chris “Ziggy” Zeigler & Stan Lee

Stop by and see the full list of chemists and their careers!

Fun Resources for National Chemistry Week

Hello ACS Student Chapters!

As you may or may not know, National Chemistry Week (NCW) is only two weeks away.  During NCW, which includes Mole Day (October 23), chemists across the nation reach out to the public in order to share their love of chemistry through demonstrations, events, and socials. We have put together a short list of resources and some fun and entertaining activities you can share on campus or with your community, and we encourage you to use these resources to show your love of chemistry during this week of celebration! Leading up to NCW, we’ll also feature some of our student chapters who have some tips and tricks of their own. Have any additions?  Let us know!


Outreach Activities for the Theme “Nanotechnology- The Smallest BIG Idea in Science”
– A list of activities you can use to educate others about this year’s NCW theme.

Terrific Science Lab Activities
– Over 300 FREE lab activities for students of all ages, covering levers to forensic science.  They also have NCW activities from past years.

Enjoy complimentary access to these 20 editor selected pieces from the Journal of Chemical Education reflecting this year’s theme, “Nanotechnology: The Smallest BIG Idea in Science”. The collection includes activities, lab experiments, and demos suited especially for outreach.

Chris and Adam in the ACS Demo Lab
– The ACS’ mad yet handsome scientists return to the lab to bring you two great science demonstrations. Enjoy!

Methanol Cannon

ACS Undergrad: Methanol Cannon with Chris and Adam from ACS Undergraduate Programs on Vimeo.

CO2 Jubilee

ACS Undergrad- CO2 Jubilee from ACS Undergraduate Programs on Vimeo.
(We’ll have more on the CO2 Jubilee next week).

Coins for Cleaner Water
– Finally, we like to give back whenever possible. This year, as a continuation of our Pennies for PUR IYC event (which raised $18,000 for the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program of Procter & Gamble), we’re rolling out Coins for Cleaner Water. Your donations pay for water purification packets to be distributed where they are needed. Check out this video at around 1:25-

Check out our Coins for Cleaner Water website. And if you’d like a packet for demonstration purposes, you can request one.


The NCW Website
– The main source of NCW resources and suggestions. You can also find an NCW event near you, or contact your NCW coordinator.

The NCW “Chemistry Activity Patch (shown at right)
– Groups such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H Clubs, Campfire USA, YMCA, and Boys and Girls Clubs who encourage and participate in science and chemistry activities can earn a Chemistry Activity Patch by meeting NCW requirements. Consider contacting local youth groups to become involved with an NCW event at your school!

NCW Resource Page
– Includes the NCW Poem Contest, Science for Kids activities, and career profiles to show students where a chemistry degree can take them.

Kids & Chemistry Activity Kits
-If you can’t find chemicals for demonstrations, you can find resources for a number of great demonstrations at the Kids and Chemistry Page.

You can also follow the NCW Twitter Feed @ACS_NCW. And while you’re at it, check out what the Northeastern Region is doing, featuring ACS President- Bassam Shakhashiri!

Take advantage of these resources and activities, stay tuned to our blog for more great NCW ideas, and most importantly, get involved with NCW activities in your community during one of the most important weeks of the year for chemistry!

My Experience at the ACS Leadership Institute

Sandi Dang spends the majority of her time studying chemistry and mathematics at TCU, and is also the NCW coordinator for the Dallas-Forth Worth Section of ACS. During her spare time, she is a crew member at Trader Joe’s. Whenever she is not working or studying, she spends her time looking at Corgis and pandas online, eating, and catching up on Big Bang Theory. The future is still an open book.

I am a part of all that I have met.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

When I first heard about the American Chemical Society (ACS) Student Leadership Award in the fall of 2011, I was your typical junior chemistry major at Texas Christian University (TCU).  At the time, our student chapter barely had its feet on the ground.  We were still in the midst of organizing our first collaboration project with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, trying to retain members, and hosting a seminar speaker. I wasn’t even sure I could qualify for the Leadership Award, but I figured, why not, and I threw my name into the hat.

I’m glad I did. My decision to apply and attend has had a profound impact on my life and has contributed to my development as a student, chemist, leader, and individual.  Because I was awarded the Leadership Award, I met an amazing group of people, contributed to ACS Undergraduate Programming, and learned valuable professional skills. And it all started with an application and a drive across town.

One of the many perks of receiving the award is the all-expense-paid trip to the ACS Leadership Institute. I didn’t get the full benefit of this perk, as I was 5 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, but I met student winners from New Jersey, New York, Boston, and even Puerto Rico who did. I got to stay in the hotel, where the Institute was being held, which gave me the opportunity to meet and spend time with many other student leaders outside of the Institute.

From left to right: Marisa Sanders, The College of New Jersey; Sandi Dang, Texas Christian University; and Christine Dunne, Northeastern University

The first morning of the Institute, I woke up feeling both excitement and anxiety. As the first person at TCU to win this award, I didn’t know what to expect. I drove to Fort Worth with a suitcase filled with business casual attire and a “just in case” outfit. I walked into the hotel, checked in, and just tried to absorb it all. For the first time in a long time I felt like a little kid again; I was going to be around people who are incredibly influential in the chemistry world.

I dropped my suitcase off in my room and took a big bag filled with my camera, phone, notepad, pen, and pencil downstairs to meet with all of the student leaders who were attending the Institute. I walked into the room, and that’s when it really hit me that, as one of the 17 students to attend, I was really fortunate. I found my seat near the front of the room, where I met Marisa from New Jersey, Sarah from Pennsylvania, and Jodi Wesemann from the ACS Education Division. We chatted over a light lunch, and then the Institute started in earnest.

Our schedules were filled with events such as the local section session, the undergraduate session, a leadership course, and networking sessions. During the local section session, I met with the 2012 Chair Elect of the Dallas-Fort Worth Section, Moji Bonakdar, a chemist and Senior Director at Alcon. We discussed the role of student members participating in local section activities and how we could work together to better serve both undergraduates and the local section. Moji and I continue to stay in touch to share opportunities to raise awareness of chemistry in our community.

The most interesting, and what I found to be the most helpful, sessions were the undergraduate sessions. During these sessions, we discussed what we wanted to see in inChemistry magazine, how we could get involved with the publication, issues that each of our student chapters encountered, and possible solutions to our obstacles. For example, one very common issue faced by student chapters is funding for outreach activities. Collectively, the 17 of us came up with a ideas for funding, including sales of goggle, baked goods, and T-shirts. In addition, we discussed another common student chapter obstacle, member retention. Together, we compiled a list of tangible activities to help retention, which included providing members the opportunity to work with children, creating new chapter leadership positions to give members a sense of ownership, and recognizing members at the end of the year with an awards banquet. Our brainstorming gave all of the student leaders a better sense of direction and purpose for our respective chapters.

ACS Student Leader Award Winners, with Undergraduate Programs Staff

During these sessions, I realized the value of the ACS and the resources that ACS provides to its members. Prior to the Leadership Institute, I joined ACS because I felt like it was something that was required of me. But thanks to the Leadership Institute, I understand that my membership in ACS is an investment. It allows me access to various resources, including demonstrations, professional development, and funding. Little did I know that ACS has an entire committee dedicated to professional development, providing personal career consulting, mock interviews, and various development courses. In addition, being a part of ACS gives me access to databases of research opportunities, various technical divisions, and many other helpful resources that I can’t even begin to list.

Another really valuable skill I learned at the ACS Leadership Institute was how to effectively network. I previously attended a networking seminar co-hosted by my student chapter and career services at TCU. So while I had some idea of what to expect when it came to networking, the idea was still an intimidating one. My first few conversations were extremely awkward, but I got better with each person I talked to. By the time I talked to ACS President Elect- Marinda Wu, I was much more comfortable, and we had a delightful conversation.

The entire weekend felt like a blur; I experienced and grew so much, both personally and professionally, in just two days. Prior to the Leadership Institute, I was afraid to introduce myself to someone I didn’t know. I was afraid to delegate tasks to others. I was not confident collaborating with others. Now, I confidently introduce myself to others, and I am a master of collaboration. Moreover, the connection I made at the Leadership Institute with Moji Bonakdar allowed me to become heavily involved with our local section, and as a result, I am the National Chemistry Week Coordinator for the Dallas-Fort Worth Section.

To this day, I keep up with all of the 2012 winners through Facebook. We even caught up with each other at a recent ACS National Meeting. Whenever I look back on my experience at the Leadership Institute, a quote from Conan O’Brien comes to mind: “No one in life gets what they thought they were going to get, but if you work hard and you’re really kind, amazing things will happen.”

If I could give anyone advice, it would be to apply for this award! The deadline is November 2, 2012. Apply today!

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