Graduate School in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Related Fields
Who Should Go To Graduate School?
Graduate work is for those who enjoy being in school, who like an unstructured open-ended research environment, and who wish to be in a career requiring an advanced degree.
A person in graduate school doesn't mind postponing the full financial rewards of regular employment. For a full-time student, a master's degree takes 2-3 years, while a Ph.D. usually requires 5 years or more.
A Ph.D. program is designed primarily to help you develop critical thinking skills and creative approaches to problem solving through experience in original chemical research. Doctoral programs typically require oral and written exams and a defense of the dissertation. Only rarely is a master's degree a prerequisite for the Ph.D.
A master's degree may also lead to a rewarding career in chemistry. Most master's programs require a thesis based on laboratory and/or library research; some schools expect only that the master's candidate do satisfactory work in graduate-level coursework. Some programs focus on preparation for specific types of careers.
To be honest, in some occupations a master's degree is not necessarily very helpful. A person with an M.S. will not usually be given the same authority or responsibility that comes with a Ph.D. However, there are industries in which a Ph.D. will make you overqualified for certain types of jobs. Graduate institutions may push you toward a Ph.D. program; be sure that it's in your own best interests to work toward a particular degree.
Since most universities employ graduate students to teach their undergraduate labs, there will always be a demand for good graduate students in the sciences, especially those with strong communication skills. Undergraduates who have chemistry grades in the B range should not have difficulty being accepted by some schools of their choice.
Graduate students in chemistry are nearly all supported financially by their department, often though teaching or research assistantships. Tuition may be waived. Many graduate students in the sciences are able to survive financially on the money they earn while they are in graduate school. (As you compare offers from graduate schools, you do need to keep in mind the cost of living in different areas of the country.)
Most programs have scholarships or fellowships for which you can apply. Your undergraduate record and your test scores (see below) will be critical in determining whether you will be eligible for additional funds.
Preparation for Graduate School
Preparation for graduate school actually begins when you make decisions about your undergraduate curriculum. You are advised to take a wide range of courses in chemistry and related fields. It can be helpful for you to take at least three semesters of calculus. Calculus-based physics is a good choice. Familiarity with computers and knowledge of a foreign language are likely to be useful.
You should plan to take as many upper-level chemistry courses as possible. Many universities use placement exams, administered at the beginning of graduate school, to learn about the strength of your academic preparation. These exams are often given in four traditional areas -- analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry -- and are used to help design the curriculum that you will follow at the beginning of your graduate studies.
An opportunity to do research is an excellent way in begin to learn more about the sort of environment which will exist in a graduate school and to improve your credentials. (Be sure to notice the information at the bottom of this page about summer research programs.) A laboratory job in chemistry or in a field related to chemistry should also be helpful.
Planning for Graduate School
It is very helpful if you can decide on the type(s) of chemistry in which you have the most interest. There are many different specialties one can study in graduate school. Besides the traditional fields of analytical chemistry, biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry, there are also areas such as biotechnology, chemical education, chemical engineering, chemical physics, computational chemistry, environmental chemistry, food science, geochemistry, library science, molecular biology, pharmaceutical chemistry, materials science, polymer science, etc.
Many schools have application deadlines early in the calendar year, but applying early may give you more options and will probably lead to the best offers of financial aid. Do your best to observe the deadlines; however, you should also realize that some schools will continue to accept applicants throughout the spring and summer.
Learning More About Particular Schools
Attend graduate school fairs at national and regional ACS meetings.
Speak to your professors, recent graduates from Jewell, and visitors who give seminars.
Find information about graduate programs on the internet.
Request literature from many schools. Ask about different forms of financial aid for which you will be eligible.
Visit the universities in which you are interested. (Don't be afraid to ask the graduate school to pay for your travel.) Let them know that you are coming so that they can arrange for you to meet faculty members and graduate students in your area(s) of interest.
Check the chemical literature for references to the work of researchers with whom you might want to study.
- ACS Directory of Graduate Research
- Peterson's Guide to Graduate Programs
Rankings of graduate programs (from U.S. News and World Report) are available (but keep in mind that your most important consideration is finding the program which fits you best).
The Application Process
If a program to which you applying requires an essay, you should explain how it fits into your career goals. You ought to indicate an area of interest (see above). You may have even picked out a few professors whose work is especially interesting to you. If you have any previous research experience, you ought to describe your work. [Note that some schools will not consider your application unless you have already demonstrated an aptitude for research.]
A small application fee is often required as are letters of recommendation. Be sure that you have made a good impression on your undergraduate instructors.
Many, but not all, programs require applicants to have taken the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Scores from the GRE's general exam may be requested, and it's possible you will also be subjected to a "subject exam" (specifically testing your background in chemistry).
The verbal and quantitative portions of the general test are similar to other standardized tests that you have taken (e.g.,SAT, ACT). There is also an analytical writing section of the general test that involves the creation of essays.
The subject test (available in fields like chemistry; biology; biochemistry; physics; computer science; mathematics; etc.) will cause you more anxiety.
The general test is given only on computer. The subject exams are available only on paper and are given only three times per year.
GRE subject tests are normally given on Saturdays in fall, winter, and spring.
Go online to register (with a credit card) or to obtain a registration that can be mailed in. Visit the GRE web site to get answers to your questions about the test, practice questions, fees, and much more information.
Choosing a School
Apply to several schools, but realize that each application will cost money and time. Be realistic about your expectations, and apply to several different types of institutions.
More applications are likely to lead to more acceptances and to cause you more difficulty with a choice. Most schools will expect you to have made a decision by mid-April.
Consider the following types of factors when you make a decision:
- Size of department (small, medium, large, immense) and average number of graduate students per faculty member
- Intellectual climate (relaxed, active, intensely competitive)
- Range of research activities (a few areas, broad coverage, everything and more)
- Faculty (young & aggressive, established & secure, old & complacent)
- Location (urban, suburban, college town, middle of nowhere)
- Stipends (How important is money to you? Will you need for your stipend to support you?)
- Prerequisites and other requirements (Are they likely to affect the length of study?)
- Personal reasons (family, wanderlust, cost, ...)
- Geography (near home, far from home, somewhere new)
The very best way in which you can determine whether you will enjoy the graduate-school setting is to spend some time in this type of environment. Many universities offer summer research opportunities for undergraduates. These programs target students who have finished their junior years. However, if you will have completed organic chemistry by the end of your sophomore year and have a strong academic record, you might have a chance to be accepted in the summer before your junior year.
More information about summer programs is available by clicking here.
Even though it's written in a fairly general manner about graduate work in the sciences, a good resource is The Ph.D. Process: A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences, Dale F. Bloom, Jonathan D. Karp, and Nicholas Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1998.
The American Chemical Society's Office of Graduate Education has a web site that ought to be consulted for publications and links to many other resources.
Students with experience at undergraduate research are encouraged to submit information about themselves to the Council on Undergraduate Research registry. Graduate schools pay for access to the information so that they can recruit the students who sound interesting to them.
In Chemistry, a magazine for student affiliates of the ACS, occasionally publishes articles about graduate school. A couple of them can be found here and here.
Also, be sure to check the PhDs.org website.