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November 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 47
CENEAR 80 47 pp. 54-58
ISSN 0009-2347


CHOOSING A GRADUATE PROGRAM
Undergrads considering advanced degrees can benefit from straightforward, practical counsel

LINDA RABER, C&EN WASHINGTON

The question of continuing their education with the goal of obtaining a master's or a Ph.D. degree is faced by most students who are completing a chemistry program at the bachelor's level. And many take the plunge into a Ph.D. program--easily the most rigorous educational experience of their lives. Virtually everyone who is graduate school-bound wants information on how to choose a graduate program in chemistry. C&EN contacted graduate admissions officers at several schools, and their advice follows.

Actually, the advice given by graduate school admissions directors is pretty straightforward: Know yourself and what you want, make sure you really want to put five or so years of your life into a research-intensive arena, and choose your adviser carefully. It's a process of self-discovery that many chemists take.

According to the American Chemical Society 2001 Starting Salary Survey, almost half (47%) of bachelor's graduates say they will continue with full-time studies. Taking away the number of chemistry majors who go to medical school, a very large proportion of chemistry grads head right into a chemistry Ph.D. program.

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COLLABORATION University of Utah graduate students David Fox (left) and Casey Watson in Dale Poulter's laboratory.
UNIVERSITY OF UTAH PHOTO
For some, the pull of graduate education is an unquenchable desire to learn more about some particularly fascinating aspect of their chosen field. For others, it is a surefire way to enhance their career opportunities and substantially increase their lifetime earning power.

And it works. According to the same survey, for all chemistry master's graduates, the median starting salary was $48,000. For Ph.D. graduates, the median starting salary was $70,000. The salary offered to bachelor's degree graduates was $33,600. Further, the relationship between educational attainment levels and salaries carries throughout a chemist's career. According to the ACS 2002 Salary Survey, for those with a Ph.D., the median annual salary was $85,200; for M.S. graduates, $68,500; and for B.S. graduates, $58,000.

ACS data also suggest that, for chemists at least, the higher the degree, the more satisfied they are. ACS, in its report on career satisfaction for chemists under age 40, "Early Careers of Chemists," notes that "satisfaction with education varies by degree. Chemists with doctorates are the most satisfied with their education. Almost 40% of chemists with doctorates are very satisfied with their educational experience, whereas only 22.6% of chemists with master's degrees and 28.3% of chemists with bachelor's degrees are very satisfied." Boiling a complex issue down to satisfaction and money may not be graceful, but, nevertheless, it seems to work.

GRADUATE SCHOOLS are "looking for students who really love chemistry," says Dominic V. McGrath of the University of Arizona, Tucson. "I don't think anyone would disagree that success and happiness in the profession is strongly related to a genuine love of the discipline. We try to provide an environment here in which people with a love for chemistry can develop into creative, independent scientists in their own right," he says.

So how to choose well? Here's some advice C&EN has assembled for undergraduates nearing that decision point.

Preparation for graduate school should start well before you get your bachelor's degree. In addition to taking a range of courses spread over all of the many subdivisions in chemistry, it is helpful to take as many mathematics courses as you can. The ACS-approved curriculum, if offered at your undergraduate school, is an excellent start.

The admissions committee at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), emphasizes getting involved in research as early as possible--as a sophomore or a junior--although it's never too late. "Beyond enhancing your application's viability at the top schools, having research experience will help you know whether this lifestyle is what you want for the next several years," UIUC advises.

David E. Bergbreiter at Texas A&M University's chemistry department says, "Summer research in a formal program at a different school can also be of benefit, since success in that type of program can guarantee admission to that program and provide students with a basis for comparison when they look at other programs."

Some bachelor's degree chemists pursue a master's degree. Typically, this has not been considered a terminal degree for chemists. At times, it has been regarded as a "consolation prize" for those who couldn't successfully complete the Ph.D. program.

But that doesn't seem to be true. In 1998, the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT) conducted two brief surveys about master's programs in chemistry and got some interesting information. In its survey, CPT found that 63% of Ph.D. schools admit students specifically for master's degree programs. It reported, "A rough estimate based on our overall data is that more than three-quarters of the master's degrees awarded in chemistry in the U.S. go to students who entered graduate school seeking that degree."

Specialized master's degree programs have sprung up to address specific needs of focused students. A master's degree will take one or two years to complete. Jodi Wesemann, who heads the ACS Higher Education Department, notes that "while the numbers are small, master's-specific connections to industry can be attractive to both students and to industry."

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IN THE SHOP Janice Kyle makes repairs in the glassblowing shop at Utah.
UNIVERSITY OF UTAH PHOTO
MOST STUDENTS pursuing graduate studies in chemistry, however, head straight for the Ph.D. And graduate recruiters were happy to give advice on how to apply.

"We prefer not to think of applying to graduate school as a game that requires much strategy," UIUC says. "Your admission decision will depend mostly upon your course work, undergraduate research, and letters of recommendation."

However, the committee adds, if you are on the "bubble" for admission, "a strong statement of purpose can make a significant difference, so it pays to put effort into the statements and gear them specifically to each school. A good explanation of what type of research you want to do can go a long way to convincing an admissions committee of your motivation and desire to complete the Ph.D. Think of this application statement as your last chance to express your convictions and sell yourself, and to present any additional information that may be relevant."

Bear in mind, though, that there is no substitute for accomplishment. "Those with documented research experience, good grades, and good GRE scores are most likely to be accepted by the programs of their choice," says David J. Hart of the chemistry department at Ohio State University.

Morton Z. Hoffman, professor of chemistry at Boston University, is well known at ACS national meetings for his seminars on graduate school. He tells C&EN that "there is a great demand among graduate schools for good, domestically educated chemistry undergraduates. Those with chemistry grades in the 'B' range should not have difficulty being accepted by some of the schools of their choice." Cornell University's David B. Collum cautions potential graduate students not to underestimate their own worth. "It is a ferociously competitive recruiting market out there," he says.

All graduate school recruiters contacted by C&EN caution against applying to only one program. Bergbreiter at Texas A&M goes further: "I would advise students to look broadly at graduate schools, to look at schools outside their region of the country. I would suggest applying to multiple schools." This is not as economically prohibitive as it might seem, since many schools will waive application fees, he adds.

BUT THE QUESTIONS of where you should apply and where you should accept admission are intensely personal. And there are a lot of questions. Should you go to a large school, a small one, a famous one, an up-and-coming one? There appears to be no right answer to this question. The diversity of programs is substantial.

"Students from small undergraduate schools should not be fearful of graduate programs at large universities," Hart says. "The largest of graduate programs is smaller than the smallest of undergraduate schools. Classes are small and so are student/teacher ratios," he says.

According to a 1997 CPT survey of Ph.D. programs in chemistry: "There is a tremendous range in the size of Ph.D. programs--from three to 338 students for the 155 reporting schools. The 30 largest schools enroll about half the chemistry Ph.D. students. There are also many smaller Ph.D. programs with about 50 institutions reporting fewer than 50 students. The average size of the program is 84 students, and the average size of the graduate faculty is 22."

Because many undergraduate students haven't been around long enough to have the knowledge base from which to make qualitative judgments about schools, UIUC suggests selecting a graduate school based on the science. "All other factors are secondary," it says. UIUC encourages students "to trust reputation and rankings to make your shortlist" of schools to apply to.

Arizona's McGrath cautions, though: "Don't rely too much on rankings. They are usually based on reputations--and reputations die hard. While a department may have had its glory years, several faculty retirements or departures could devastate a thriving program. It's better to rely on the facts: Who's active and publishing now? Who's doing research that really excites you?"

Boston's Hoffman suggests students follow these steps for finding out about graduate schools:

  • Speak to your professors, current and recent graduate students, and visitors to your institution, particularly in your areas of interest.
  • Get up-to-date information; reputations take a long time to get established or lost.
  • Attend graduate school fairs at ACS national and regional meetings. Check out the websites of the schools in which you are interested. Request and read the brochures and catalogs.
  • Visit, if possible; many schools have preadmission travel funds. Don't be afraid to ask.
  • Check the chemical literature for references to the research work of professors with whom you might want to study. Be sure to look up the most recent work.

While graduate school reputation plays a role in your future career, a much more important factor is the reputation of--and educational environment provided by--your research adviser," McGrath tells C&EN.

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TEACHING Most graduate students in chemistry put in time as teaching assistants, often as part of their Ph.D. tuition support.
UCLA PHOTO
A GREAT RESOURCE for finding out about the research activity and interests of graduate programs in chemistry is the "Directory of Graduate Research," or the DGR (see page 48). This annual compilation of CPT is invaluable. The DGR lists programs and faculty members individually with references to their most recent publications and other pertinent information. In addition to networking and talking to undergraduate professors, the DGR can be a gold mine for a student seeking an adviser.

Virtually all of the graduate programs contacted by C&EN for this story had some good advice for potential graduate students. The most important piece of advice from most of the schools had to do with choosing a graduate adviser. That's because, they agree, the most important factor in your graduate experience will be the person who will direct your Ph.D. thesis research.

In its report "Preparing for Graduate School in Chemistry," the ACS Department of Career Services advises students "not to rush into this academic liaison, but first talk with other students as well as with several professors whose work interests you and whose personality and research group seem to be compatible with your goals and learning style."

"Talking with faculty about their research often highlights interesting aspects you don't come across in the brochure," UIUC tells students. "Talking with students will give you a sense of what your life would be like if you choose to go there."

And it is important to be flexible and have some backups--no matter which program you choose. Graduate school is a sort of apprenticeship program, and as a graduate student, your primary interaction is with your adviser, not the school itself. Thus, having some choice in advisers is very important.

"I generally advise students to try to find a school where there is more than one person they are interested in working with," Bergbreiter says. "Some years, some groups at some schools fill up and a student might have to choose someone other than the person who was their nominal first choice."

And, while people count more than infrastructure, facilities also matter. "Look at the condition of the laboratories, the availability of spectrometers, machine shops, and libraries," UIUC advises. "This is especially important if your research requires state-of-the-art instrumentation, which is true more often than not."

Collum at Cornell says that "suggestions by peers that it is important to work for politically connected senior investigators should be viewed with great skepticism." He advises that "when choosing an adviser, give the assistant professors a very close look. They offer exceptional opportunities to do superb chemistry in a nurturing environment." He adds, "The first wave of students graduating from these young, vibrant groups are often truly exceptional."

Once you've started your course of study, Collum adds, "read, think, work on original ideas, and most importantly, stay focused. Graduate school is a distinctly exponential learning curve. This is a rare, if not unique, opportunity for growth that should be taken very seriously."

FUNDING FOR graduate study is also an important consideration, though those contacted by C&EN say that it shouldn't be your first criterion for choosing a graduate program. Students in Ph.D. programs are supported in a variety of ways. The schools surveyed by CPT in 1997 were asked what fraction of graduate student support was in the form of teaching assistantships, and the average of the reporting schools was 50%. "The average percent support from faculty-generated research funds was 38%; university or departmental fellowships, 7%; and government fellowships, 4%; with other sources making up the differences. The departments reported that an average of 7% of the total graduate student support comes from industry."

Graduate schools in chemistry are ready to compete for the best students. If a Ph.D. is in your future, you will find it an incredible growing experience that will set you firmly on a satisfying career.

UIUC speaks for many graduate schools when it tells C&EN that it "is looking for students who are technically excellent, enthusiastic about science, and anxious to be pioneers into novel areas of research. These students are good communicators, interact with their colleagues, and yearn for new perspectives and ideas. They understand that the pursuit of knowledge is life's highest aim. They are giddy about being paid to think, learn, and contribute to the greatest collective achievement in modern history."

SPECIAL REPORT

INTRODUCTION - GRADUATE EDUCATION AND BEYOND

GRADUATE SCHOOL
Tips on choosing the right place for future study.

MENTORING
One professional association for minorities shares its approach.

TENURE TRACK
Writing a successful application requires attention to detail.

RUNNING A LAB
Two foundations help young faculty gain necessary skills.



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Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society



 
Special Report

GRADUATE SCHOOL
Tips on choosing the right place for future study.

MENTORING
One professional association for minorities shares its approach.

TENURE TRACK
Writing a successful application requires attention to detail.

RUNNING A LAB
Two foundations help young faculty gain necessary skills.

Related Stories
Employment Outlook 2003
[C&EN, Nov. 25, 2002]

Salary Survey
[C&EN, August 5, 2002]

2001 Starting Salary Survey
[C&EN, Mar. 18, 2002]

C&EN Education Archive

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