A m e r i c A n c h e m i c A l S o c i e t yGraduate SchoolReality Check 4 Prepare Yourself for the Challenges You Will Likely Face 4 Receive Tips and Strategies from Faculty and Graduate Students 4 Tap into ACS Resources
strategies for success eciding to go or not to go? work with prospective students, so drop them The first step, of course, is deciding if graduate a note! Sending form school will further your career goals. This will e-mails to faculty, how- depend on what you see as your long-term career ever, should be avoided. plans. If you think that academia is in your future, then a Ph.D. is a must. If your career plans are focused What should on entering the chemical industry, you might take a job right after completing your B.A. or B.S., but an advanced go into your degree may become important for potential advancement. applications? In many industrial settings, only those with advanced Luckily, most applications for graduate degrees will be considered for management tracks and schools are about the same, so you will be able to recycle other leadership roles. some of what you prepare for every school. Pay attention to Let’s assume that, whatever your reasons may be, you do the deadlines… and APPLY EARLY! Why? Many programs want to go to graduate school. Now what? You probably have have additional fellowship funds to award, depending on many questions, and a limited amount of time to plan your the program, and when you apply early you have a better way forward. If so, here are a few answers and pointers to chance of being considered for these fellowships. At the help you through the process. How to choose which schools to apply to The Once you have decided that graduate school is part of the career path for you, the next Graduate step is to pick the schools to which you want 1 to apply. But how should you choose? At present there are approximately 170 schools that offer advanced degrees in chemistry. Depending on your situation, many factors School may influence where you consider attending school, including family obligations or work constraints that place geographical restrictions on you (e.g., your company is paying for you Process to attend a graduate program, etc.). However, the single most important factor in deciding those schools to which you should apply is the research focus (or foci) of the fac- ulty. For each school you consider, you need to ask: “Are the faculty engaged in the type of By James Batteas research that I am interested in doing?” If you are not sure what area of research you want to For many students, the prospect of going pursue, then probably a bigger school is better to graduate school can be daunting. for you, since it will tend to offer a broader range of opportunities. Here I discuss some simple guidelines to How do you find out what faculty at the help you through the process of making schools are investigating? Go to graduate school fairs, carefully look through depart- decisions about graduate school. mental websites, and call or e-mail the depart- ment to request information on their graduate programs and faculty. It is good to do your homework at this stage, because once you decide to go to graduate school, you (and the school) are making an approximately five-year commitment. You want to make sure you are going to the very least, apply on time. Graduate recruiters and admissions place that is best for you. By the way, it also wouldn’t hurt committees may regard late applications as a lack of com- to e-mail the specific faculty members with whom you are mitment or organization on your part, and these intangibles interested in working. Most faculty love to talk about their may make your application less competitive.
The Graduate School Process continued Fees Personal statement Be prepared to pay, as you will encounter fees Every school will require you to submit a per- along the way. Each time you take the Graduate sonal statement, in which you should succinctly Record Examination (GRE) costs around $140, for describe what you have done to prepare for gradu- example. On top of these costs, there may also be appli- ate school. You should take this part of the application cation fees for the graduate programs you are considering, very seriously. Here are a few tips for success: meaning that applying to six or seven schools could cost you Articulate your personal goals. Explain to the admissions as much as $600! If you can’t pay the fee, ask the program if committee why they should make you an offer to come to their the fee can be waived or reduced. It never hurts to ask. school. Describe your career goals and what area(s) of research you wish to pursue. Take the time to outline the relevant Grades coursework you have taken to prepare for advanced studies. Almost all graduate school applications will require Describe your undergraduate research. Many places will transcripts from ALL schools you have attended. not strongly consider applications from students with no That includes that the local community college where research experience, so if you have not been involved in you may have taken classes while home for the summer. research yet, do so. This research can come in many forms, Make sure that you request all of the transcripts in time to ranging from participating in research at your home institution, arrive by the application deadline (or earlier), as applications to going away for the summer to participate in a Research may be considered incomplete without them, and thus not get Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) program. The National reviewed. In terms of grades, most graduate programs require Science Foundation maintains a list of schools with active a B average or better (3.0/4.0) to gain admission. Your applica- REU programs on its website. Also, many schools, companies, tion will be especially strengthened by good grades in your and national labs offer summer programs that are internally upper division courses. In fact, many places consider these supported, so check with them. No matter how you get it, grades more heavily than those in your first two years. research experience is a must for getting into a good graduate2 school. In your personal statement, you should relate your Entry exams overall experience to the committee. You will also need to submit scores from the Explain your extracurricular activities. In addition to GRE. Check to see which exams are required by research, if you have been involved in clubs or other activities the schools to which you are applying, and learn their that have allowed you to develop leadership skills (e.g., serving typical score requirements for admission. Not all schools as secretary of your local ACS Student Affiliates chapter, etc.), require the subject test, but some do. Plan accordingly to have this is also useful to describe to the committee. these exams completed in enough time for the scores to be Research the faculty. Take the time to tell the admissions reported before the application deadline. committee under which faculty members you are most If you are applying for admission in the fall, you should really interested in studying. This shows the committee that you target taking these exams by September of your senior year. have done your homework and that you have thought about If you are applying for spring admis- what you want to do. As a rule of thumb, you should be sion (i.e. January or February), then sure there are at least three faculty members whose research you will need to have your GREs interests you, since admission to a doctoral program does not done by May of the year you guarantee you admission into a particular faculty member’s graduate to receive your group. scores in time. Check with the schools Letters of recommendation to which you are Most programs will request at least three letters applying to see of recommendation in support of your application. whether they will These letters should come from faculty or employers consider applications who can speak to your experience in chemistry. You for spring admission should include letters from faculty who have taught you in (some may not). If class or with whom you have done research. Make sure that you are an international you ask for these letters at least a month in advance. student, you may also Take the time to sit down with any letter writers who don’t be required to submit know you well to discuss your career aspirations. Prior to scores for the Test of your meeting, give them a copy of your current résumé. If English as a Foreign you don’t have a résumé, learn how to create one now. As Language (TOEFL). you begin to enter the professional workforce, an up-to-date Again, you want résumé is a must, and many schools have services to help you to make sure that prepare one (see the sidebar about resources, below). This will these scores are help your letter writers provide a more meaningful assessment reported in time of your background and goals to the admissions committee. im AG eS for the applica- Also, don’t hesitate to bug your letter writers and remind them erJ uP it tion deadline. of upcoming deadlines.
Check out these resources from ACS the school have gone after graduation, especially the students of the faculty with whom you are interested Graduate Education in Chemistry— Information about in working. resources, planning for graduate work in chemistry, and more! www.acs.org/education and click on Graduate Education. Understand the program requirements DGRweb— The ACS Directory of Graduate Research, an online How many and what types of courses resource on faculty and their research programs in institutions will you need to take? Since doctoral throughout the U.S. and Canada. www.acs.org/DGRweb programs are research-intensive, it is Experiential Programs in Chemistry— A one-stop source unlikely that you will take many classes, but for information on summer research, internship, and co-op requirements vary from school to school. Are there opportunities. www.acs.org/epic cumulative exams or oral exams that you will need to pass? Many programs require students to teach a minimum number of courses. What is that require- ment for the programs in which you are interested?Which school is right for you? While requirements vary, you will find that much ofIf you are lucky enough to be admitted to the overall workload is generally comparable, withmore than one program, then you face the probably the largest variations coming in course-tough task of narrowing down your options work. Talk with several students at the school whento one program. How do you decide? you visit, and see how they feel about their course/ workload. Individual impressions of the school can Visit the school vary, so get a balanced opinion. If you hear the JuPiterimAGeS Many programs will offer same things from several people, then the informa- 3 you the opportunity to visit tion is probably more reliable. their school (and will pay for it) either during a visitation weekend Carefully evaluate your offeror set of weekends. If you can’t make one of the scheduled Most places will make you an offer thatdates, ask about individual visits. You should take advantage includes a teaching and/or a research assistant-of this, as it gives you the chance to see the school and meet ship. To fairly compare offers between schools,with faculty and students to determine if you can see yourself you must determine what your take-home payin that program for the next five years. will be, as well as what tuition and fees you will need to pay. This is not the time to geographically restrict yourself. At many places these costs may be waived; at others, tuitionGraduate school can be an opportunity to live somewhere dif- and fees are paid by the students, while the schools pay theferent for a few years; and even if you don’t like a particular students a higher salary. Don’t be fooled by hidden costs!area that much, you will only need to be there for a finite What types of health benefits are available to you as a student?time. Ultimately, of course, just as with your decision about What is the local cost of housing?where to apply, you need to ensure that there are faculty All this being said, don’t let the stipend be your sole guidemembers at the school with whom you would like to work. By in choosing between schools. You are not going to graduatevisiting, you will have the chance to meet with these faculty school to make money immediately; rather, you are goingand their students to get the ‘real scoop’ on what it is like to there to enhance your future career and overall earning poten-go to graduate school there. tial. Everyone in graduate school ‘lives on peanuts’— so ulti- mately, you need to be working with faculty whose research Evaluate your career support interests match your own. When you visit, take a close look at the facili- Once you have decided, sign your offer on the dotted line ties that the program offers. You want to make and prepare to work hard. The next step is choosing a research sure that you will have access to the equipment you advisor, a process that is addressed in this issue’s editorial by need to conduct your research in a timely fashion. For Marjorie Caserio. Earning an M.S. or Ph.D. is not easy, but itexample, if you are going to be doing a fair amount of synthe- will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your earlysis, find out whether you will need to send your samples out career. Revel in the challenge! iCfor NMR or X-ray diffraction or mass spectrometry analysis, orwill be able to have such procedures done on site. In terms of your long-term career goals, try to evaluatehow the program assists students in obtaining jobs once theygraduate. See if they offer career assistance such as helping stu-dents prepare résumés, and whether companies actively seek James Batteas is an associate professor of chemistrystudents from the program for employment. Does the school and graduate recruitment coordinator at Texas A&Mhave on-site interviews? Find out where the graduates from University in College Station, TX.
Ck to iS strategies for success trategies ck isto Personal S at t ement4 Pointers By HoLLy c. GAede RITING A PERSONAL STATEMENT RITING A PERSONAL STATEMENT write about participation in thehavingNational Chemistry Olympiad Science Talent Search. However, U.S. a great high school AP can be the mostthe most daunting part of preparing can be daunting part of preparing a or the Intel Science Talent Search. However, having aand high chemistry teacher isn’t all that unusual (thank goodness!) great a graduate school application. Your grades and graduate school application. Your grades and GRE school APabout the teacher than it does about you. (thank good- says more chemistry teacher isn’t all that unusual scores areGRE numbers, just numbers, but the personal just scores are but the personal statement is, ness!) and says more about the teacher than it does about you. well, personal. The whole purpose personal. The whole purpose of statement is, well, of this statement is to reveal Describe your research experience this statement is to reveal something about you. Discuss your research experience. Most admissions commit- something about you. Describesee that you understand the nature of research. Your aim should be to reveal not only that you are well- tees want to your research experience Your aim should be to reveal not only that you are well- prepared for graduate school in general but also that you are Discuss your researchprovide you with basic laboratory skills, While coursework can experience. Most admissions committees prepared for graduate school in generalfor which you are applying. particularly suited to the program but also that you are inchemistry it rarely gives you a good idea about the (sometimes frustrating) particularlywhile you can have a common essayyou are applying. So, want to see that you understand the nature of research. While So, suited to the program for which framework that you pace of research. No program wants to admit a student who while you can all your applications, you framework your applications use for have a common essay must tailor that you use for coursework can provide you with basic laboratory skills, it rarely is going to quit the first time an experiment doesn’t work. For all yourfor each school. Because of the customization that’sfor each applications, you must tailor your applications required, gives you aundergraduate research (sometimes frustrating) pace of this reason, good idea about the is practically a prerequisite school. preparing of goodcustomization that’s required, preparing Because a the statement takes some research, which in turn research. No program wants to admit a student whocangoing to for graduate school. Fortunately, undergraduate research is a good takes time. Begin working on yourwhich in turn takes time. statement takes some research, essays early in the fall semes- quit place in several different settings, including at your this reason, take the first time an experiment doesn’t work. For home ter of your senior essays early canthe fall semester of your 22 working on your Begin year so you in meet the graduate school undergraduatesummer Research Experience for Undergraduates institution, at a research is practically a prerequisite for graduate senior year so youdeadlines without pulling all-nighters that interfere application can meet the graduate (REU), or through an industrial internship.undergraduate research can school. Fortunately, Some students are with your grades. school application deadlines without pulling even lucky enough to have experienced more take place in several different settings, includ- Most graduate school programs ask for a all-nighters that interfere with your grades. statement that describes your research expe- Don’t make the Don’t make the than one your home institution, case, summer ing at of these options. In any at a talk about the overarching goals of the project(s) (REU), Mostrience and school goals in one to two apages. graduate career programs ask for statement your essay, then, you researchtalk a little that describes your need to experi- mistake of beginning and what you specifically for internship. Some mistake of beginning Research Experience or through an industrial Undergraduates contributed. Point In out uncommon skills that you acquired ence and career your pastone tolittle bit about your your essay with a state- through your research luckysoftware, methods,expe- bit about goals in and a two pages. your essay with a state- students are even (e.g., enough to have In your future. However, don’t make theamistake of essay, then, you need to talk little instruments, or reactions that most undergrad- In any rienced more than one of these options. bit about your past and a little bit statement along beginning your essay with a about your ment along the lines of uates wouldn’t havethe overarching goals of the ment along the lines of case, talk about practiced). future. However, don’t make the mistake of the lines of “I have been interested in chem- “I have been interested “I have been interested project(s) and what you specifically contributed. Address how this experience influenced beginning your essay with a statementor “Being a istry ever since I was a little kid” along your desire to attend graduate school.you acquired Point out uncommon skills that If appro- the lines of “I havealways interested in chem- chemist has been been a dream of mine.” in chemistry ever since priate, comment on any obstaclessoftware, methods, in chemistry ever since through your research (e.g., or difficulties Such trite approaches don’t or “Being a use- provide any you surmountedor reactions that most the instruments, to show that you have undergradu- istry ever since I was a little kid” I was a little kid” or I was a little kid” or chemistful information to thedream of mine.” has always been a reviewing committee, perseverance necessary practiced). in graduate ates wouldn’t have to succeed and believe me, they have read it before. Such trite approaches don’t provide any useful Include only extraordinary pre-college sci- “ Being a chemist has in a formal setting orthis experience influenced your “Being a chemist school. If you have presented your research Address how expect to have it pub- information to the reviewing committee, should and desire to attend graduate school. If appropri- ence experiences. For instance, you always been a dream lished, provide theon any obstacles or difficulties appropriate references. has always been a Photo credit believe definitely write about it before. Include U.S. me, they have read participation in the ate, comment Publications and presentations show the com- only extraordinary pre-college science experi- of mine.” you surmounted to show that you have the National Chemistry Olympiad or the Intel ences. For instance, you should definitely dream of mine.” mittee that you can communicate your science perseverance necessary to succeed in graduate inChemistry • NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010 • www.acs.org/undergrad
school. If you have presented your research in Obviously, this section of your essay alsoa formal setting or expect to have it published, requires customization. You are wasting theprovide the appropriate references. Publications admissions committee’s time (and your own)and presentations show the committee that you if your interest lies in bioinorganic chemistrycan communicate your science and that you can but you apply to an institution that doesn’tbring projects to completion. have a single bioinorganic chemist on the fac- If for some reason you haven’t had an under- ulty. Aim to list two or three faculty membersgraduate research experience, you will have to whom you’d like to work for, and highlight theconvince the committee that your other experi- aspects of their research that appeal to you.ences have sufficiently prepared you for gradu- Don’t go overboard, though; you don’t needate school. Possible approaches include writing to rewrite their research brochure. (The admis-about any projects you may have completed sions committee should be quite familiar with iStoCkwithin the context of an instructional laboratory. their own faculty members’ research interests!)Alternatively, you may be able to discuss what Once you have Of course, your research interests should sup-you learned from attending research seminars port your career goals. When your stated goalor conferences. There really is no substitute for explained what you is to work in a pharmaceutical company, theresearch experience, so try your best to get somebefore you begin your application. want to study, you admissions committee will be puzzled if you express interest in working for a gas-phase need to explain physical chemist.Discuss your career goals why you want to Relevant extracurricular activities can be briefly mentioned, especially if used toTalk about your career goals. You may not havefirm career plans yet, but if you are already set study it there. illustrate a specific point. For example, if you completed an honors thesis as a varsityon an academic or industrial career, explain how athlete, you know something about timeyou came to that decision. More importantly, management! Teaching or tutoring experience may show theyou need to explain why you think this program will prepare 5 committee that you’ll be able to handle the first-year teachingyou best for that career path. Make sure your goals align with assignment. Leadership in the ACS student chapter will showthe education the institution provides. For example, if you are that you have an interest in chemistry that extends outside theconvinced that you want to become a professor at a research- classroom or laboratory. Involvement in other activities mayintensive university, it doesn’t make much sense to apply to a show the committee that you are a well-rounded person withschool that sends all of their graduates to industrial careers, or interests outside of science.vice versa. Doing so will show the admissions committee thatyou haven’t done your homework — not a great argument foradmission to a research program! If you are uncertain about your Proofread, proofread, proofreadcareer goals and would like to keep your options open, say so. Once you have written your statement, you should proofreadExplain why you think this institution and their curriculum will it carefully. Essays with grammatical, spelling, or typographicalenable you to do so. errors will reflect poorly on you. Statements that mistakenly refer Tell the admissions committee what type of chemistry you’d to schools other than the one to which you are applying arelike to study. If you want to study, say, bioinorganic chemistry, especially embarrassing and may convince the committee thatexplain how that interest developed. Is it because you really you lack attention to detail. Particularly if you are not a nativeloved both inorganic and biochemistry courses, and see this field English speaker, ask someone else to read your statement. Whileas the perfect marriage of your interests? Is it because you’ve confusing or muddled statements may not sink your chances fordone research or an internship in the area? Have you taken a admission, they certainly won’t improve them! Your college orspecial course in the area? Show the committee that you have university writing center may be able to help you improve yourgiven some serious thought to this question. However, don’t be application essay.worried that you are painting yourself into a corner. Admissions Preparing a thoughtful personal statement can be a usefulcommittees understand that your interests are evolving and that, exercise that helps you clarify your goals and narrow your gradu-even as you apply for graduate school, you still have a semester ate school choices. Remember, the personal statement is just oneof your undergraduate curriculum left to explore. Many students piece of the application puzzle. Once you are admitted, you’ll indicate one interest area (or more) have the chance to visit the campus so the faculty can meet you in an application but ultimately in person. At that point, the admissions committee has already decide to pursue another spe- spe decided that you are a good fit for their program, and you will cialty when they begin gradu gradu- have the chance to decide whether you agree! iC ate school the following fall. Explain program fit Once you have explained what you want to study, you need to Holly C. Gaede. Gaede is the undergraduate advisor explain why you want and a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. to study it there.
strategies for success Navigating the Ups of and Downs Graduate School Eight Common Pitfalls… and How to Avoid Them6 By Burt HollandswortH T HERE IT IS. IT’S SITTING IN YOUR MAILBOX. You glance and see that it’s a thick envelope from the well-respected, top-notch chemistry graduate school that just happens to be your first choice. Your friends make you open it, and after a suspenseful moment you exclaim, “I’m in!” You’ve just experienced your first graduate school high. Of course, there could just as easily be a letter that politely thanks you for your application, mentions that it was an especially talented class of undergraduates that applied this year, and wishes you the best with your other applications. Unfortunately, this is the start of the “ups and downs” of graduate school. Even the best students will experience high and low points in their graduate careers. Here are some of the major pitfalls that you might encounter, and how to avoid them in most cases. PhotoS.Com
Choosing the wrong advisor even though you may be tempted, don’t spend every wakingFour or five years of working for the wrong person will wreak hour in the lab, especially if you are in a more competitivehavoc on your mental condition. Advisors come with all sorts of research group. Working too hard will cause a quick burnout,managerial styles, most of especially if your research is not producing resultsthem learned from their commensurate with your effort. It is not a prettyown Ph.D. and postdoc- sight when graduate students burn out. Theytoral advisors. Try not to become irritable when small things go wrong orpick a Ph.D. advisor solely when they perceive that other group memberson reputation, number are not working as hard. They sometimes becomeof publications, group discouraged and start to work strange hours tosize, or by the advisor’s avoid other people. Schedule some leisure time inresearch description in a your day that will get your mind off of chemistry.catalog. Soon after arriving Join some friends for a regular walk or workouton campus, interview the and encourage each other. It’s a great idea to takeadvisors and get a feel for at least one of the days of the weekend off totheir personalities. Narrow recharge your energy level.your focus to two or three iStoCkpotential candidates, andthen spend a considerableamount of time talking to their graduate students and postdocs. Get a feel for their managerial style by asking questions like,“How often is this person in the lab?,” “How often are groupmeetings?,” and “How much of the day-to-day tasks and trainingare handled by the postdocs and senior members of the group?”If you are the type of person who needs creative space, don’t 7join the group of a micromanager or an advisor who sets strictwork hours. Conversely, if you feel like you need guidance anddirection and will need an advisor who is continually challeng-ing you with new ideas and checking up on you throughoutthe week, then go with someone who will keep you focused.Picking a not-yet-tenured faculty member is one way to ensurethat you will get plenty of personal attention and will be chal-lenged to produce results quickly and often. A personality mis-match with your advisor is a pitfall to avoid from the start. iStoCkHaving too many advisorsAnother situation to avoid is having too Spending too littlemany advisors. It’s not uncommon to workfor two research groups at the same time on time in the laba collaborative project. These collaborations Avoid being the group worka-expose students to different types of experi- holic, but also avoid being thements, give increased access to instrumenta- slacker who spends the leasttion and other equipment and personnel, amount of time in the lab. Putand also give students two potentially strong yourself on a schedule, even ifrecommendation letters instead of one. you are producing steady results.However, in some cases, neither advisor One unfortunate aspect of work-keeps track of “shared” students, and over ing for busy advisors is that theytime the students might fall off the map. If don’t spend much time in theyou choose to work with two Ph.D. advisors, lab. If you are never there whenbe intentional about maintaining a strong they happen to be walkingrelationship with both of them. through the lab, then it is easy to fall through the cracks and out of favor with your advisor.Spending too muchtime in the lab Letting results dictateGraduate school will be the best timeof your life to focus solely on chemical your outlookresearch. Take advantage of the time that Every graduate student goes through both productive and PhotoS.Comyou have to learn new lab skills and enjoythe thrills of frontline research. However, slow times in the lab. The nature
Navigating the Ups and Downs continued of chemical research dictates that there will be reactions that do not work, computations that need to be redone, and instruments that need to be fixed. Most graduate stu- dents will tell you that interesting results typically come in small bursts when several components of the research come together all at once. It’s important to maintain some emotional distance from the process. Celebrate when things go well, but don’t let your research success be the only source of joy in your life. When the results are lagging, keep in mind that a temporary stall in one area of research might yield unexpected results in the future. Think of every unexpected side product or instrumental glitch as another paragraph in your thesis. Painting yourself into a corner Consider adopting the strategy of working on two separate lines of research at the same time. For instance, if your main research problem is the synthesis of a protein inhibitor, do some computational work on the side modeling the active site-inhibitor complex. If your synthetic work hits a snag, at PhotoS.Com8 Most graduate students will Being afraid to say “no” One of the hardest lessons to be learned is how to say, “No.” tell you that There is nothing wrong with politely declining to be a gradu- interesting results ate student council representative, teaching a course as an adjunct, reorganizing your group’s chemical inventory, rede- typically come in signing the group webpage, or running the summer softball league if you need to focus on your lab work. None of these small bursts when activities is inherently bad, but they will all detract from your primary mission in graduate school, which is to contribute a several components body of original scientific work to the field of chemistry. You of the research may be tempted to pad your résumé with all sorts of extra- curricular activities, but remember that no item will carry come together all more weight than a strong recommendation from your Ph.D. advisor. at once. iStoCk Remember, too, that you are not alone— so do not isolate yourself. Build a network. Great places to start are joining least you will have some computational results to fall back the ACS Graduate Students Facebook group or a LinkedIn on. If your computations become frustrating, then maybe group. you can make a breakthrough with an interesting synthetic As you progress through graduate school, keep an open intermediate. In this way, you can avoid putting all of your mind. Don’t become too discouraged when the going gets research “eggs in one basket.” tough, and keep yourself open to suggestions on better ways to carry out your research. Try not to get too high or too low Living an unhealthy lifestyle when the results roll in or dry up. Avoid the common pit- falls…and your graduate school experience will be as enjoy- Hopefully, you will look back on graduate school as the able as it is productive. iC most productive time of your life. For some chemists, gradu- ate school was also the time when they picked up some of their worst habits. Binge drinking or drug use is not a good response to failed research efforts. Drinking may help you forget your research troubles for a night, but they will still be there the next day. Stimulants may help you work all day Burt HollandswortH graduated from The and night on Monday but will cause you to crash on Tuesday. Ohio State University in 2004 with a Ph.D. in Keep a healthy and responsible attitude toward stress relief, inorganic chemistry. He is on the faculty of Harding and surround yourself with friends who do the same. Take University in Searcy, AR, and is a member of the time to exercise and to otherwise take care of yourself. ACS Younger Chemists Committee.
strategies for success Research Projects: The A Matter of Right keNt StAte uNiverSity, GrAduAte SChool of ChemiStry Chemistry By Kelly BoatrigHt sexton est in my success. I received excellent technical advice fromN those around me and began churning out data in no time. As it turned out, the results that I generated were exactly the opposite of what we had anticipated, and my side project 9 quickly became my main project. My research led to a con- troversial hypothesis that eventually became the cornerstone of my thesis and the springboard to several first-author papers in respected journals. Fortunately, my story had a happy ending, and I was able to graduate in just under five years, despite the fact that not one single experiment from my first two-and-a-half years of research ended up in my thesis. But we have all heard horror stories of the seven- or eight-year dissertation and, while you N OT SO LONG AGO, I WAS A GRADUATE can never completely control for this scenario, you can take STUDENT slogging away in the laboratory, with no precautions to avoid having it happen to you. light at the end of the tunnel. The project that I had been working on for the past two years was a high-profile Take care in selecting a lab project that aimed to open up a whole new field for my laboratory. It was the type of project that seems to draw For starters, it is crucial that upon entering graduate school young idealistic graduate students in droves: exciting, risky… you select the right lab. Do your research! Find out how and going nowhere. many graduate students your potential advisor has trained. A big problem was that my project was outside of the core Where are they now? How long did it take them to get their expertise and focus of my lab, with the end result being that Ph.D.s? Give them a call and find out first-hand what they I wasn’t able to benefit from the guidance of the more senior thought of the lab. Of course, if you are considering train- graduate students and postdocs. ing with a new professor, you can’t rely on their past record, Fortunately, midway through my third year in gradu- but you can inquire about their expectations of a graduate ate school, a postdoc in my lab proposed that I work on a student working in their lab. If a potential advisor expects a small side project that would answer some questions that minimum commitment of six years in order to complete your had resulted from his work. At first glance, my new project graduate studies, you should at least know that up front. did not seem to be terribly exciting, but by this point I just wanted to get my hands on publishable data. The thought Evaluate potential projects of standing in front of an almost completely data-free poster Once you are in the lab, you should choose your main proj- at yet another conference, talking about experiments that ect carefully. Ideally, this would involve hours of discussion I planned to do (once I got the project working) was more with your advisor and other members of your lab, during than I could bear. Since I had little to lose except my time, which your technical skills and scientific aspirations are con- I decided to give it a try. sidered and carefully matched with potential projects. With my new side project, I was working in an area that In reality, the scenario may fall somewhere between your fell within the core competencies of my lab for the first time advisor telling you exactly what project to work on, or your in my graduate career. Additionally, the postdoc who had advisor taking off for a few weeks to go on the conference proposed my side project was an advocate with a vested inter- circuit while you figure it out yourself.
Research Projects continued coffee, take them out to lunch. You might be amazed at the new directions that they had in mind for their project that they will not be able to follow up on. An alternative source for side project leads is to read the dissertations of some of the recently minted Ph.D.s from your lab. An additional benefit of a side project is that it will also allow you to retreat from your main project during periods of frustration. When you feel like setting your lab keNt StAte uNiverSity, GrAduAte SChool of ChemiStry notebooks on fire, you can take a break and work on your side project for a few days (or weeks). Sometimes this can allow you the distance to frame the problem in a new way, resulting in a better approach when you return to it. Either way, if you have any choice in the matter, I would advise against selecting a risky project, particularly one that keNt StAte uNiverSity, GrAduAte SChool of ChemiStry is of interest to no one in your lab except you and your advisor. It is great to be independent as a postdoc, but your job in grad school is to graduate! The most efficient way to gain new technical skills and10 develop into an independent researcher is to learn from the more experienced members of your lab. By having a proj- ect that is synergistic with the overall research focus of the lab, you are setting yourself up for success. Take on side projects Make lemonade out of lemons A wise researcher once told me, “You should always be Finally, what should you do if you find yourself stuck with doing 10 things at once — one of them will work!” While I a project that is turning out to be a lemon? I would advise don’t advise overextending yourself, I do think it is a good sitting down with an experienced and objective researcher idea for most graduate students to have a side project or and going over your progress to date. If they can’t advise two. In fact, if you have decided not to heed my warning you on a new approach, perhaps they can help you to regarding risky main projects, having a safe side project is identify portions of your data that could be turned into a even more crucial. In addition to providing a backup plan small publication. It may not be the splashy paper that you should your main project fizzle, a side project can allow had envisioned, but even a modest publication can help you to pick up additional skills and techniques that you you to gain the closure you need in order to move on. might not have encountered otherwise. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses. After a I would recom- point, you do not learn anything more from beating your mend that your head against the wall over and over again with a failing side project be project. Time spent on a project that is later abandoned is one that is almost not wasted. Those years spent laboring at the bench while guaranteed to pro- nothing worked? You were learning how to do research duce publishable and gaining the skills that would allow you to take advan- results; try to pick tage of the opportunity when you finally had a project wor- the “low hanging thy of your devotion. iC fruit” of your lab. Often, a great opportunity for a keNt StAte uNiverSity, GrAduAte SChool of ChemiStry side project is cre- ated by an exiting graduate student Kelly BoatriGHt sexton BoatriGht or postdoc. If pos- Sexton obtained her Ph.D. from the University of sible, spend a few California, San Diego. She completed postdoctoral training at Stanford University in 2005 and is days chatting with currently a Senior Licensing Associate in the Office them before they of Technology Transfer at North Carolina State leave. Buy them University.
strategies for success The Teaching Assistant’s By amy m. Hamlin T HE FIRST FEW WEEKS OF GRADUATE SCHOOL CAN OFTEN BE OvER- whelming; between adjusting to living in a new area, taking several graduate courses, and researching possible Ph.D. advisors, you will probably feel like you are being pulled in too many directions at once. Along with these responsibilities, many 11 first-year graduate students are expected to serve as teaching assistants (TAs) for a laboratory course or discussion section. This responsibility is often one of the top worries for an incoming graduate student. But even though teaching can be stressful, it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your first year. Surviving the first day You may feel nervous about your first day of teaching. With intimidating eyes staring back at you and students expecting you to share your knowledge with them, you may be asking yourself such questions as, “Am I qualified to teach other students?,” “Will the students take me seriously and listen to what I say?,” “Will I be able to answer the students’ questions sufficiently?,” or “Can I take command of a classroom or laboratory when needed?” Yes, it may feel strange to be the one standing in front of the room teaching a course that you took only a year or two ago. But remember, you are teaching a subject that you love and excelled at as an undergraduate. Share some of that enthusiasm with your students! If you take your teaching responsibility seriously, your students will take you seriously. Having a sense of responsibility and being prepared for each class will help you to gain your students’ trust and respect and will give you authority in the classroom. The students have confidence that you know what you are teaching, so have confi- dence in yourself. You do not have to know everything. If you do not know the answer to a question, be honest with the students and admit that you do not know. Have the students help you as you work through the problem, or look up the answer after class and return to the question at the beginning of the next class. The students will probably learn more this way than if you just immediately spit out the answer to them. Learn your students’ names; it will help you to gain their respect and also help you feel more comfortable in front of them. Be sure to prepare the material for each class beforehand; the more CourteSy of NeWberry ColleGe prepared you are, the more comfortable you will feel in the classroom. Brainstorm possible sticking points in your presentation or techniques that students might find difficult during experiments, and be prepared to respond to these situations. iStoCk
The Teaching Assistants Guide to Success continued Seek help Remember that you are not alone as you embark on your first semester of teaching as a graduate student. There are many resources available to you as a new TA, including on- campus teaching resource centers and professors or instructors in the department — but one of your greatest resources will be your peers. Older gradu- ate students were once in your shoes, iStoCk teaching the same course as you. Begin preparing now They can be full of useful advice about There are also several things you can do as an how to handle undergraduate to prepare to teach. The first is to situations you may pay attention to the teaching style of your profes- encounter, such as sors during your courses. Notice how they keep a rowdy classroom the students’ attention and how they respond to or a cheating stu- questions. You can also gain some teaching experi- dent. They can also ence by working as a tutor for other undergradu- iStoCk help you figure out ates. Some colleges will even let undergraduates be how to balance Your first-year classmates can also be TAs alongside a graduate student or professor. your time among a great resource to turn to as you12 your many respon- develop your teaching skills. Strive to be your best sibilities. You might No one is a perfect teacher the first time they step even be able to get up to the board. It is a skill that is continuously an embarrassing teaching story or two out of them. developed over years and years of practice. To be a great Your first-year classmates can also be a great resource to teacher, you must be able to evaluate yourself and adapt to turn to as you develop your teaching skills. Just as you studied what works for your group of students. in groups to understand the material you learned in under- One technique that really helped me was to keep a teach- graduate courses, you can team up with your graduate school ing journal. At the end of every class, I wrote down what classmates as you learn how to teach. Find the other gradu- went well and what I could improve upon. This helped me to ate students teaching the same course as you. Discuss with evaluate what techniques worked for me and what areas of them that week’s material and how best to present it to the teaching I needed to work on. I would use my notes as I pre- students. After each week, sit down together and discuss what pared for the next class to improve upon the weaker points. went well and what you could do to improve. If your section Throughout the semester, I was writing down more and more meets later in the day or week, it is also very helpful to ask things that went well and less about what I needed to fix for someone who has just taught the class about what problems my next class. Using this technique, I saw a great improve- (if any) they encountered. ment in my confidence as the semester progressed. After the first few classes, you will feel more comfortable Solicit feedback in front of your students and you will start to realize how Consider sitting in on other TAs’ sections to observe their rewarding teaching can be. It is very encouraging to help stu- teaching styles. Everyone explains concepts in a slightly dif- dents understand concepts they previously struggled with and ferent way, and by observing different ways of presenting the to watch students gain an interest and appreciation for the same material you will be able to improve your own skills. subject that you love. You will also gain confidence in your They might even have a trick or two that you can use to ability to share your knowledge with others— a quality that help your class run more smoothly. It may also prove helpful will help you greatly throughout your graduate school career. to ask one or two of your fellow TAs to sit in on your class Remember to enjoy teaching: it is a great learning experience, while you are teaching and have them suggest improvements and it can also be a lot of fun. iC that you could make. Your students can also be a great resource. After a few classes, survey your students to ask them what they like and what topics they are still confused about. The students are there to learn, so they will be honest with you about what worked for them and what did not. Each group of students is amy m. Hamlin is a first-year graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, studying unique, so it is important to adapt your teaching style to what synthetic organic chemistry. She received her B.S. best fits your students. Be sure to use a variety of teaching from the University of Detroit Mercy, where she was styles so as not to favor one type of student. involved with the ACS student chapter.
strategies for success n s hi p io s t ela ,H ith R ob bie rk w s, an s O st e d r wo th e s e a rch rI nte g Re se and r n cin Cou a MasteringlBa Graduate School Acrobatics 13 By allison Proffitt W HILE IN CHINA recently, But most successful I saw the Shanghai graduate students Acrobatics Troupe per- recommend striving form. One of the acts for a little more variety was a group of women spinning than that. plates. It was surprisingly beautiful. Chemists with whom I spoke They held up to eight long, thin encourage students to spend poles — four in each hand — each time building relationships, both topped with a whirling plate. With inside and outside of the university, the tiniest flicks of the wrist, they kept all to prioritize healthy activities such as eight discs spinning, all eight poles gracefully exercise or sports when possible, and to splayed, dancing all the while. At the end, lest remain flexible and open with advisors you thought it was all a trick, they dropped for when (not if!) surprises pop up. the plates, then the poles, and everything “One regret I have heard from others came crashing to the ground. and that I also feel is that many people Graduate school can be like that. put their life on hold while in graduate Keeping even two plates aloft and spin- school. In my own case, I purposely wait- ning (your coursework and research) is ed until I had an exit date before I even hard enough! Anything else — including considered marriage and the possibility of relationships, hobbies, and other inter- a family. Now I wish I’d started sooner, ests — seems like an impossibility. If you catch or at least while in graduate school,” says a glimpse of someone doing one chemist. it well, you can’t help but Of course, relationships can be wonder if their plates are tricky. While another chemist notes somehow attached to the that many married graduate students poles. It may be tempting seemed more stable and secure than to dig in and focus solely on their single colleagues, the stresses of coursework and research; after graduate school can undoubtedly strain iStoCk all, that’s what you’re there for. relationships. Not every nonstudent part-