To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.?

I knew I wanted a Ph.D. since I was in middle school. That’s pretty much the only thing I was ever sure of regarding a career at that point in my life. (In fact, I wasn’t sure about much of anything in my career until my late twenties, but that’s for another post.) When I told my father about my desire for a doctorate, he said, “I think it would be a waste if you didn’t get a Ph.D.”

I had always been a serious student. Learning everything I could was always important to me. Even though I wasn’t considering going into a STEM field, I knew I wanted to take physics and calculus while I was in high school. I figured (incorrectly) that since I wouldn’t continue with science and math that I might as well take advantage of all the information I could receive while the opportunity was available. Ironically it was during that year when I took those courses that I decided to go into chemical engineering. Even though I had balked at the idea when my father suggested it to me, I have never regretted that decision.

When I was in my second year of college, I started seriously considering what I needed to do to start preparing for graduate school. I was fortunate enough to find a faculty mentor who informed me about all the intricacies of applying and surviving grad school. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that tuition is covered for doctoral students in STEM fields, and that they are also provided with health insurance and a stipend for living expenses. Essentially, it was a job. Not a well-paying job, but a job nonetheless that would prepare me for my goal of becoming a professor, which would come with much nicer benefits.

I was lucky to find someone early in my undergraduate education who gave me the low-down on all things grad-school related. However, many people aren’t aware of what is involved in getting a Ph.D. Many aren’t aware of the financial benefits available and assume they have to pay for that education themselves. Others haven’t been told that research is vital to grad school and that should they choose the academic route, they need to join a lab as soon as possible during their undergraduate years. The more experience, the better the prospects, especially since the earlier you start increases your likelihood of being published and/or presenting at conferences.

Personally, I think it’s important for professors and academic advisers to inform students of their options early in their undergraduate careers. Don’t just discuss the various routes a specific major can take. In chemical engineering, we were told we would be valuable in petroleum, materials, pharmaceutical, and environmental fields, each of which have a myriad of subgroups, and that we would even be great candidates for law or medical school. Graduate school was mentioned, but I don’t recall anyone ever laying out the details. And when I started teaching and would discuss options the students had available to them, I realized just how much the university system was failing them.

So I’m going to try to remedy that with some tips and encouragement for all of you, whether you have considered grad school or not. Please, be open-minded about this option that can open so many doors to you.

Who might want to consider grad school?

It’s so true that graduate school isn’t for everybody, but I don’t believe that it’s because someone is incapable of it. To me, it all comes down to desire. If you find something about which you are passionate and are willing to focus most of your time singularly on that subject, then grad school is definitely a viable option for you. One of the best ways to determine this is to join a research lab at your university as soon as possible.

Go to your department’s website and browse through the faculty web pages. They will list their research statements with some background information on current projects in which they are working. If you find something that looks interesting, email that professor and ask to set up a time to meet; express interest in possibly joining their lab.

Warning: Many undergraduate research positions are voluntary. Unless the professor has some grant money specifically for undergraduate research assistants, most likely you won’t be paid for your work (unless you can apply for an undergraduate research grant). However, the long-term benefits supersede the lack of monetary compensation. If you need a paid job, take one on the side. One of the benefits of undergrad research is that it’s flexible around your schedule. It might seem like a lot to take on, but such is the way of college. You’ll have to make a lot of sacrifices in college (and in grad school), but the payoff in the long run is worth it. The trick is to keep your eyes on the end goal and not be distracted by the short-term effects.

What does undergraduate research entail?

This depends greatly on the lab you join and the project you’ve been given. But in general, when you start, you will not be heavily involved in the actual research part of your project. Instead you will spend most of your time learning the techniques and the different safety protocols involved with the lab’s projects. This can take a couple months, but be patient. Eventually, you will have the skills needed to start digging into your own project.

Prior experience is usually not required to work in a lab as an undergrad. As long as you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn, the professor will be happy to have you work in her or his lab.

From the start, you will be paired with a graduate student who will train you and help you start your research. The faculty adviser rarely spends time in the lab and usually only makes brief appearances to check on progress. Most likely you will meet with your adviser in her or his office on a regular basis and attend meetings with the entire group. Both of these typically occur every week, but this depends on the group and the adviser’s schedule.

Warning: Research is an acquired skill. It can take time to develop not only the skills but also the mindset necessary to make progress on answering the question your project asks. In a classroom setting, usually you are given questions for which there is an answer by following certain steps. Research is more open-ended, and there is no guarantee that there is an achievable answer at that time. Some projects fail. It’s not a reflection on you or the adviser; that’s just the way of research: try something, see why it failed, try a different approach or attempt a different problem, and repeat.

If you start in a lab in your second year of undergrad, you increase your chances of being published and/or presenting at a conference, which are HUGE bonus points on grad school applications. While these aren’t required to be accepted into grad school, they will make you stand out as they demonstrate you have developed the skills required to do good research.

What Does It Take to Get into a Graduate Program?

Each graduate program is different, but they all look at research experience, GPA, GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores, work experience, volunteer and leadership experience, and any awards, honors, publications, and presentations. The higher the graduate program ranks, the harder it is to gain admission. For instance, I’ve heard that MIT rarely accepts anyone with a GPA below 3.9. While I have no idea if it’s true, it wouldn’t surprise me since it is one of the best, and therefore one of the most competitive, schools in the world.

Many students worry about their GPAs and/or GRE scores. (FYI, depending on the program you plan to study, you may have to take a program-specific GRE instead of the general one.) While both of those criteria are important, there are other things that can compensate for it, such as solid research in the form of a paper (or a few papers), internships and co-ops, research grants for undergrads, etc. Some of my students even started their own businesses while working on their bachelor’s and I know of one with two patents pending from work she did as an intern.

Actually, GRE scores are starting to be considered less and less. I know in my department some professors studied the relationship between GRE scores and the students’ progress during their Ph.D. studies and found no correlation between the two. In fact, some students who only do average in their coursework as undergrads do some incredible research.

In addition to your GPA, GRE, and experience, you will need to obtain three recommendation letters (preferably from professors, one of whom should be your research adviser) and to write a personal statement regarding your research interests and your plans after graduate school.

Each aspect of your application package is important, but the admissions committee looks at everything as a whole. If your GPA isn’t quite where they’d like it to be but you have done outstanding research, the research will more than compensate for the GPA.

When Do Students Hear from Schools?

If you plan to start in the fall semester, you should hear back from schools anywhere between January and March. The deadline for accepting a school’s offer is mid-April.

The schools that have accepted you will normally invite you to come visit for a weekend (what is referred to as “recruitment weekend”). This will give you an opportunity to see the school, meet some of the faculty, speak to professors whose research seems interesting, learn what the department requires of Ph.D. students, and speak to graduate students about their experiences.

Take advantage of this opportunity, ESPECIALLY speaking with other graduate students. One of the things you will get to know doing undergraduate research is the type of environment in which you’d like to work. You will have a better understanding of what you would like in an adviser (i.e., someone who is more hands on or hands off, someone who is more readily available, someone who invests in mentoring, etc.). Talking with the faculty whose labs you’re considering will help give you an idea, but talking to their graduate students is ESSENTIAL. They can provide you with better details of the actual lab work, lab dynamics, and relationships with the adviser.

Keep in mind that if you do not get accepted into certain schools, do not think it’s because you’re not “good enough.” Perhaps your research interests don’t align with those of the professors who are able to take students. You may want to work for a professor who doesn’t have enough funding to take any students that year. You could have been neck-and-neck with another student and they could only choose one of you. Regardless of what happens, you will find a graduate program that works for you. And if you want to try again, go for it! It’s totally acceptable to wait another year. Find a job or keep doing research in the lab (or both) and have another go at it. Whatever happens, you just have to find a way to make it work.

What Happens in the First Year?

This depends on the school and the department. Pretty much everyone requires first-year students to take courses; most likely you won’t be doing much research that year. Some departments require research rotations (spending time in a professor’s lab for a semester and then switching to another lab the following semester). Some places require you to meet with different faculty and choose an adviser in the first term. Regardless of the requirements, utilize the opportunity as much as you can. You are free to meet with those professors as much as their time allows. Ask questions, read their papers, and, most importantly, SPEAK TO THEIR STUDENTS! Attend their group meetings and get to know the rhythm and vibe of the lab and how the students relate to the adviser.

Some places may require you to teach; others may not. While doing a good job teaching is important, keep in mind that the most important things during your first year are finding the right lab and performing well in your classes. GPA doesn’t normally matter in grad school after the first year, but if you don’t perform well at all, that might be problematic.

In some programs, students are required to do a qualifying exam at the end of the first year. This can come in many forms such as a review of your grades and of your research proposal; or it can include exams in your core courses. While everything in grad school is curved, a C is considered a failing grade. The B range is not ideal (although a B+ is not usually frowned upon). If your grades are averaging at a B or lower, your department may require some extra benchmarks before allowing you to proceed with a Ph.D.

But don’t despair. While graduate-level courses are difficult (and they are insanely difficult), it really is mostly a mind game. The professors are looking for the students who put their all into their work; it’s obvious who’s doing their best and who couldn’t care less. That impression will play a big role in determining your final grade.

Aside from joining a lab, attending classes, and possibly teaching, you will also be encouraged to apply for fellowships (which you can actually do in your last year of undergrad). The professor you are considering to be your adviser should be the one to guide you through that process. It’s very similar to the grad school application process but including an in-depth research proposal.

Beyond the First Year

Most likely you have completed most of your course requirements and can complete the rest at your leisure before you graduate (which will hopefully be no later than your fifth year). In your second or third year, you will have to complete a candidacy exam, which is typically more difficult than the actual dissertation defense. Candidacy usually involves a presentation before your committee (which includes your adviser and other professors that you’ve chosen to provide input to your research). This presentation will be on the work you’ve done to that point and the proposed path you want to take in your research.

After candidacy, you may have some other departmental requirements such as presenting to the department in a seminar or having a data meeting with your committee when you are close to graduating. Your adviser specifies the requirements for your graduation (outside of required coursework). For example, my thesis adviser at Cornell required all Ph.D. students to publish at least five papers before letting them graduate. Different advisers have different requirements, and may even vary their requirements depending on the student’s plans. If a professor has a student who wants to go the academic route, the adviser may require more papers from them. If the student wants to go into industry, two papers may be enough to graduate.

As you can see, there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to graduate school. Because each student is different and each student’s project is vastly different from another’s, there has to be fluidity in requirements and expectations. The most important thing is finding the right program and lab that work with your personality. Some people thrive in super-competitive environments, like MIT. Others prefer a more open environment like the University of Michigan. It all depends on you and what you want. Prestige can be important, but it should not be the main requirement in choosing a school. Finding the topics about which you’re passionate and make you look forward to going into your lab everyday is the most valuable requirement.

Doing a Ph.D. means you are becoming an expert in a very narrow field; that requires a great deal of focus and tenacity and patience. As I said before, some projects fail and the student is required to start over again with a brand new one. Discipline is essential since you will be expected at some point to take charge of your project and decide in which direction it should be taken. (This, however, must be done with your adviser’s approval since she or he is the one funding you.)

This is a very difficult path to take. But it is also the experience of a lifetime.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak


Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Allyson Martinek: Going through the Mud While Wearing a Tiara

As far back as I can remember, I have always listened to Detroit radio. (For those of you who live outside of the Motor City, we pronounce it “de-TROIT,” not “DEE-troit,” regardless of what the Pistons announcer says.) Growing up, I listened to the legendary Dick Purton and Purton’s People on 104.3 WOMC, the “Oldies Station.” When I started college, my best friend and I would carpool to campus (she provided breakfast and I provided coffee) and listen to 96.3 WDVD, co-hosted by the amazing Allyson Martinek.


When I first started listening to the 96.3 morning show, the main reason I and so many other people tuned in every morning was because of Allyson. While I could only hear her, I felt that if we ever met, we would be instant friends. I could tell that she is joyful, caring, and supportive and a die-hard lover of life, all from the easygoing lilt of her voice and her infectious laugh. And when I did finally meet this diva of the Detroit radio waves, I discovered that she is all of that and more.

We met for dinner at the Arbor Brewing Company in Ypsilanti (they have AMAZING pizza and beer, BTW). Initially when we sat down, we chatted about our respective jobs and some of the obstacles we’ve faced, realizing just how similar the difficulties are for women across every profession. Eventually, we segued into discussions about religion and mental health…and didn’t stop for FIVE HOURS! And in that time, I was able to really understand this “unseen woman” who had been my carpool companion for years.

Before she debuted on Detroit radio, Allyson was convinced she would become a high-school English teacher. She had moved from Chicago to a small Michigan town which she describes as being similar to Mayberry and wanted to return to that setting of familiarity. However, as she was taking classes at Specks Howard Broadcasting School in order to transfer credits to Eastern Michigan University, she realized how much she enjoyed working in the media. Three days post-graduation, she received a job as a morning show host at 92.1 the Edge in East Lansing, which went to #2 after her first year of work.

However, like so many people, she still wondered if what she had chosen was really her true calling. Still considering Eastern Michigan, she resigned from 92.1 and sent in a tape to 96.3 to see if she would receive an offer, signaling her to continue in radio. She received a call the same day and was hired on the spot. And for the next twenty years, she worked to bring it to the #1 morning radio program in Detroit, something which Dick Purton himself told her and her co-hosts was now their torch to carry. Unfortunately for Allyson, the torch would leave her hands sooner than expected.

I remember driving to work in July of 2015 listening to the morning show, knowing that Allyson had been on vacation the previous week. But I was curious as to why I didn’t hear her on the show that day. No one had said anything (if she was sick or still on holiday); when I heard that the name of the show had been changed and no longer included Allyson’s name, I googled what had happened and was shocked to find that Allyson had been unceremoniously fired.

I and many other devoted fans were devastated by this news. Why would someone fire the life of the party, the heart and soul of the show? None of it made sense. And then to find out that she was struggling to find another radio job was equally outrageous. It wasn’t until November of 2016 that she was hired for the morning show at 100.3 WNIC.

I think that if I had been a man when I was out of work I would have been back to work immediately; I didn’t get as much credit for what we were doing because I was the woman. How much can a girl contribute? Sometimes the girl contributes everything. [There is] still [an] attitude toward women that they should be eye candy, laughing at your jokes, [etc]. They’re not recognized for being as important as they should be recognized as being. I went through it with TV and radio; not just myself [but] other women. The women were kicking the crap out of it, getting it done, [etc]. [The] decision makers are still mostly men. There’s still an uneven balance to it. How women look, how old women are: these are things they have to deal with; men don’t. Women seem to have a clock and a mirror attached to them.”

However, Allyson, with her typical come-what-may attitude, used every situation as a learning opportunity. During her fifteen months away from radio, she wrote her first book Living on Air, which describes the day she was fired and her struggle to rebound from the devastation, and is currently working on a sequel Welcome to Rock Bottom, a look into the ensuing months after she lost her job. But this has opened new doors for her. She realizes how much she loves to write and is even considering turning her books into an original series for Netflix or Amazon. When life hands you crap, grow a garden!

Her book also discusses how to find the humor in every situation, a code Allyson lives by. “[It’s an] inspiration that we all go through stuff. [We’re] deathly afraid for people to see us struggle and feel like failures; we don’t grow without failures. [We need to] take the stigma out of it [and] find the humor in struggles. [I] couldn’t afford a car [so I was] driving my mother’s minivan; [I] open glove box and find her handicap parking sticker. [I turned] lemon into lemonade because I have the best parking spot everywhere. I could have a woe-is-me attitude. Did I come this far to get kicked in the teeth for nothing? [But it was] supposed to happen. Follow through. [I’m] going through mud right now [but I] do it with a tiara. Be a role model; embrace the crap you’re handed. Show other people that it’s ok to be flawed and be down; we don’t all get to be up all the time.”

I’ve been there. At twenty-one I thought I had my whole life planned: go to grad school; get married; finish my doctorate; get a post-doctoral fellowship; become a tenured professor; have kids. I didn’t plan for a failed engagement, a nervous breakdown, a diagnosis of anxiety, an [incorrect] diagnosis of depression, a master’s degree, three years of teaching, a back-stabbing colleague, and a [correct] diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But I also didn’t plan to learn how strong I am, that my work at Cornell is leaving an impact, that I would fall in love with teaching, that I do want to continue working towards a doctorate, and that I am LOVING quantum dynamics. (Don’t judge me.) I’m now twenty-eight and I am nowhere near where my twenty-one-year-old self thought I would be; and I could not be more happy.

In spite of the way she was let go and the feelings of betrayal she felt, she says that she wouldn’t do anything differently. She acknowledges that she is more of a target because of her openness and willingness to help; but she also believes she is successful in radio because those characteristics have provided her with a unique talent: relating to her audience. And because of that rare quality, she received an unprecedented amount of support from fans everywhere.

“When I was let go, and I really my poured heart and soul into my listeners and how I felt about this radio family we were creating: to see loyalty come back to me, that got me through it. When you do what I do, [you] want to make a legitimate, organic, real bond. If you really are doing it right, listeners will be loyal too. That told me that I was doing it right. If I had been insincere at all, [I] wouldn’t have had that kind of response. People come and go in radio in all the time. Shows get let go. Stations change format. [It’s] nothing new. It isn’t always that someone gets that kind of support. [It’s a] good indication that people were picking up my relationships were real. [You’re] pouring your heart and soul on your end and they’re picking it up.

I think people really respond to anybody who’s not afraid to be themselves 100% and talk about everything. [Someone who] isn’t afraid to say this is me, this is who I am, this is what I believe in, to be passionate about it, to be a voice for the community and care about the things we all care about. I carry a soapbox with me and I’m not afraid to use it. A guy came up to me at an event I was doing [and said], ‘I spend every single morning yelling at my radio for you to shut up and I love your show and I listen to you every single day.’ Even though he disagreed with everything I say, he genuinely liked me. I’m really proud of the fact that I was able to stay true to the things I believe in yet still keep the person disagreeing with me from throwing up.”

And it was those relationships that motivated her to not give up on receiving another job in Detroit radio. I think I speak on behalf of all Allyson fans that we are so grateful she stayed in the D. But it was difficult for her to find that job because, just like it is in so many fields, who you know sometimes outweighs what you know.

“We were raised under the notion that if you work hard, hard work reaps the rewards. If we’re just being judged on our work, and whoever is doing the best work, if that’s how we’re getting by or falling behind, if we all follow that blueprint, it’s actually not even close. People advance in entertainment because of who they know and don’t work hard. There are people who are responsible for something that is a complete success and get overlooked. I would like to see [that] hard work speaks for itself. If [you’re] looking for someone to fill a role: who’s earned it? [Who] will take you to the next level? [Who] has worked hard? Hard work doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’ve seen people never get to have a taste of success. [Entertainment] doesn’t reward the best and the brightest…This is a business where you’re trying to win, and if someone has a record of winning, you would want to talk to them whether if they’re a man or a woman.”

Unfortunately, I have seen this as well. I remember bringing in a new project, something I had already been implementing but decided to use as the subject of a grant written by myself and a colleague. Even though I had done most of the leg work, I was slowly squeezed out of the project and was not given any credit when this colleague, along with another person who had been brought on the project in spite of my objections, decided to publish a paper. I fought with the journal to be made one of the authors; they conceded that I should have some credit but that I should be only listed in the acknowledgments section. And their idea of an acknowledgment was almost as insulting as no acknowledgment at all.

Because of what happened, I have toyed with the idea of not continuing in academia once I receive my Ph.D. My goal was always to be a professor and run my own lab; but after all the politics and lack of integrity I witnessed, I really doubted that I had the stomach to deal with all of it on a regular basis. However, if those things hadn’t happened to me, I would never have left. And if I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be at the University of Michigan pursuing a Ph.D. in a field I love. Maybe I’ll stay in academia; maybe I’ll go into industry. But after surviving that incident, among others, I realized how strong I am; that I have a voice; and that I’m not afraid to use it. And Allyson feels the same way about her life. In spite of all that has happened, she is still madly in love with radio.

“I love what I do. Maybe all careers and paths can be trying. [If you] make a career in entertainment, [you’re] picking an uphill path. You have to really want it. [It] separate[s] people who think it’s cool from people who are meant to do it. [You] spend a lot of time dependent on yourself. [I have] so much hope for the future in different avenues radio is going. I think it might be just what we need to rejuvenate. Things have bottlenecked but are opening up. [There are] ways to put yourself out there. Hopefully it will bring more people to the table. [It’s] harder to do when waiting for someone to give you the green light. [I’m] just so glad I’m still here in Detroit with my listeners. I’m a work in progress. ‘The best is yet to come.’ It’s still there; [I’m] still excited about what my future holds. [I’m] not giving up on all the things I could possibly dream. [You] should always have that attitude.”

She ends our interview by quoting Steve Harvey: “The only way for you to soar is you got to jump.”

Her saga of jumping, hitting the bottom, and soaring higher than ever is no stranger to history. Einstein, after graduating with a poor GPA from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic, worked as a lowly patent office clerk. However, it was during this time that he wrote four papers that changed his status…and revolutionized physics on an unparalleled scale. Dr. Maya Angelou didn’t speak for years after being raped; she blamed herself for her assailant’s death when she revealed his name and he was subsequently beaten to death. She became the author of the New York Times bestseller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and worked with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Martin Luther King suffered severe depression and twice attempted suicide; and he became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, the author of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I have a feeling that Allyson’s story will be joining their ranks.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak