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


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