Tips for Potential Grad Students: Chemistry
By Dave Berry
Where, who and what? I don’t suggest that one of the ‘W’s is always of higher priority, but individuals will need to rank the order of importance of these questions for themselves. My area is chemistry and I have presumed to consider only graduate programs that have a major research component at the masters level or doctorate level.
Where to go?
I believe the physical location is important. If you are a strong family person, is it wise to move huge distances? Graduate school is not like undergraduate life where there are lots of vacations. It is usually a year-round program and leaving town as soon as the undergraduate term ends will dangerously eat into your research time and create unwanted pressure on yourself at a later date (sometimes applied by your supervisor!). So, choose somewhere that satisfies those needs and yet is somewhere that you want to experience living for a number of years.
The institution is also important. Look at the program structure and find out if you will have the right proportion of course work, teaching duties and research that you want. Not all programs are the same and the amount of course work can vary considerably – as can the teaching duties in both quantity and level of responsibility. Does the department or supervisor offer financial support? Is this dependent on any criteria? Is it the same in every year of your program? Again, this varies a lot. Remember that you will likely be charged fees for your program, so the number of dollars to look for is the difference between income and fee cost over the year (you may well pay fees over the summer, remember).
Who do you work for?
Unlike many disciplines, chemistry is usually structured so that you study as a member of a research group directed by a faculty member. You will likely see more of the group than you do of your supervisor, so it is a good idea to visit with the group before you make your decision. If you have to talk to each member individually, is it because X won’t communicate with Y? Is this a sign of a hostile environment? Does the supervisor relate well to the group as a whole? Frequently? Does the group respect the supervisor for his/her role in the group’s output? Do you need a lot of support or do you prefer to work fairly independently? It is not unusual to be assigned to an experienced researcher within the group to get you going at the beginning. This can be a great way to learn the practical skills needed, but it should supplement, not replace, the relationship with your supervisor. If you only chose your supervisor because he/she has an international standing that would look good on a reference letter, remember that it is a very long haul to the end of an unhappy PhD.
Some advisors will suggest that you should switch institutions between undergraduate and graduate school. This can have many advantages of broadening your experience, but it is not universally good advice. Remaining in a familiar environment can be more useful for some students, and the differences found in moving from course work to the research environment can be enough of a change.
What do you study?
Maintaining your motivation over 3 – 6 years can be difficult. Graduate research can be more of a measure of stamina than brilliance and dealing with the ups and downs should not be an under-estimated quality that you will need. Thus, it is important that the overall direction of research should be considered from the outset. Does your supervisor enthuse about this topic or is it a tangential issue that might be sidelined at a later date? Does it connect to any of the work done by the rest of the group? Does it have the right balance of bench work, measurement, application and theory that suits your interest?
Dave Berry, Department of Chemistry, University of Victoria, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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