Questions about Graduate Schools (PhD in Chemistry Discipline)

My DD is now a rising college senior (Chemistry major, with a minor in Math) who has definitely decided to go to graduate school (she loves being in a lab) to get a PhD in a Chemistry discipline (most likely Analytical Chemistry or Biochemistry) and she has a long list of 25 schools that she is wanting to pare down. She is required by her undergraduate scholarship to apply to 13 graduate schools and I have been asked to help her gather information since this search will not be like her undergraduate search (since she will not be able to visit most of the schools on her list and one of the deciding factors will be where she is accepted and the research being done in the various labs). Stats and research wise, she has a 3.9 GPA at her East Coast HBCU, with summer research done at a top 20 USNWR National University (her oral research presentation won in her research category at a National Biomedical Research conference with 2500 total presentations), 3 semesters of research at her school) and she is current doing summer research at a top 125 USNWR National University and has been offered an opportunity to get on her name on a paper this summer. She has prepared for the GRE and will take this fall (based on prep class and practice, she is looking for a perfect Quantitative score, but would be happy with a 168+ for Quantitative, 162+ on the Verbal, and a 5.0 in Analytical Writing). With such a large list of competitive schools, my DD has a back-up plan if things do not go the way she wants (Applying to a few post-bac programs as well). Here is the very early preliminary list of schools she came up with (which have some foreign institutions):

Georgia Tech

Vanderbilt

Duke

Rice

Tulane

UT Austin

LSU

UC Berkeley

Stanford

UCLA

UCSD

Cal Tech

UCSB

UC Irvine

UC Davis

Texas A&M

UNC Chapel Hill

U of Miami

Columbia

NYU

Oxford

Cambridge

U of Sydney

Nanyang Technological University

National University of Singapore

The most important criteria includes location (besides NYC and British schools on her list, she wants to be in a locale that doesn’t get very cold), resources, and cutting edge research in her chosen discipline. She will work on researching those criteria, but I am hoping to get some help on CC on the campus “atmosphere” at some of the schools on the list and little things that may end up swaying her decision. One thing we have found early on is that there have been strikes with grad students at some of the California based schools due to the cost of living on the West coast. Are there any other schools that she may want to consider? Is there anything about the schools above that she should watch out for? Any advice or experience on how to cut the list down to about 15 or so schools?

Choosing graduate programs is completely different than vetting undergraduate programs. You seek out the professors doing the research that intrigues you (ultimately after learning if they are good people to work for) and apply to their programs regardless of where they are. Essentially you apply to the person or the lab and not the school. This will require she read a lot of literature to see what she finds cool enough to spend multiple years on.

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Thank you for answering. She has already done some vetting and communications with labs from 5 of the schools and her issue is that she is finding several research labs at each of the schools so far that are very interesting to her. Whether the research is into finding a faster ways to diagnosis certain cancers or studying ways to slow down Alzheimer’s disease, she is finding multiple labs that pique her research interests. You are right that the lab matters most (she turned down research this summer at another T-20 USNWR University because the research was more interesting where she is currently doing her summer research). But she has also decided that lifestyle will matter a lot for grad school outside of the lab and I am looking for things that may be a tie-breaker if she has multiple schools admit her to their programs. She did a virtual program with one of the schools this spring over a 2 day period and found at least 5 labs that she thought were amazing opportunities.

I am personally more interested in her getting a lab with no grad school politics and that will give her an opportunity to reach her long term goals, but I have already told her that I don’t think that my wife and I will be able to help besides supporting her academic aspirations. My DD is lucky as she has 2 aunts who are STEM PhD scientists, but this is still going to be a tough decision because she has so many interests.

In order, I would recommend:

  1. Find an Advisor/Mentor that she can communicate openly and honestly with. Avoid hot heads, bullies, etc. at all cost, no matter their professional reputation or how interesting their work is.
  2. Make sure she is maximally funded. A PhD candidate should never have to pay for the experience. They are being used as underpaid labor already.
  3. Know the work will interest her.
  4. Finally, intangibles, like surrounding area, weather, etc.

Best of luck to her!

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I’m not sure my experience is relevant, since I was in graduate school over 30 years ago - but most of my friends have MS or PhD degrees in chemistry. Hands down, the most important factor in our/their grad school decisions was finding a professor for whom to work.

@eyemgh is correct - the professor is much more important than the school. Everything else was secondary. And for us, and for most of my chemistry colleagues, there was very little life outside the lab anyway…we were expected to be in the lab 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. Part of this was/is the subculture of synthetic organic chemistry (you were expected to stay chained to your bench and slog through that 20-step synthesis), and part of it was the personality of our bosses.

So maybe that’s my major piece of advice: research those professors who are doing the exciting research very, very carefully. Talk to current grad students if possible and try to get their honest feedback. Try to figure out the “real” culture of that lab, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there. The culture of the lab matters much, much more than the culture of the school (or even the culture of the department.)

At least at my school, the analytical chemistry grad students had more of a real life outside of lab - but again, that’s probably school-dependent and professor-dependent. I have noticed that the med chem graduate students where I currently work have much more normal hours (8:00-5:00, M-F), so again, it’s professor-dependent.

I’m afraid that all labs will have some degree of grad school politics - it just goes with the territory. The real trick is finding that professor who’s doing the cool stuff, who has a ton of funding (and a ton of connections with industry/academia so that you can find a job when you’re done), AND who fosters a lab environment that’s nurturing and fun. If it sounds like looking for a unicorn, then well, it kind of is.

edited to add: I hope I wasn’t too gloomy with my advice. Some of my best friends now are those I made in the shared crucible of grad school! Best of luck to your daughter.

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She is in a great position, so you are right: the hardest part for her will be focusing her interests enough for a good SoP.

The UK will be faster (3-4 years vs 5-6) than the US, but the fit will matter more: most of their PhD candidates will arrive with a Masters already done.

It’s time consuming, but spending time looking at the research groups at each uni is worthwhile. I suggest that your daughter group the long list into some sort of ‘really interesting’ ‘pretty interesting’ ‘heard I should look there’ system, and start with the ‘really interesting’ ones. The department will typically write most of what’s on the website (vs marketing or admin), and you can learn an awful lot about each program with some old-fashioned digging.

@eyemgh alludes to the single most important variable in a PhD program: a good supervisor, meaning one who is a good fit for you. Absolutely nothing will make up for a bad supervisor, and a good one will make up for almost any other shortcomings in a program. What makes a good supervisor? First (as @eyemgh said): somebody that she communicates with well. Other indicators include: reliably getting their students up and out on time and students publishing as first or second author from a pretty early stage. Note that supervisors are pretty much never perfect!! So an important job for the student is to find out what they are bad at (usual suspects- availability, too hands-on / too hands-off, boring affect / too mercurial). None of them matter in the abstract- what matters is the fit between the two of them. This is where her own self-knowledge matters- knowing what sort of supervision will play to her strengths/not aggravate her own weaknesses. As an example, my PhD supervisor took 2 of us in the same year. I loved his blue sky ‘here’s a general idea- see what you can do with it & let me know how you get on’ approach. My fellow student was miserable, b/c she preferred a more structured approach. She ended up swapping into another group, with a PI whose style fit hers a lot better. GradSchoolKid2 has a supervisor who is desperately difficult to get time with, but everything else about working with him is good, so overall it’s worth it.

IME, the key at this stage is networking: to reach out to her advisor, recent grads from her school, and her peers (including from her internships). Seems obvious, and it’s easy to say- though for many young people, hard to do- but really worth the effort. As an example, GradSchoolKid2 saw the way that the female grad students were treated in the lab during a summer internship at a top-tier program. Despite being a superb program on paper she decided not to even apply there.

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Lots of good advice above. As a parent of a student starting their PhD this fall - though in a different field - the only thing I’d add is for your daughter to apply for the NSF GRFP https://www.nsfgrfp.org/

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(I just saw that @scout59 just wrote extensively abut finding a good research mentor. So I am going to expand on some other factors.)

When I was an undergrad eons ago, one of the best advice I got from many faculty members was when they let me know which grad departments were notable for being horrendously difficult to their grad students. Many STEM Ph.D. programs, specifically math, chemistry and physics, are still that way, even after all these years. So it’s really important to understand the culture of the department itself.

First pass of the research is to get the basic requirements for the degree - that you can get from their website. Next, is to find out what proportion of the entering grad students actually finish the degree - some departments are more transparent about this than others. In her summer programs, did she have access to any of the professors? Many times, summer research programs for undergrads at the research universities are run by grad students and postdocs. But she should definitely follow up with any profs that she met during the summer programs.

Her current faculty members would also be a very good resource for advice. More than us, they would know general reputation of the different doctoral departments etc. and suggest any contacts they have.

And once she narrows down her list, she should definitely visit the department to get a feel for things. I am curious as to why she has two Singapore universities on her list. I recognize they are top universities, but the culture, both discipline-wise ,and in general, may be quite different from the ones in the US.

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And part of the difference in the UK is that there are no teaching obligations, any supervisions/tutorials you do will be optional and not consume a lot of time. So one consideration is long term ambitions: the UK can be better if you want to work in a corporate lab than if you want an academic teaching position.

Going to the UK without a masters means you may have to do a 1 year masters then reapply for funding for the last 3 years of the PhD, and you need to get a distinction in the masters to secure it.

More broadly it is much easier to get admitted than to get funded, especially as an overseas student. Is she looking at Rhodes, Marshall, Gates etc for funding, because trying to secure Oxford or Cambridge’s own funding may be almost as competitive as that? Deadlines for those applications, when you need endorsement from your US university, are coming up imminently, some colleges’ internal deadlines may even have already passed. And they require a lot of work, unless she’s done Goldwater, Truman etc before it will probably need 50-80 hours of work this summer to pull together a good application (plus a long list of relevant ECs). So I would look at that ASAP.

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My DD is noticing this… She worked pretty long days (up to 11 hours) at her 1st internship, but she loved working in that lab. The lab she works in this summer works much shorter hours (6-7 hour days) but she is in a smaller lab so she has been able to work on more aspects of the research in the lab. She has been able to help the lab using a variety of skills (she has fixed an issue moving data over on a piece of equipment using her basic coding skills that the PI had an issue with).

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I think my DD has done at least an okay job networking as she has continued to correspond with her PI in her 1st lab who has become a mentor for my DD in more ways than 1 (That PI is a relatively young African American women in a world class, world changing research lab which is my daughter’s ultimate goal). She as also kept up with some of the Grad students, but it is not a natural instinct for her to do so.

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The international schools have not been researched hard, but she wanted to take a look a schools outside of the US for requirements and to see what kind of research is being done around the world. Almost every school after the 1st 10 or so have not been throughly vetted, but they will all get a preliminary look.

This is a definitely happening as one of my DD’s best friends got NSF funding and is going to great graduate school this Fall…. It is probably unlikely, but she will definitely “shoot her shot”

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Thank you for the info on the UK schools. She is unlikely to go through the work necessary to do the UK schools once she sees what’s needed. She had several of her scholarship cohort apply for those prestigious fellowships/scholarships with one winning the Goldwater this spring, but my DD has only committed to applying for NSF GRFP funding up to this point.

I am sure she has heard that viewpoint a few times, but I am going to emphasize finding the right professor/mentor as well. Your experience is relevant because it takes a special person to stay in school for so long. I have never loved any subject the way my DD loves Chemistry, but my assumption is that people who get PhDs all have a “love affair” with their subject matter.

One of my son’s professors left his first PhD program because his advisor was challenging. She doesn’t want to experience that if she can predetermine who will be better to work with.

The choice of thesis advisor is critical. He can be your mentor or your tor-mentor. (Aside:
My thesis advisor was a bully. He was also brilliant. Working for him was hell, but I am glad I did. (And glad that I went into it with my eyes open))

Large schools have the advantage of having multiple potential advisors. Tulane has about 20 faculty total. UCLA has almost 100.

Nobody will care about her General GRE scores. Those are for bragging rights for deans and provosts. The GRE subject test will be all she looks at.

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That’s great! Best of luck. One tip I have for the NSF process is that all other things being equal (enthusiasm of LORs, GRE, GPA, etc.) the more well known and more respected the recommender is within the field, the better. The NSF review panels are mostly composed of post-docs and junior faculty, and a letter from a luminary in the field carries a lot of weight.

One other thing to keep in mind is that in most NSF fields, the awards go almost exclusively to applicants who have already begun their grad program, while in others a significant portion of the awards go to students who have not begun their grad programs.

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yep…that’s why I made a point of saying it. The more she can do to push herself to reach out (to make the contact, to follow up with every contact along the way, to let the people who write LoRs for her know how it all comes out, etc) the less unnatural it will feel, and the better for her overall.

I have to say, from everything you have posted here she is in great shape. I’m not on any intake panels atm and your daughter is reminding me of the charge you get when you see an application from a strong candidate. It’s exciting :slight_smile:

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My D was also interested in working with several different faculty at several different schools and several faculty within some schools and they were interested in working with her as well.

Fortunately, she’ll be attending a school where she will rotate through 3-4 labs before settling in, your D might want to narrow her list to schools that do rotations.

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