Tackling the first year
Once you have decided which graduate school to
attend, the next couple of years are going to be critical.
The sooner you finish your coursework, the better. In
most schools, you have to pass the courses with a grade
of B or better. You need to be aware that the coursework
is going to be much more intense than during your undergraduate years. In addition to taking classes, most graduate
students will also be teaching either laboratories or
discussion sections. This can
take up a lot of time, and
necessitates good time management. You will need to
balance time for your own
studying with teaching and
grading responsibilities, as
well as your new job working in a research laboratory.
One thing I would recommend to any graduate school
aspirant is to consider schools that allow for rotations in
different labs. This will let you experience different labs
for a period of six to eight weeks — time that you can use
to decide if you want to be a part of that research group.
If you are considering programs that don’t have a rotation system, be sure to do a lot of groundwork. Not only
speak with potential advisors, but talk to various students
about the focus of the research, their experiences with
the advisor, other group members and the lab culture.
Remember that your first instinct about a lab or an advisor might not be the right one. Be patient! The advisor–
student relationship is one major factor that will decide
how smooth your ride is going to be.
Remember that not every good principal investigator
is also a good mentor. Try and choose ones who are passionate about mentoring. Most advisors don’t get trained
to be mentors; more likely, they have been trained to be
Also, consider your personal preferences. Are you a
hands-on or hands-off person? Do you prefer working in
a large or small group? What type of reputation would
you prefer your advisor to have in his or her field, etc.?
Demonstrating your qualifications
Different schools call their qualification exams by dif-
ferent names and use different formats, but the goal is
generally the same. In plain terms, they test your basic
understanding of chemistry, generally in your field of
specialization. Ask students
who have passed their
exams (and also those
who didn’t) about the
format of their exams, as
well as the hurdles they
faced and their preparation
techniques. Speak with
your advisor about your
strengths and weaknesses
and work out a plan of
action. It’s also a good idea
to talk to professors in the
department about their
exams, since they can give
you a good idea of how to prepare. This is a way to
develop a good rapport with faculty, and will assist you
in deciding which professors you want to have on your
Becoming part of a community
The biggest mistake many graduate students make
is spending so much time on their research that they
isolate themselves from their lab mates, fellow graduate
students, and postdocs in other labs and departments.
Sometimes, they do this unintentionally because they
are so busy, but other times they do so on purpose to
accomplish their goals. Either way, isolating yourself can
be detrimental to your progress.
Your fellow graduate students and postdocs can
become part of your social circle and professional network. They can help to keep your morale up and help
you find solutions, especially when you hit roadblocks
in your research. It might not be easy, but maintaining
an ongoing conversation with these peers will definitely help in the exchange of useful scientific ideas.
Developing a community of support can also vastly
improve your chances of graduating, because it can