A Ph.D. affords you the freedom to pursue research topics that you envision, and
the flexibility to find jobs throughout the
country or abroad. You have the freedom
to choose your place of work based on
how you want to contribute to the world.
You can opt for a career in academia
as a lecturer, researcher, or both. Aside
from academic positions, chemists can find
jobs in the semi-conductor industries, hos-
pitals, forensic science labs, water-quality
and treatment plants, patent offices, and
polymer, fertilizer, petrochemi-
cal, chemical, and pharmaceutical
companies. Chemists also have
the flexibility to be involved in
jobs involving biochemical knowl-
edge such as biotechnology, bio-
materials, biofuels, and medicine.
As an analytical chemist, you can
work in water-quality control
because you believe in improv-
ing and securing the well-being
of people. You can influence the
future direction of science policy with a
position in government. The possibilities
REQUIREMENTS FOR OBTAINING A PH.D. VARY WITH DEPARTMENTS. FOR larger departments, the requirements can vary even within the different
specialties, e.g., organic chemistry or physical chemistry. The websites of these
departments should outline their requirements and list contact information. Do
not hesitate to request a specific outline of the requirements.
Some programs require students to take qualifying exams at the beginning, mostly to gauge the students’ knowledge and determine whether some
courses can be waived. In some graduate programs, students rotate for eight
to ten weeks in two or three labs, based on their
research interests. If you opt for one of these
graduate programs, simply select the labs whose
research most interests you. Rotations allow you
to determine whether the lab research matches
your interests, and whether you can get along
with lab personnel. This opportunity also allows
you and the mentor to evaluate each other. By the
end of your first year, you will have settled on a
Many graduate programs also require their
graduate students to work as a teaching assistant for at least one year, usually with a lab course. This is a great opportunity to obtain useful teaching
The second year involves selecting three to five faculty members with expertise in your research area to serve on a committee that will guide and monitor your academic and research progress. There will be an “exam” in which
you present a paper, write and present a review article, or undergo an oral
examination. If you fail here, most programs will give you a second chance.
The next committee examination will usually be at the end of your third year,
where you will present your research project, outlining what you have done
and what additional research you intend to accomplish for your dissertation.
The committee will ensure that you understand your project and material
associated with it. Unless you have made poor progress, this “exam” usually functions to provide guidance and encouragement. The committee will
approve your dissertation plan, the defense of which can be anytime
after this, depending on the body of research you have accomplished.
Ph.D. = freedom and flexibility
Being taught new material in the classroom can be awe-inspiring and exciting. Making scientific discoveries that become that
new classroom material is priceless. One of the most exciting
rewards of being a Ph.D. researcher is making scientific discoveries based on experiments you design. It’s a career where you are
in charge of your ideas, your vision, and your interests. You are
a leader, teacher, mentor, and policymaker, whether you choose
to work in the private sector or in the academic environment. If
this appeals to you, then pursuing a Ph.D. will begin the journey.
The $139,517 question
Did you know that, according to the
Association of American Medical Colleges,
the average educational debt owed by medical school graduates of the class of 2007
is $139,517? On the other hand, earning
a Ph.D. degree in the chemical sciences is
‘free,’ in that financial support is provided in
the form of tuition remission and stipends
for research or teaching assistantships,
often offered by the department or individual labs. Scholarships from government
institutions such as the National Science
Foundation or National Institutes of Health
can also boost the amount of the stipend.
However, while graduate programs try to
accommodate student needs, it should be
noted that the stipend — which is not a sal-
ary — might not be sufficient to live on, especially in bigger cities.
You may have to find roommates, get support from your family,
or take out student loans. However, the debt incurred is still sig-
nificantly less than that of a medical student.
No matter which path you choose, potential salaries increase
the higher your degree level. As a Ph.D., you enter at a higher
position within a given employer, and have an increased chance
for career advancement. Salaries for Ph.D.-level scientists with
degrees in the chemical sciences can rival other professional
careers (e.g., medical doctors, pharmacists, and veterinarians).
The range in salaries will depend on the cost of living for spe-