If you are considering graduate school,
make sure you are willing to spend an additional 4–5 years in school for a Ph.D. Do not
pursue this degree merely because someone
told you to do so. Furthermore, do not base
your decision on the fact that most graduate schools will pay for your education and
provide you with a stipend. Go to graduate
school because you have a strong desire to
further your education and conduct independent research.
Another important point about graduate
school… make sure you choose your advisor
and research group wisely, because this can
make or break you. More importantly, follow
your instinct— and never let anyone steer
you away from your passion and goals.
BRITTNY HUMPHREY is currently a third-year
graduate student at Howard University, with a
focus in organic chemistry.
Find Your People
Graduate school, no matter which program, discipline, or lab you choose, can be one of the most challenging and important times of your life.
You are moving away from being a student
in the traditional sense of balancing courses
in many different subjects to committing
yourself to one field and one project in which
you become an expert. It can be incredibly
exciting to move on to this phase, but it can
also be difficult. There will be days, weeks,
and months when your experiments do not
work and you don’t know why. There will be
times when you are this close to completing a
paper, but the results of your last experiment
throw a monkey wrench into the entire project. Or, your advisor may run out of funding,
forcing you to rethink your experiments and
your graduation timeline.
Then there are those days when you
have been fighting for months to make an
experiment work and it finally does and—
most miraculously— gives you the expected
results. Sometimes, your project gets funded,
or you win a fellowship, or your results are
so good that you are first author on a paper
in a major journal. Through all of these ups
and downs, the people who can best understand and relate are those who have been
there. When you get to graduate school, try
to find “your people”— those folks who will
celebrate all of your successes, scientific and
otherwise, and who will buy you a beer and
let you rant when things don’t go your way.
When you choose a lab, consider the other
graduate students and postdocs there. These
are the folks who you will be sitting next to
and sharing ideas with for the next 4–7 years,
and they can make all the difference.
MEGHAN BLACKLEDGE is a sixth-year graduate
student at Duke University. She is a bio-organic
chemist focusing on investigating novel
Graduate school has been one of the most wonder- ful experiences of my life. It is important to be prepared to make decisions that will lead
to a better graduate school experience.
First, focus on choosing the right school.
It is very important to set your priorities
before choosing a school based on criteria
such as research, central facilities, size of
the program, level of diversity, and fellowships available. One of the websites for
ranking schools based on your priorities is
Another important decision is choosing a
research area. I came in as an organic major
with an interest in drug design. In the inorganic division at my institution, a professor
was working on chemical and biological effects
of NO and HNO. Originally, I thought of NO as
only a toxic gas in the atmosphere, but after
interacting with her, I came to appreciate its
involvement in various patho-physiological
processes. It was so intriguing that I decided
to work on nitrogen oxide-releasing prodrugs.
So, while it is important to have some idea of
the area you would like to focus on, it is also
important to have an open mind.
Along with your research area, it is also
extremely important to choose your advisor
wisely. To make an informed decision, you
must interact with the graduate students
and the principal investigator. Be clear about
your expectations. If at some point, you feel
that the decision was not right, it’s better to
switch groups early rather than suffering for
Graduate school is the stepping-stone
toward a bright future. It can be fun as well
as an opportunity to explore various aspects
of knowledge and research.
DEBASHREE BASUDHAR completed her Ph.D.
at the University of Arizona in April 2011, after
earning an M.S. in chemistry from the Indian
Institute of Technology Delhi. She plans to
pursue postdoctoral research.
There is one piece of information I wish I had
investigated before choosing a
graduate school and research
advisor: whether labs were
structured with inter-lab collaborations or
with individuals working independently on
unrelated projects. There are pros and cons
for both, and each person should identify
which environment he or she is most likely to
In a highly collaborative lab, every person
is thinking, talking, and offering insights
that can lead to overcoming hurdles more
efficiently. Additionally, collaboration can
become so tightly knit that another researcher’s progress directly depends on your own.
Depending on the individual, this either
motivates or adds stress. You must have
confidence in the dedication of every one of
your peers, because your success depends on
those around you, and vice versa. The obvious
con to this type of lab environment might be
working with an individual who doesn’t contribute equally. Additionally, you run the risk
of becoming an expert in a limited number of
techniques or instruments, without gaining a
wide breadth of experience.
Conversely, in the independent project
atmosphere, only you and your advisor
understand the goals and daily struggles
of your research. Other lab members might
think about your research only during your
presentations, or when you specifically seek
them out for advice. However, a successful
project is immensely satisfying— because
you set up every reaction and made each
discovery. The desire to invent or learn something new is your daily motivation.
Hopefully, no lab is completely collaborative or totally independent, and you’ll get a
chance to experience both during your graduate tenure. Ideally, you find a way to succeed
in both. However, starting off in a desirable
work environment can provide the motivation you need to successfully begin your scientific career.
GLENN ELDRIDGE is a fifth-year graduate
student at the University of California Irvine. His
research is focused on the discovery of new site-specific protein labeling strategies.