There are many questions that students considering grad- uate school in the chemical sciences must ask them- selves, but two of the most fundamental are, “Should I go to graduate school?” and, if the answer to that ques- tion is yes, “Do I have good reasons for doing so?”
In my experience as an undergraduate academic advisor, it
is the first of these questions that stymies students the most,
but the second is also critical. This article aims to help students
Professional vs. graduate degrees
Many undergraduate students who cross paths with the subject
of chemistry are interested in earning a professional degree in the
health professions. Professional degrees of any sort — including
law, business, and architecture— are academic degrees that purposefully prepare the holder to work in a certain profession and
stress skills and practical analysis.
Graduate degrees, in contrast, embrace a different educational
outlook, and emphasize theory and research – the systematic
search for information. Those who wish to earn such degrees
are expected to make original contributions to knowledge during their graduate career. This is the core difference between a
professional and a graduate degree: one accentuates skill competency, whereas the other stresses research.
Understanding this subtle difference can be difficult in light
of modern society’s pop culture fascination with the health and
legal professions. Although Grey’s Anatomy and Damages-type
dramas abound, there have been very few TV shows about chem-
ists (one telling exception is Breaking Bad!). Yet, this differentia-
tion is at the very heart of answering the first question posed
above: “Should I go to graduate school?”
I believe performing research at the undergraduate level is
the single greatest factor in a student’s educational maturation.
Why? Those who engage in undergraduate research find out very
quickly if they enjoy the discovery aspect of chemistry; in addi-
tion, the presentation aspect of research can develop writing,
speaking, and critical thinking abilities. Having research experi-
ence is one way undergraduates can distinguish themselves from
the pool of applicants with similar GPAs when it comes to apply-
ing for graduate school and professional employment positions.
Remember that “systematic search for information” mentioned
above? Certainly you’ve heard this definition before— it’s science!
The engine of graduate study is research, and that engine
is put together with the gears of science. Experimenting with
undergraduate research can help you assess your interests and
commit- ment to science. Of course, it’s also OK to find out that you do not have a strong interest in labo- ratory work. Undergraduate research experiences, even if negative, are significant factors to consider when making decisions about your future. Research is a major component of graduate school and in entry-level research and development (R&D) positions in industry. In industry, after you have a few years of experience, if you wish to branch out to new areas, there are many other paths that you can take that do not involve laboratory work. You can also choose a non- traditional career in chemistry that does not involve R&D, including forensics, public policy and advocacy, law, sales
and marketing, public health, and regulatory affairs.
Evaluating your motivations
If your devotion to science has you thinking about graduate school,
the next stage of your decision is to evaluate your reasons for
attending. In short, why go? Some people’s faces light up when
the subject of tuition-free higher education is discussed, but they
may not be fully aware of the time and effort needed to persevere
through a graduate education (five or more years, on average).
I am an undergraduate academic advisor, but I also served my
inChemistry • www.acs.org/undergrad