benefit from professionals who have honed their critical thinking and research skills in science. Scientists with law degrees can
tackle highly technical court cases. Depending on how far afield
you go, you may need to do extra coursework to fulfill the prerequisites for your graduate program.
The best degree program for you depends on your field of
study and your career goals. If you stay with chemistry, the most
common options are the doctorate, the master’s degree, and a
Typically, Ph.D. students spend their first couple of years taking
courses, taking cumulative exams, and teaching undergraduate
laboratories and recitation sections. Depending on the university
and your area of specialization, you will have anywhere from
a few months to a year or so to identify a research area and a
faculty mentor. The remaining years are spent doing laboratory
research and writing a dissertation.
The Ph.D. student is expected to generate new knowledge by
solving novel problems or finding novel ways of solving problems.
This model is designed to produce academic scientists who do
Science Ph.D. graduates who work in industry often note that
the biggest adjustment they have to make is learning to produce
quick, practical results that meet the company’s needs. They
must learn to fulfill client expectations and communicate the
results and relevancy of their projects to busy managers, who
might have little to no technical background. Getting this experience during graduate school may be difficult because many
Ph.D. programs discourage or even prohibit outside employment.
Ph.D. students will often work around these rules by taking extra
courses or becoming active in a professional organization to gain
On the plus side, Ph.D. graduates learn to be self-motivated
and think independently, skills that can be applied in many different fields. Earning a Ph.D. is solid evidence that you can take on a
difficult project and see it through to completion, an accomplishment that many employers value highly.
Traditional M.S. degrees
Traditional M.S. degree programs are robust and take approximately two years to complete. As Sam Pazicni, assistant professor
of chemistry and chemistry education at the University of New
Hampshire, explains, “Students who are interested in developing a high degree of proficiency in a specialized research area
while gaining modest exposure to independent research should
consider enrolling in a traditional M.S. program.” Coursework
and research are required; a thesis may be optional. Students
who earn M.S. degrees frequently go on to doctorate programs,
and when they do, typically they find that they are well prepared
to handle the rigors of those programs. M.S. degrees are also
awarded to graduate students who have successfully completed
their coursework in the Ph.D. programs but are unable to complete their Ph.D. research and dissertation.
Often, however, master’s graduates find that their degree
satisfies their objectives as well as or better than a Ph.D. Master’s
degree holders can pursue careers in management, in policy, or as
research assistants or legal aides. Colleges and high schools hire
master’s graduates as instructors or laboratory coordinators.
Master’s students complete the same coursework, including
advanced theoretical courses, as their Ph.D. colleagues, and they
may finish a scaled-down version of their dissertation research.
Pazicni recommends that master’s degree students complete
a thesis project, even if it’s not strictly required, because many
employers seek applicants with research experience.
Returning to finish a Ph.D. program can be easier with an M.S.
degree than with other graduate degrees, since the coursework is
the same. However, M.S. graduates who return after more than a
few years might have to repeat some courses or re-take qualifying exams.
November/December 2014 www.acs.org/undergrad • inChemistry