Graduate School: To Go or Not to Go
BY AMY M. HAMLIN
If you’re thinking about becoming a researcher, educator, or pursuing another career requiring significant expertise in chemistry, you are probably thinking about going to graduate school. But grad school is more than just an extension of col- lege. Before embarking on the journey to a master’s or Ph.D.,
there are many differences between college and grad school you
may need to consider.
COURSEWORK. As an undergrad, there is a huge focus on
grades and GPAs. You are expected to learn from lectures, textbooks, and hands-on laboratory experiments— and then be able
to demonstrate your understanding of concepts through exams,
projects, or papers. In graduate school, there is less of a focus on
classwork and GPAs. You only take classes for the first year or two,
which typically move at a faster pace and require more time outside of lecture.
Your focus in graduate classes should not be on the grade, but
instead on setting the foundation necessary for further independent study in your field. Progress isn’t measured by credit hours or
grades, but rather by completing specific program requirements,
working in the research lab, and your ability to communicate
results to other scientists. Graduate program requirements
may include research reports, a qualifying exam, teaching
requirements, a research
proposal, a written thesis,
and a thesis defense.
Your research advisor
will also have a big influence on your progression
through graduate school
and when you complete
As you progress through your
graduate career, you will be expected to
learn independently through reading the
literature and attending seminars instead of
reading textbooks and attending formal lectures.
After classes are completed, there are no formal lectures or exams encouraging you to learn; instead, you
must motivate yourself to continue learning. Reading
and searching through the literature will become a part
of your daily routine. You will also learn from colleagues
and visiting professors, and through group meetings
and informal discussions with lab mates.
RESEARCH. Perhaps the greatest difference between
undergraduate and graduate school is that as a grad
student, research becomes your main priority. If you do
research as an undergrad, it is fitted into your schedule
around classes, studying, and other extracurricular activi-
ties. As a grad student, everything is scheduled around your time in
the lab, which can easily be 60-80 hours per week.
Early in your graduate career, you will begin working on your
thesis project, and working on this project will be your primary
focus for the next few years of your academic life. Research will
often require late nights, early mornings, and weekends in the lab.
Extracurricular activities and time with family and friends are often
scheduled around experiments.
In college, there are times when studying for finals or finishing a project requires your complete attention. This is also true for
graduate school. The few weeks before a department presentation
or a qualifying exam can be very stressful, but these are the times
when the studying and planning skills you learned in college will
come in handy.
There may also be occasions when more time is required in the
lab, right when you’re also trying to finish a paper or thesis, for
example. The organizational skills you learn in college will be very
useful during semesters in grad school when you have to juggle
classes, teaching, and
research, so don’t throw
out that college planner
journey through grad
school is unique for each student
and is often influenced by your
specific research project, as well as
your advisor’s opinion of your prog-
ress as a researcher and teacher.
Time to complete a graduate degree
depends on the group you join, the
research project you undertake, and
the pace at which you work. One’s
journey is also influenced by future career and
personal goals. For example, someone who
wants an academic career may focus more
on teaching and mentoring compared with
someone focused on a career in industry.
Graduate school is a serious commitment,
but it also provides many new and exciting
opportunities to learn and make a contribution to
the scientific community.
Amy M. Hamlin was a graduate student at
the University of California, Berkeley
studying synthetic organic chemistry. She
graduated from the University of Detroit
Mercy in 2009 with a B.S. in chemistry.