A Chemist’s Guide to Choosing a Doctoral Program

When it comes to the hard sciences, graduate school is quite different from undergraduate studies.

As an undergrad, you’ll take a wide array of classes across many departments, but graduate programs focus on one specialized field, typically in just one building (graduate students, in my experience, are not so good at giving directions around campus).

Still, there are some similarities that will enable you to use your undergraduate experience to choose where to pursue graduate-level study.

Before deciding which program is right for you, it’s important to note one very big difference between the hard sciences and the humanities: If you’re in a research-based hard science (physics, chemistry, biology), graduate school tuition is nearly always reimbursed in exchange for teaching and conducting laboratory research. This is usually true for the humanities, too, but the funding provided in these disciplines is likely to be considerably less.

Since most of your time in graduate school is spent researching and teaching, these stipends (which typically maintain a constant value regardless of the ratio of research to teaching) provide a living wage for you so that you won’t have to work another job in tandem with the already demanding graduate workload.

With that in mind, there are a few key points to finding the program that is right for you:

Start planning early.

Just like the transition from high school to college, you need to be thinking well in advance if you plan to attend graduate school right after undergrad (though there’s no harm in taking a year or two off between your undergraduate and graduate studies!).

In general, if this is the path you have in mind, you should begin seriously planning it roughly a year and a half before your graduation. Most competitive programs require their applicants to sit for the GRE, which you can take up to five times a year (provided you allow 21 days between test administrations). Many also require a GRE subject test, though these are only offered a few times a year. For example, in the 2015-2016 academic year, they’re administered in September, October, and April. Be aware of these dates as you begin your application process.

Additionally, many applications are due around December or so. Don’t end up going to graduate school later than you wanted to because you didn’t thoroughly map out your timeline!

It’s all about the specialized research.

In graduate school, students typically only take classes for a year or two before diving headfirst into their research, which is the primary aim of any science program. Given that the typical duration of a doctoral program is six-and-a-half years, it’s obviously very important to focus on the research portion of your postgrad studies. By planning ahead and becoming literate in scientific trends, you can put yourself in a position to do research that you find both fulfilling and enjoyable.

If you know (or have a strong feeling) early in your undergraduate program that you’d like to go to graduate school, dip your toes into research to see what field suits you best. If you decide late and are a research novice, there are plenty of resources, like academic journals, that can clue you into the latest work being done in a variety of fields.

Once you have established your interests, pursue them directly. If you think that climate change and increased battery efficiency are pressing issues, read about scientists conducting research in these areas, or schools with facilities particularly well-suited to such work.

Take note that rankings of graduate programs are more specific than those of undergraduate programs. For example, “chemistry” is no longer a useful designation — rather, “physical chemistry” and “organic chemistry” provide more detailed information on a school’s standing. Also bear in mind that schools with an excellent reputation in one area may not be as renowned in another.

If a certain researcher interests you, find out where she works and get an idea of what type of research her program generally conducts. You can even hop onto a given professor’s website, get her contact information, and call or email her to get a feel for the particular program. Ask her whether she would recommend the program to you, and consider inquiring about the possibility of joining her research group or finding out what prerequisites she would require in order for you to do so. These suggestions apply as well to contacting her current graduate students — don’t hesitate to reach out to them to get a student’s perspective on the program and professor!

But there is life in graduate school beyond research.

Another sizeable portion of your time in graduate school involves teaching undergraduates. If teaching is a priority for you, do some research into which programs will maximize your time in the classroom. Even if a particular school lacks a strict policy on permitting additional teaching (which often comes at the expense of research), you can speak with professors to get an idea of who will allow you to strengthen your teaching portfolio while under their tutelage.

The size of your program matters.

Your undergraduate years may have helped you discover whether you prefer big, booming environments or small, close-knit ones. Keep this in mind when you head to graduate school.

A larger program can mean much bigger research labs, but can also translate to less one-on-one time with your advisor. This may not be a downside if you’re an independent worker, though. Bigger departments also typically involve a larger pool of faculty members, and this may introduce greater potential for intra-program collaboration.

It can seem obvious, but smaller programs often allow for greater familiarity with your professors and fellow students.

Your school will be your home away from home.

You’ll be spending a long time pursuing your degree — again, the typical doctoral program in the sciences is around six years. For that reason, it’s important to place yourself in an environment that will stimulate you when you’re not in the lab.

You’ll likely want to be socially stimulated when you’re among colleagues, as well. It’s important to gauge the mood and formality of the community you’ll be joining, since personalities can range from place to place or department to department. Talk with current students and see what sorts of social activities go on and try to get a feel for intra-program dynamics.

Take a trip.

If you’ve been accepted to a school, they’ll often invite you for a guided visit to their campus and facilities at no cost to you. If you’re seriously interested in a program, don’t pass up this opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at the grounds where you might be living and working soon!

Think beyond graduate school.

For some, graduate school presents an opportunity to learn more about different research interests and to shape a loose career path; for others, it’s a means to an already decided-upon end.

If you already know exactly what career you plan to pursue, be sure to align your graduate program to your future interests. Most schools provide prospective students with a breakdown of where their alumni have ended up, whether it’s in academia, research for the government or a particular industry, or elsewhere. These outcomes vary dramatically from institution to institution.

A recent survey from the National Science Foundation claims that 65.9 percent of individuals who earned physical science doctorates in 2013 had “definite commitments” for work in 2014. Of these, 30.6 percent were about to take an academic teaching job, and 53.5 percent were beginning a temporary postdoctoral fellowship or similar research position.

According to the same NSF report, median pay in 2013 for a physical science Ph.D. in a postdoctoral position was $48,000. Meanwhile, academics made about $55,000, and those employed within other industries (pharmaceutical, chemical, consulting, and finance, for example) took in a median salary of $100,000.

Individual research groups can provide you with breakdowns of what their graduate students have pursued, so feel free to ask for this information if you’re interested.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that certain schools have special relationships with national laboratories, and these arrangements may be beneficial as you plan for your future as a scientist. For example, the University of Chicago manages Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of California, Berkeley manages the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — both for the Department of Energy. In these situations, graduate students can explore research opportunities in a prominent national laboratory and gain access to relatively rare and powerful instrumentation.

As with any job, forging a good relationship with your boss and lab partners is paramount so that you can make the program work to your advantage. And knowing what to look for in advance of researching and visiting graduate programs will make your selection process much more productive.

Still undecided about whether to pursue that Ph.D.? Find help here on this page, Should You Go to Grad School?, where you can ask experts questions and read articles written by professors, grad students, and other education experts.