So you’re thinking about graduate school…

First off, I’d like to congratulate noel and everyone else who has gotten into graduate schools thus far. Considering the economy, applications are up and it’s even more competitive than ever. However, I have had some friends get rejected and start to freak out, which is of course, natural, and I asked, why do you want to go to graduate school?

I got the response: I want to be a professor. Okay, I said, of what? Um..a research professor, she said. Okay…why?

The pause really didnt come to me as a surprise. Yes, the economy is bad right now. However, graduate school should not be looked at as a way of escaping the real world. Grad school is hard, you will feel stupid, you will be frustrated and there will be multiple times you want to quit.

But, but..Boyie, I <3 chemistry. Bull. Crap. Maybe 1% of the people in graduate school love chemistry. People have multiple reasons for doing it, and most dont involve loving chemistry, but the thing is, most people who eventually succeed have /STRONG/ motivations to do it.

But, but…Boyie, I’m smart, isnt graduate school the next logical step? Again, I have seen LOTS of smart people drop out. Why? Various reasons such as “I just didnt think it was right for me”, “I felt stupid”, “I dont want to spend 5 years working on the same problem”, and “I just dont like research.” All those answers are things that could have been avoided. I am fortunate enough to attend a prestigious program and I know people would kill for the slots that have just opened up as a result of people dropping out. So really, think about why you want to go to graduate school.

When I was applying, my father and my undergraduate research advisors asked me the following questions as a reflection of sorts to see if I had the strength of will to make it. So, I present to you, the questions I was asked.

1) Why chemistry?
2) Why graduate school?
3) What do you see yourself doing in 5, 10, 15 years?
4) Is a PhD really required for that?
5) Again, why graduate school?
6) What do you like about research?
7) Name five influential people in your chosen field.
8) What did they do?
9) What do you want to contribute to science?
10) What do you want to contribute to chemistry?
11) Are you okay with feeling stupid?
12) Are you okay with slamming your head against a wall?
13) Finally, why graduate school in chemistry?

Yes, there were 13 questions, three repeat, but looking back on it it’s a very important question. So, for those of you about to enter, I highly recommend doing this exercise. Be honest with yourself for the answers, and g’luck!


  1. Well, I don’t think that only the 1% of people that study chemistry at grad school loves it. I think that the number is much more higher. Here in Italy (more precisely, in Padova) the possibility to enter the course in chemistry is restricted (as it should be, but it’s not the same in all Italy universities) to a maximum number of 100, with an obligation to do a test for verify your abilities. And so, we started this year in 86 new students. We not even reached the maximum possible of students in a university like the one of Padova that is one of the bigger in Italy. So, of this initial 86 students remained we only in 60 and we’ll ulteriorly decrease this number. But i see that who remains, really loves chemistry. It’s like a light in the eyes, and you see it when we discover some new unexpected things or when we go to the laboratory. Yes, who remains really loves chemistry. The difficulty of the course won’t permit to a student that doesn’t love it to continue on this way bicause it’s too hard, and so he will retire!

    PS: you’ll excuse me for my bad english but, i promise, I’ll improve it!

  2. I agree with Endeeder. In my experience, it’s been that 5% of those in graduate school could care less or are indifferent about chemistry. Unless you’re a sucker for pain, there’s really no reason to go into a Ph.D. program if you don’t enjoy the material (be it chemistry, math, English, etc.).

    I think you forgot to mention “the wall.” I cruised through my first two years, did reasonably well in the lab, then hit “the wall” by my third year. After talking to a bunch of other Ph.D.’s (in several disciplines outside of chemistry), I realized this was a common occurance in graduate school (insomnia, malnutrition, depression, fatigue, etc.).

    The best advice I got was from a philosophy professor at my undergrad. “Keep getting up in the morning. Ph.D.’s aren’t awarded for intelligence. Sure, (intelligence) helps, but being a persistant, @ssh0le is much more important.”

  3. go to grad school if you want to try solving big problems.

    and not having much luck at it.

  4. Shouldn’t 11 and 12 come up during undergrad research? I mean, if you’re not OK with feeling like a moron several times a day…you really shouldn’t be doing ANY kind of work that requires thinking. And if you’re not used to it by the time you apply for grad school, you should probably be spending more time in lab!

  5. You mean I’m not supposed to feel stupid during undergrad research? Oh, snap.

  6. I know some people never felt stupid doing undergrad research. Maybe they were just hiding it really well.

    • …Or they had exceptionally lame advisors who had them making more starting material for a grad student, or trying to replicate someone else’s work, or washing glassware…y’know, nothing that could possibly lead to epic chemistry fail.

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