Post Tagged with: "graduate school"

Aspiring Graduate Students: You have questions, FSU Graduate Recruiting & Admissions Committee has answers!

Last December, Mike Shatruk, chair of Florida State University’s chemistry graduate recruiting & admissions committee, hosted an AMA (ask me anything) on The post generated considerable interest with 191 upvotes and 178 comments. The questions ranged from job prospects to metrics for grad school acceptance.

This year we have decided to give it another try and this time a little earlier in the application timeline. Mike will also be joined by me, Ken Hanson, one of the newest members of the graduate recruiting & admissions committee.

So if you have any questions about graduate school or the admissions process please swing by on Tuesday September 16th beginning at 10:00 am (EDT). If you’re unable to join us on Sept. 16th, please feel free to share your questions below and I will make sure they make it on the AMA.


Update: Here is a link to the AMA.

By September 9, 2014 7 comments Uncategorized

Recapping Mike Shatruk’s AMA

Mike Shatruk, chair of Florida State University’s chemistry graduate recruiting & admissions committee, hosted an AMA (ask me anything) on last week. Over a span of three days, he answered redditor’s questions about applying to graduate programs, factors in admission decisions, faculty advisor selection, and more. A recap of the AMA is shared below (Quick note: Some of the content has been edited for clarity and grammar/spelling).

Application Process

Can you give us a short summary of how FSU does its admissions process?


Mike: We ask students to submit their:

  • GRE scores
  • Unofficial undergraduate transcripts
  • CV
  • a personal statement
  • three recommendation letters
  • a ranked list of three programs of interest (choose from analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, materials, organic, physical)
  • a ranked list of three professors the student might be interested to work with

After the application deadline, the admissions committee divides students by research interests and 1-2 committee members review applications in each respective area and make admission decisions. Each student is admitted individually. It’s a lot of work, but we believe we should dedicate time to screening our applicants as well as we can.

Can you please briefly explain currently the best approach for overseas students to search for suitable positions. From memory, so please correct me if I am wrong… 1) pass GRE, 2) Identify desired Universities, and 3) submit application by Jan/Feb in order to start in August.


Mike: Yes, you’ve got the right sequence in mind.

  • Pass GRE and make sure the scores satisfy the program-stipulated minima (we ask for at least 150 on verbal and 155 on quantitative parts of the test)
  • Get a copy of transcript from your undergraduate institution * Look through the list of US universities with PhD programs.
  • Write a 1-2 page personal statement as to why you would like to apply to a particular program, what prior research experience you’ve had if any, who of the professors you are thinking to work with (doesn’t have to be just one person), what your career goals are, etc.
  • Compose a brief CV to go along with your application
  • Get three people to agree to write your letters of recommendation
  • Submit the application package as described by the program. For FSU graduate program, you can check this link for international students.

When does your program typically send out acceptance letters/emails/notices? 


Mike: Usually we sent our acceptance letter from January 15 to February 15. We typically give you 1-2 months to report whether you’d like to attend our visitation weekend. IMPORTANTLY, following the Resolution by Council of Graduate Schools, no school can push you to accept their offer prior to April 15.


Application Materials

Grad schools generally ask for thing like GPA, letters of recommendation, research experience, and test scores. How much weight is applied to each one and/or which is most important?


Mike: To answer your first question, it depends on the particular school, but in principle, all the components of your application are important. I would say that most PhD program value some research experience. GRE scores are usually viewed as reflection of your intellectual ability, and your GPA indicates how well organized you were in your undergraduate courses and if you’ll be able to stay focused in your PhD pursuit. Finally, the letters of recommendation often help to improve the value of your application if your referees have something really good to say about you. At FSU we consider each case individually and carefully. We also know that sometimes a low GPA is not a real reflection of student’s ability, in which case we review the trends in your grades to see whether you’ve been improving toward the end of your undergraduate education.

How does a minor in a related field factor into your decision (I’m MSE but have a chemistry minor)?


Mike: The major/minor relationship really depends on the school you’re applying to. For example, we have a very active and broad materials chemistry program, so having an MSE student with a minor in chemistry will be viewed positively.

What little unknown things can we do to help us get into our first choice grad school? 


Mike: Make sure that your scores and grades are above the minimum requirements that the school stipulates. It would be better if they not just above the bar, i.e. if the requirement is 3.2 GPA, then it will be better to have 3.4 and higher. Also, work carefully on your personal statement and make sure your application is complete and submitted on time.

Ken: One trick for getting into the school of your choice is to try and do summer research at the university before applying (sophomore or junior year). You can do this through either an REU program or simply contact a professor directly to see if they are taking summer research students. If you work hard and show that you are competent it is the best summer long interview you could possibly give. If the rest of your application package meets the minimum requirements, the advisor would be hard pressed to say no to a competent student joining the program.

I’m a UK undergraduate, currently applying to Master’s programmes in Europe. I was wondering if the Master’s is really worth it if I apply for a PhD in the US. Would I effectively do another Master’s as part of that, or could I sort of skip ahead?


Mike: We actually like international students with Master’s degrees, because they come somewhat more prepared for PhD program. Yes, you’ll be taking some coursework again, but you will be likely to go through it faster. You also will have a faster start-up period in the lab, if you’ve done research as part of your M.S. degree. The research experience in the UK is just as valid as that in the US. Basically, we just would like to see that you’ve been in the lab and experienced some research environment, so it’s easier for you to get started. We also need to see that you are interested in research, because that’s what the PhD degree is all about.

Does having a B.A. vs a B.S. make any difference in getting accepted?            


Mike: B.S. is preferable, but it also depends on what courses you have on your transcript. If you took a lot of science courses and have good grades in them, then you have good chances.

 [I was doing well and then my grades plummeted.] What advice can you give me if I am sure I want to pursue a graduate degree?


Mike: You’re in a tough spot. One of your options might be to seek a summer research opportunity in some school to which you’d like to apply. You could just apply to some lab as a volunteer giving the argument you’ve just presented above. If you’re lucky, you’ll get your chance. And if you prove yourself to be much better than what you grades tell, then maybe the professor you have worked for will vouch for you as an exceptional case.


Admission Decision

Is there anything you frequently see in an application that make you dismiss an otherwise likely candidate (something they write in the statement of purpose, ect)?


Mike: Regarding your question about obvious flaws in the application, those would be (1) missing the deadline. It shows that you’re not very well organized and serious about the process; (2) something negative your referees have to say about you – and I mean negative, not just critical (some criticism never hurts); (3) deteriorating grades toward the end of undergraduate school – they indicate that you are currently academically weaker than in the beginning of your studies, that you don’t do very well in senior-level courses, and that you’re likely to fail in graduate-level courses for those two reasons.

How much importance do you place on an applicant’s undergraduate school?


Undergraduate schools do matter, but if a student has good grades and test scores, as well as research experience, he or she has just as much chance to make it as a student from a higher-ranked school with lower grades. Again, each case is individual, but we tend not to discriminate applicants based on their undergraduate schools.

How screwed am I if I don’t have any research experience?


Mike: It’s important, but not necessary. If your grades and GRE score and recommendation letters are strong, then you have a chance. We also offer an optional bridge summer research opportunity for students who have been admitted to our program, which in your case might be a good option. Again, without research experience all your other markers have to be pretty strong.

Could an excellent Chem GRE score (ie 95+ percentile) offset a mediocre GPA even if the Chem GRE was not required?


Mike: Perhaps, but I cannot answer that because we do not require Chem GRE. You’ll be better off asking the specific school directly.

How much do admission committees value the experience gained from professional employment?


Mike: Your industry experience is likely to be viewed positively, as it suggests you might be more mature in your attitudes and seeking the graduate degree to better your professional opportunities.



How much does FSU pay their students? Do they receive benefits?


Mike: Our graduate stipend in 2014-15 will be $21,500 per year. Out of the fees you pay, about 50% comes back to you as a reimbursement later. The health insurance subsidy is $1,300.

PhDstudentslave: Looking at the FSU program they only pay their students $20,000, however they then charge their students about $1,000 in fees each semester, (Fall, Spring, and Summer) leaving them a mere $17,000 a year. I believe the only perk the students get is subsidized health insurance option (~$800 a semester).

Spookyjeff:  I’m a chemistry graduate student at FSU. I’d like to note that in the area you can live comfortably on the stipend without much effort

Ken: Cost of living is something to consider rather than just the dollar amount. Here is a simple cost of living calculator. For example $20,000 in Tallahassee is equivalent to $21,500 in Chapel Hill or $26,000 in LA or $32,500 in San Francisco.

How soon is funding discussed in your program? Is it detailed along with acceptance?


Mike: Funding situation depends on the specific school. At FSU Chemistry and Biochemistry, we guarantee funding to all admitted PhD students at least for the first 5 years, which we believe is sufficient for graduation.

Choosing a Research Group/Advisor

Is it rude for me to bother an adviser’s other students to get a feel for how they treat their students?


Ken: you should definitely talk to the adviser’s current grad students before joining a group. The adviser can easily put on a facade when you meet and greet but hopefully their students will give you real insight into the group/research/adviser. If the students don’t want to talk to you that is probably a red flag about the group dynamic and social environment. Remember that you will spend the next 4-7 years with these coworkers. You want and will need people that are willing to go out of their way to help you. Asking questions before you join is a good way to test the water.

hstlives: My former advisor would encourage prospective students to meet with his current students. When you speak to a professor about joining his/her group, bring up the topic of meeting their students and see if they help you out with the initial meeting.

Mike: You most definitely want to talk to students from the groups you’re interested in. A rare advisor will tell his or her students not to indulge you into learning about their experiences in graduate school. It is very important that you join a group whose research is truly interesting to you and where you can see yourself fitting well not only intellectually but also socially.

What’s the best way to go about contacting a research advisor about joining their group?


Mike: If you are interested in research done by a particular faculty member, I suggest e-mailing them directly. They usually will reply promptly to your request.

Why is it so important to find a good advisor?


Mike: It’s probably the most important choice you’ll make in graduate school. You’ll have to work with that person and his or her research group for 5 years, on average, and to be successful, to build a strong resume, you need to be comfortable in your work place, get good and thoughtful advices, expand your knowledge and skills, and know that if you do all that your advisor will support you in all future endeavors with strong recommendation letters.

What advice do you have for applicants as far as selecting an advisor?


Mike: You certainly need to look at possible advisors before applying, because you don’t want to apply to a school, get in, and then find that nobody does any research that interests you. When you attend our visitation weekends, which serve as preview of the program for admitted students, you’ll have a chance to speak to 5-6 faculty members. Once you start in the program, you’ll be able to listen to brief presentations in which faculty describe their research projects. You will also be able to talk to many faculty and students before making your final choice. Most schools give you a few months from the start of the program to pick an advisor.



Does FSU have a program for graduate students for teaching chemistry or chemical management?


Mike: We attempt to educate our graduate students toward diverse career pathways, including research, industrial (management), or teaching careers. Two most important things you learn in graduate school are how to do independent research and how to teach others about chemistry. You’ll have a chance to TA in the lab or at recitation session. Usually students who are looking into teaching careers prefer to do recitation sessions, because those really let them experience how to explain concepts to students in classroom setting. Some of our senior graduate students who would like to apply for teaching jobs are even given a chance to lecture for undergraduates, and we are currently working on making such experience into a permanent program. That being said, having done a strong PhD will let you keep your options open to other career choices.

How likely are credits to transfer from undergrad to graduate school? I’m taking a few extra graduate level classes to supplement some of my learning and wondering if I should just audit it.


Mike:It depends what school you are attending (i.e. the school rankings and rigorousness of the coursework). We usually allow transfer of up to two courses, but typically that policy applies to students who have completed master’s coursework. Nevertheless, we will consider your request for the transfer of graduate courses if you’ve been admitted to our program.

How bad is it to do your undergraduate and PhD at the same university with the same professor?


Mike: In the United States it’s not very typical, but it does happen. In European and Asian countries, that’s a norm. Anyway, what you’ll be judge by in the first place is your productivity and the quality of your work (the number and impact of publications). But having the BS and PhD from the same place might be viewed just a tiny bit negatively when you apply for a faculty position. Nevertheless, a strong PhD and a productive postdoc experience (at a different place, I hope), will cancel out that very quickly.

I hesitate to use the terms “grade inflation/deflation”, but how does the choice of undergraduate university affect your perception of GPA?


Mike: We are aware of those issues, and we usually factor them into consideration, although it’s not easy when you get applicants from hundreds of different schools. So, our judgment is based on our previous experience with applicants from particular institutions.


By December 9, 2013 1 comment Uncategorized

Aspiring Graduate Students: You have questions, Mike Shatruk has answers!

Are you thinking about applying to a chemistry graduate program? Do you have a few questions first?

  • What is the application process?
  • What items do I need to gather in order to apply?
  • What is the most important part of my application package?
  • How soon will I hear back after applying?
  • What should I consider before accepting admission?
  • How do I choose an advisor?

Mike Shatruk is an associate professor of chemistry at Florida State University and chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department’s graduate recruiting & admissions committee. He will host an AMA (ask me anything) on on Monday, December 2nd beginning at 10:00 am (EST).

If you have a question but won’t be able to post them on December 2nd, share it in the comments section below and I will make sure he gets it. I’ll also compile all of the questions and answers afterwards and post them on this blog.

Update: Here is the link to the AMA.

By December 1, 2013 5 comments Uncategorized

The Life Cycle of a North American Research Project

Simply reading a research article doesn’t provide any insight into how a project progresses from inception to fruition/publication. Sometimes projects start as a good idea. Other times they begin from interesting or unexpected results. Every so often, it is an accident.

These auspicious origins are further clouded by the tendency of authors to present their results as if they were intentional from the very beginning, even if they stumbled upon them. To a younger scientist reading these papers it can feel overwhelming to begin research. They may ask “how could I ever possibly get from here to there?”

A project that I started four years ago at the beginning of graduate school was finally published last week. It was by far my favorite project. Not only because of the content but also because of the journey. In response to a question posed by masterm on the chemistry subreddit, I am going to share my experience with the process between inception and publication for this project and hopefully provide some insight for the uninitiated.

My graduate career can be broken down into two categories: 1) research that pays the bills and 2) purely scientific research. In 2005 when I started graduate school my adviser, Mark Thompson, came to me with a not so simple request: “Find a molecule that exhibits efficient (>10%: more than 10 out of every 100 photons that are absorbed are then emitted) phosphorescence between 750 and 900 nm.” This project fell into category 1 because it had specific, short-term, grant dictated goals along with a long term goal of producing a commercially viable product.

Unfortunately/fortunately the number of published molecules that efficiently phosphoresce in that wavelength range is limited. During the years that followed my colleges and I (team IR) became entrenched in the idea of taking known molecules and extending the π-conjugation to red-shift emission. This strategy was based on a common tenet in small molecule photophysics that says if you extend the π-conjugation of a molecule (add more benzene rings) you will lower the energy of absorption/emission (changing from blue/high energy/shorter wavelength towards red/low energy/longer wavelength). It is a ‘particle in the box’ mentality. That is, if you extend the box you will lower the energy of the system. The words “let’s just add some benzene rings to it” became our regular chorus. With this mantra we had a considerable amount of success, adding benzene rings (benzannulating) platinum porphyrins. Attempts at benzannulating other systems were less successful in that they either did not shift the emission or they were unstable.

At the 2006 ACS meeting in San Francisco I presented my results on one of these “failed” pursuits. I also made an effort to go to as many talks and poster secessions as possible hoping that I would come across a new molecule/ligand that might help reach our goal. I kept seeing 1,3-bispyridylisoindole (BPI) ligand in various catalysis presentations. It caught my attention because it has many of the components that we have in our near-infrared emitters: a pyrrole like our iridium dipyrrins (λem = 672 nm) and platinum porphyrins (λem = 650 nm), an isoindole like platinum tetrabenzoporphyrins (λem = 765 nm) and phthalocyanines (λem = ~1000 nm). It is a simple concept in chemistry that, more often than not, if things look similar they will exhibit similar behaviors.

Before we ever go to the bench and synthesize a new molecule we first perform a DFT calculation to get an estimate of its phosphorescence wavelength (Etriplet-Esinglet or EHSOMO(triplet) – EHOMO(singlet)). In my hotel room that night I performed this high yield “reaction” (Titan: B3LYP, LACVP**) and inserted a platinum chloride into BPI and found the calculated emission wavelength was 675 nm. That is way out into the deep red but not quite to the 750-900 nm we were looking for. So what’s next? The chorus comes around again: “BENZANNULATE!” Adding three benzene rings (bottom right) to the parent structure (top middle) resulted in a modest red-shift in the emission wavelength from 675 nm to 697 nm. Needless to say, this was an anticlimactic result. I was disappointed and wanted to understand why there was only a small shift, so I calculated a series of these molecules (above). A clear trend can be observed, benzannulating the pyrrole ring results in a blue shift, benzannulating the pyridyl ring results in a red shift. The calculated blue shift is counter to the common expectation that benzannulation results in red shifted absorption/emission.

Between my advisers interest in the two molecules predicted to emit above 800 nm and his desire to find out if the calculations were correct, he gave me permission to pursue the project. Following published procedures or slightly modified versions of these reactions I was able to produce several similiar molecules. In both absorption and emission, the predicted trends were correct. In fact, even without taking a measurement it was obvious to the naked eye that the absorption and emission were blue shifting upon benzannulation of the pyrrole ring (left).

So now that we knew that the phenomenon was real, the question was “Why the blue shift?” Turning to literature we were able to find several examples of molecules that exhibit this behavior but the explanations given were either incomplete or molecule specific. No generalized explanation could be found.

So we had a mystery on our hands. Between our preliminary calculations, photophysical and electrochemical measurements we were able to conclude that an unchanging HOMO energy (similar oxidation potential) and a destabilized LUMO energy (increasing reduction potential) with each benzannulation was responsible for the observed trend.

Proud of our result and the conclusion we had reached at this point, I was excited to present the results at the Southern California Inorganic Photochemistry Conference (SCIP). I explained the story and results of the discovery and at the end of my talk Professor Jeffery Zink (UCLA) asked a simple but profound question that I was unable to answer: “Why does the LUMO go up?”

Reflecting on the question I experienced a flashback to constructing orbital diagrams in undergraduate chemistry classes. For the sake of people not to familiar with the topic, I will quickly review molecular orbitals. The interaction between two orbitals can be broken down into three categories: bonding, antibonding and nonbonding. In cases where the energies and symmetries of two orbitals are similar they will interact to produce a stabilized bonding and a destabilized antibonding interaction. The shape and energy of these bonding/antibonding orbitals will be dependent on the energies of the two interacting orbitals. In cases where the orbital energies are extremely unequal no interaction will occur. Similarly, if the symmetry of two orbitals are not similar they will not interact (example: px and py are orthogonal and thus will never interact).

Using thus basic principle to construct an orbital diagram of naphthalene from the combination of benzene and butadiene you will find that a HOMObezene-HOMObutadiene bonding/antibonding interaction destabilizes the HOMO (increases the energy) and a LUMObezene-LUMObutadiene bonding/antibonding interaction stabilizes the LUMO (decreases the energy), as shown below.

The HOMO destabilization and LUMO stabilization inevitably leads to a red-shifted absorption (smaller ΔE for the HOMO to LUMO transition) of napthalene relative to benzene. This type of orbital interaction is the reason behind the common expectation that benzannulation will red-shift absorption/emission.

Without an answer to the question (“Why does the LUMO go up?”) I presented these results again at the 2008 ACS meeting in New Orleans. At the meeting I had a chance to catch up with one of my closest friends and a fellow graduate from the St. Cloud State University’s  chemistry department, Luke Roskop (St. Cloud State is a small university in Minnesota that you have probably never heard of unless you enjoy college hockey). It just so happens he was/currently is a graduate student at Iowa State under one of the world’s foremost theoretical chemists, Mark Gordon. After a conversation that night and permission from both of our advisers we decided we were going to combine our expertise and do our best to come up with an answer.

Over the several months that followed and through a combination of time-dependent DFT calculations, photophysical measurements and a bunch of reading we were leaning towards an argument that involved orbital diagrams. However, it was not until holiday break while both of us were back in Minnesota at Luke’s parent’s dinning room table that we had a break through. As a synthetic chemist, I often pigeon-hole myself into only thinking about molecules that can be made. In fact, I sometimes get an uncomfortable feeling when looking at a molecule that “feels” unstable. One of the things that I love about theoreticians is that if it can be dreamed of they can calculate it. Luke’s ability to imagine the “impossible” became infinity useful on that particular day. Utilizing his remote access to Iowa States computing cluster, Luke just started making changes to the BPI motif to figure out the effects of structural changes on the HOMO/LUMO orbitals and energies. After looking at dozens of molecules a tremendous feeling of clarity hit me. It was one of those rare moments that all scientists search for. My internal conflict floated away and for a brief moment I felt as if the universe made sense. I turned to Luke and said “You are going to love this!” What followed was my tentative explanation of the phenomena and then a long discussion between us to iron out the details. By the end of the night we had outlined what as of last week became our publication.

Ignoring the importance of justifying the use of molecular orbitals (beyond the scope of this summary but is discussed in the paper) our rationalization can be reduced down to a simple molecular orbital argument. In the orbital diagram for benzene we find that a LUMO-LUMO interaction leads to destabilization of the LUMO of naphthalene as compared to benzene. In the system described here, the HOMO of (BPI)PtCl (middle) has very little orbital density at the sites of butadiene addition and as a result no mixing occurs and the HOMO energy/orbital remains unchanged.

The LUMO however, is energetically similar to both the HOMO and the LUMO of butadiene thus the type of interaction that occurs is dictated by the symmetry of butadiene addition. The nodal plane of the LUMO at the end of the isoindole ring of (BPI)PtCl is the same symmetry as the HOMO of butadiene (also has a nodal plane) and thus a bonding/antibonding interaction occurs that destabilizes the LUMO. The unchanged HOMO and the destabilized LUMO results in a blue-shifted absorption of the benzannulated product (right) relative to the parent molecule. Alternatively, the lack of a nodal plane on the pyridine ring at the sight of butadiene addition results in the expected LUMO-LUMO interaction resulting in a stabilized LUMO of the isoquinoline derivative (left) and red shifted absorption relative to the parent molecule. Similar arguments hold true for not only for benzannulating the other positions of (BPI)PtCl but also the previously published examples of blue-shifted absorption upon benzannulation.

In short, we found an unexpected but straight forward visual manifestation of molecular orbital theory.

We finished up the paper (an ordeal in itself), submitted it, and it was accepted after revisions.

Take home message from this project:

  1. Go to presentations that are unrelated to your research/expertise.
  2. Pay attention to your unusual results.
  3. Gather knowledge. The more knowledge you have in a subject matter, the more likely you are to recognize something unusual.
  4. Find an adviser that will let you pursue an interesting project (I have no idea how to make this happen other than word of mouth or just get lucky).
  5. Don’t rule out the imaginary molecules. Sometime they are exactly what you need.
  6. Try not burn any bridges in pursuit of your goals; you might need help later.