Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What online graduate degrees in chemistry are missing: group meeting

About a year ago, I wrote up a little criticism of the University of Florida's "Master's Program in Pharmaceutical Chemistry". I mainly focused on the tradeoff of cost; that is, in a typical master's program in chemistry in the United States, they pay you*. In a distance program, you pay them; $16,800 for the UF program, it looks like: 32 credit hours X $525/hr. I also cast doubt on the willingness of employers to accept this credential over a traditional M.S. degree. 

 A few weeks ago, a comment showed up on the post that I publish in part here:
I'm part of this program and the material is no "cake walk", and they use several tools to adequately "compensate" for anything potentially lacking due to the inherent nature of distance learning (with a possible exception for benchwork which most students already have in spades given that most of them are currently working in the industry---and which others already have from undergraduate or additional studies).  
As to certain employers not viewing this degree as having the prestige of a "live" program---screw 'em. Any employer in today's world that automatically, totally discounts an on-line degree is an inflexible dinosaur (with a higher likelihood of failing) that I likely wouldn't care to make a career with anyway. While they are certainly free to question the sufficiency of a particular individual's preparedness (as they would any job candidate), and while the school has certainly adapted to find new ways to raise some revenue in this more interconnected world; this particular degree is sound, and anyone completing it should be viewed as being self-disciplined enough to complete a major project without much prodding/nursing.  
I do not believe the school is overselling the usefulness of this degree. No one has promised me I'll be able to secure a golden ticket at the end of my studies. However, they likely do not want to advertise in big letters that the U.S. medicinal chemistry market is likely oversaturated in the short term with very skilled people. 
I don't know if I agree with this statement; I found it somewhat unconvincing. But, as I thought about it, it brought to my mind one of the benefits of bricks-and-mortar graduate school: group meeting.

I don't really miss group meeting very much. I spent a lot of time being very bored by it. But to be sitting in a room for (at least!) 2 hours a week, 45+ times a year with my professor and his students, discussing our research results, research results in the literature and (occasionally) the direction of the industry was really, really important and formative. You learn how to analyze other people's results, how to think critically about the literature and to sit and listen to your professor's opinions and the opinions (informed or not) of your colleagues. I think I learned all the important principles of organic reaction mechanisms (again and again and again) by sitting in a windowless room lit by fluorescent lights with uncomfortable chairs, trying to figure out why you get this isomer as opposed to that isomer. Where are you going to learn how to answer questions under fire? Where are you going to learn how to defend your research results? I do not believe that distance learning can simulate this experience.

As I said, at some point in the future, I'm sure that distance-based graduate school will be equivalent to a traditional program and these technological hurdles will somehow be overcome. But for the moment, I do not think that you will learn as much in a distance program as opposed to a traditional master's program.

*Granted, there is opportunity cost to be calculated. 2 years in school is 2 years out of the job market. 

34 comments:

  1. Although I agree that group meetings are very beneficial - it does not address people such as the commenter above. If someone is simply getting this degree while working at Starbuck's, then yes, missing group meeting would be detrimental. However, as the commenter points out, many of the students in these programs are working in industry and hence have their own group meetings (maybe not quite as academic, but still meetings none the less).

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  2. I think that's a fair criticism, although I submit that few industrial group meetings are ever as teaching-oriented as a good academic group meeting.

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    1. ....or as abusive! ha

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    2. I do not view the online degree as being inadequate; I have never experienced one myself. I have however, met a few candidates that have MS degrees via distance learning that were very disappointing in their skill set.

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    3. Or the pan-organic group meetings, which here are at 10am every Saturday. "Abusive"? hmm...

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    4. Are you at the confluence of 3 streams?

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  3. How about networking? Conferences (if there is money to go) letters of recommendation from someone who is an authority in the field? And seminars to shake hands with people in the field (academic or the occasional industrial speaker). If networking is such a huge thing these days, don't you miss out on networking in online degrees?

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    1. I do not konw about online chemistry MS degrees, but I am in an online MBA program. The program I am in is at a top tier business school. I think you get MANY MORE chances to network in an online MBA program than an on campus one.

      On campus you enter and exit with a cohort. In an online environment you are mostly dealing with people who are currently in the work force. Therefore they may take longer to get the degree or may be seeking other similar degrees. The result is the people who make up the population in your classes are continually changing! Combine this with plenty of opportunities for quality virtual teamwork and virtual discussion forums and you meet a LOT of people from all around the world.

      When I was deciding where to go to B-School, I was considering the online program I am in and a local evening program. When I visited the school with the local evening program, I noticed that almost everyone considering going there were from two major employers (one of them my own). I can network with people I work with at work. I can learn about how my employer does things at work. My online MBA helps me make connections and learn topics external to my work which adds NEW value for my employer.

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  4. From a strictly rational point of view, an on-line degree may have some value (though the notion that one can obtain a graduate degree in chemistry without lab work baffles me), but I doubt anyone will care or hire anyone from one of these programs. Actually showing up to scheduled classes/labs, rather than logging into the interwebs wearing your bunny slippers whenever you feel like it, shows a stronger commitment to learning (at least in my opinion)

    While not wishing to belittle the commenter, the attitude of "-screw 'em" is unlikely to be helpful. I'm not sure what sort of claims on-line programs make about employability, but I've never met an on-line graduate in any professional job.

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    1. "screw em'"? Who does he think he is Matt Damon from Good Will hunting? ("How do you like them apples?"). If he was that good, passionate, and self motivated, wouldn't he have kept the money and taught himself o-chem? Matt Damon didn't even have the top tier University lecture series online to teach him organic chemistry or even wikipedia.

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    2. Yeah, but if Matt Damon knew more about o-chem, he could have assigned the proton spectra of ibogamine for the girl and avoided their awkward good night.

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  5. Virtual meetings could replace in-person group meetings. I would have dismissed this idea a few years ago when I was working in the lab, but now that I'm working in a field where telecommuting is common, I've gotten used to meetings where everyone calls in and views slides and a whiteboard on the computer. Once you get past the initial discomfort, you can have equally productive meetings without meeting in person.

    However, I don't think these programs will replace intensive, research-based master's degrees. I knew some people in industry who got their MS in the evenings while they were working, and even if they attended in person, it wasn't as rigorous as a full time master's program. It was a box checking exercise to back up the work they'd done on the job, or a way to supplement their knowledge in specific areas. (I'm not sure how much this happens any more with the current job market and most companies eliminating their education subsidies.)

    I could see this as a way to boost your qualifications in a specific area - for example, someone with an organic MS wanting to get additional eduction in analytical chemistry or biochemistry or some other field. I looked into getting a second MS degree in analytical chemistry when I was in industry to make myself more marketable, but the issue was the commute time - the closest college that offered evening classes in chemistry was 2 1/2 hours away. If it had been offered online, it would have been much more attractive. The cost is high, but if you're taking classes in the evenings at a brick-and-mortar school while working during the day, you'd probably be paying about the same amount.

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  6. As to certain employers not viewing this degree as having the prestige of a "live" program---screw 'em. Any employer in today's world that automatically, totally discounts an on-line degree is an inflexible dinosaur (with a higher likelihood of failing) that I likely wouldn't care to make a career with anyway.

    This is the same response elicited by people when they're told that Company X prefers to hire people from top 20 schools. I understand the sentiment, but it doesn't change the fact of the matter; when a resume from someone who did a full-time MS is stacked next to someone with an online MS, the online MS will be regarded as less prestigious. The author of the post clearly has some bitterness about the perception, as evidenced by the "they're more likely to fail because they're dinosaurs" comment. Again, I can understand the sentiment a bit, but as bbooooya said, not helpful either. I'll also concur that I've never met anyone who found an online degree helped them land a job in chemistry. However, that doesn't mean this won't change in the next several years; just look at the way online dating has evolved.

    Kay hit the nail on the head; an online MS can be used as a great way to supplement your current knowledge if you're already working in a lab. I don't think people should mistake this as an acceptable alternative to doing a MS full-time while working somewhere that isn't lab related.

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  7. I could be mistaken however Pharmaceutical Chemistry typically is associated with a Pharmacy Degree (note did not trace links) and not what commonly talk about here as "Chemistry Jobs". This would be totally different career path from MedChem and therefore is possibly somewhere short of a PharmD after becoming a Registered Pharmacist? I don't believe majority of Pharmacists engage in too much "lab" work unless perform reformulation or repackaging so it could be done online environment since critical learning is understanding what drugs do as treatments with certain side effects and interactions. Used to be Pharmacists and particularly PharmDs had much greater job prospects and salaries than Org/Syn Chemists.

    Although I appreciate what is said above about value of group meetings I wish I had not wasted (or still waste) so much cumulative time and effort in both school and industry at poor quality sessions to obtain the infrequent benefits.
    CMCguy

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    1. Pharmaceutical Chemistry is completely different from a Pharmacy Degree. One is physical pharmacy (concentrated on things such as formulation, granulation, etc- MS and PhD degrees conferred) while the other is pharmacy practice (PharmD). Pharm Chem is very much like Med Chem and you see the same sort of trends within industry. Hard to look at dissolution patterns without getting in the lab- so overall, the message is the same.

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  8. I don't see how an online chemistry degree could be considered as good as a traditional lab-based chemistry degree unless somehow this program was teaching something different that isn't being taught in traditional chemistry programs. To me it looks like a continuing education degree, which is fine, but a little pricy. I would certainly be interested in seeing the statistics the program has about job placement or pay increases.

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  9. At one time, 5 years of work in an industrial setting was considered equivalent to a masters degree, and 10 years was equivalent to a PhD in terms of promotion and ability to move into supervisory or planning positions. That isn't so any more - if you don't have the right degree, you can't be promoted into the job in many places, regardless of how good you are at doing it and how long you've been doing it on a temporary basis while they look for somebody less qualified with the right degree to put over you. There is also in many companies a pay boost associated with advanced degrees, and if the degree is relevant to your position, quite a bit of financial help and other support to help you get it. If you are working as an associate in a medicinal chemistry lab and would like to move more into the design and research leadership positions, or even into project planning, a good strong academic master's degree earned while you are still doing research for your company would be a good thing.

    When I worked in Big Pharma, many of the biologists especially were earning master's degrees in conjunction with a major university in the evenings - the company even provided the teaching space, time, tuition, and books. There was no additional lab work associated with these programs, since all of the people encouraged to take the classes were already highly skilled in the lab. An online format would seem to be the next logical step.

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  10. No one mentioned that online masters degrees might be more prestigious because current masters degrees are given as a prize for failing the PhD program at many schools? That's certainly true in my old school. If the boss tells you that you're not PhD material, you're getting out with a masters, either a class based one or a research one if you've performed sort of okay on your failed research project. This is definitely true in many US schools, but not so true outside the country.

    Now an online masters is done by someone working in the industry, who's ambitious enough to take time out of their schedule to do it, plus they have lots of practical lab skills since they have already been doing this job for a bit. I know which one I would be suspicious about if I was a hiring manager.

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    1. You are forgetting that the only way to a research MS from a tier 1 US university is to join as a PhD student and quit half way through. For someone who prefers lab work than desk work, a solid research MS is the best way to prepare for a career.

      Perhaps you should spend more time in the lab and hone up on your critical thinking skills.

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    2. Er... I didn't forget that. That's exactly what I said actually. I find your lack of reading skills... disturbing. Yet another proof that a chemistry degree does not give us an edge over the 'normals' in alternative careers.

      A person who has an MS from such a tier 1 university likely joined as a PhD student and then has quit/was fired a quarter or a third of the way through. There was nobody I know at my grad school who came in intending to get an MS.

      The people who got such degrees from my uni went on to do jobs that were better described as 'desk' jobs. Why should a hiring manager trust someone to work well in the lab who quit/was fired from an academic lab over somebody that does an MS on the side online while already working at a real job? It sounds like the online classes are tough, unlike american grad school classes that are often just a fig leaf covering up the fact that you're there to work in the lab and not really do homework.

      Often the people who were fired/quit and got the MS just didn't come into the lab enough or didn't spend enough time studying or doing homework and didn't really care much about research. Doesn't sound like the best way to prepare for a career, but grad school is really soul crushing for many individuals so personally I don't think their lack of effort/stupidity is indicative of their later success and/or new-found intelligence in their career.

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  11. Quit does not equal failed. You orginally referenced 'failing' only. Read your own post.

    How do you know what people intended to leave with? Everyone had to declare 'PhD track' to get in the door. That does not mean they want to end up with one. The double standard is outstanding. There are thousands of posts on this website which urge students to quit with MS to decrease the supply of PhDs. Then those who quit are labeled "suspicious" or "didn't really care much about research" by insecure PhD holders.

    Additionally, in most major pharma companies the majority of the laboratory work and chemical reasoning comes from BS/MS chemists. Compare the desk:bench ratio for the average PhD versus the average MS holder. If you love the lab you are much better off with a MS than a PhD.

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    1. If you quit, then you failed at getting a PhD. Just like if you quit a marathon halfway through, you fail at finishing it. You think I never failed at anything in my life? Quite the contrary.

      I can see where you say that you 'have' to declare a PhD to get in the door. But that is simply lying. Because the masters track was available, it just cost money and there was no stipend. If you from the beginning intended to lie and 'quit' halfway through, then you should be returning a lot of money to your Alma Mater right about now. I think it's fine to start a PhD and then quit once you realize it's not for you or that the job prospects are not there, but to get into the program dishonestly from the beginning, and thus waste a spot for someone from China who would actually do research for four years, is costing your graduate program a lot of opportunity costs.

      Far be it from me to argue that maybe research programs don't deserve this massive fraud. Maybe they do, and maybe they should be taken advantage of and money stolen from them I guess, but then the people who fail/quit, should be considered as dishonest to by the hiring manager, is that what you're getting at? Because if they didn't want to be thought of as all that, maybe they should have gotten an online masters while already working at a company?

      You're forgetting that originally my post was a hypothetical defense of an online masters when all other posts were to the contrary and dumped on the experience. The more of your 'defense' of the 'normal' masters track I read, the more it's devalued in my eyes. Maybe not in the eyes of the employer, but maybe the employer also doesn't know the whole story. A masters degree from a European country, where you have to do a two year project and you get paid a stipend (slightly smaller than a PhD) and you have to be accepted to a group and write a thesis, is very different from a US masters where you got told by your boss that you're kicked out of the program, they tolerate your presence for a few more months, then if you write a thesis and give it to them, they say "You actually need to write something for this thing!?" then sign it and give it back to you after a flip-through two minutes later (happened in my program). That's not even mentioning when the boss tells you they don't even want you to do the 'research masters' with them because you have to physically leave the lab right now, so you have to settle for a 'course masters'. At least with the course masters you actually learn a bit more; problem is that a lot of graduate courses in the States are not too serious because they don't want to keep the students from research and your classmates are PhD students still doing research.

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  12. While paying for the MS does seem dumb when you can get a TA at a number of institutions, depending on what the coursework is and what it is focused on it might be a perfectly useful degree, IMO. Our company has hired a couple people with the chemistry "coursework" MS that some universities offer with no thesis at all. They have filled a nice niche. This is particularly the case when we want someone with more analytical background than the undergrad (because a lot of undergrad programs are atrocious at teaching it) but not necessarily someone extremely specialized in one groups methods since we will end up training them on our own instruments anyway. A few courses in electrochem, chromatography, MS, spectroscopy, etc. like you would get in an MS analytical degree usually fits perfectly. I would imagine that you could design a similar program focused on pharmaceutical.

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    1. Thanks, to sharing a great post and probably distance learning program fit for those student who are not capable to attending regular classes and spend money also.

      Distance Learning

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  13. Interesting dialog. I am completing a masters program at a brick and mortar because I do not want to leave the work force only to graduate with a PhD and make less money with fewer employment prospects. I also find it interesting that the employment decisions described in various previous comments are stratified by degree. From my vantage point, knowledge, experience, and personality tend to dictate success in a position - infact, having a PhD seems limiting as people want to use you for your published expertise.

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  14. Can I open this back up for discussion? I've been considering this online MS in pharmaceutical chemistry from Florida, and wonder if anyone thinks it could be a good move considering my unique situation. I have a BS in biochemistry from the University of Texas, but did not enjoy my year and a half of research. I found it frustrating, disappointing and monotonous. Likely because I was in a molecular biology lab and I'm more interested in chemistry. Organic chemistry was my favorite course in undergrad. I'm now working in patent law at Fulbright & Jaworski, where I contribute to patent applications in biotech fields. I think a graduate degree will help me move more into a technical advisor position, though I would ideally strive for a patent agent position (requirements: science background, take the patent bar, my firm "requires" a Ph.D.). But I am NOT interested in a doctoral program. I didn't enjoy research and I don't want to commit to 5+ years of it, being groomed to stay in academia for the rest of my life. I also do not want to move or quit my job, since I am essentially WHERE I want to be, just not in the position I want to be in. Hence I'm considering the online Master's in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, so that I can work on it from home, after work, and currently there is a bit of an insufficiency in my department of strong chemical backgrounds. I am also considering transitioning into the government sector at some point and working as a patent examiner for the USPTO (requirements: strong science or engineering background, no Ph.D. required, no law degree or patent bar required). Any ideas? Most of the criticism for this degree comes from it's possible inability to help people acquire jobs in labwork, but what if someone is aiming for a desk job, and really just a promotion from their current position?

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    1. I think that most people agree that if promotion requires some sort of master's degree, and an online one satisfies that requirement, that's fine. (In fact, you might come out ahead.) That said, there are relatively few desk-based jobs where that's going to be that case.

      Also, I'm not backing down on my assertion that online degrees just aren't at the point at which they can deliver the same educational experience as a bricks-and-mortar institution. But, as you might say, if you don't need that experience, then this might be for you.

      [Also, if you go clicking/searching around, you might find a Chemistry Reddit thread where this reasoning gets hashed out with someone who has similar needs as you.]

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    2. Interesting position that you take on online / distance education particularly since most universities, those major and minor, are teaching many of their "brick-and-mortar" classes on-line. Why? Simply to provide more options for flexibility and accessing a broader range of students. Oh and let us not forget, to be competitive in today's for-profit vs. not-for-profit higher education market. I have found, and I consider myself an academic snob of sorts, that most "brick-and-mortar" universities are using online communication tools for activities like student group meetings. I am all about academic discourse, informed scholarly debates, and a little bit of trivial, tangent like discussions with fellow academics. However, I also recognize that these conversations are not limited by boundaries of a physical structure.

      I used to be 100% against distance / online education. I regarded distance education as inferior in quality to the traditional in-class experience. Traditional classroom settings was my educational format of choice. Heck, if the setting was great as an undergraduate than I just knew it would be even better as a graduate student pursuing a Master's degree. I held this position until my own situation benefited from being able to take a few of my traditional "brick-and-mortar" graduate courses online because of two relocating for my job (with the same Company, that by the way paid for my graduate degree) within two years. Interestingly enough, one of my classes was "Team Dynamics." We held meetings, discussions, and other interactions via email, conference calls, and where appropriate and able, in-person. Today, I am completing a blended doctoral program that will position me to be just as competitive as the individual pursuing their doctoral degree on-site. Heck, I would argue that at least for my field, I will be just as marketable and employable as the on-campus graduate student. First, I am getting my doctorate from an accredited, recognized, and credible institution. Second, I have co-authored a book chapter with my advisor, submitted articles to peer-reviewed journals for review, and right now considering whether I am comfortable presenting at a conference in my field of study. And lastly, I have been able to transfer and apply my academic learning to my professional responsibilities at work; this has paid off mightily because of the access to scholarly literature and research studies . . . at a distance.

      Today's adult learners do not require in-class experiences to be regarded as scholars, researchers, or even scientist-practitioners. Models of teaching and learning are transforming daily just to keep up with technology and the preferences of learners. While some may want in-class group discussions with the professor and other classmates, some may want a blended approach, or maybe a no-touch situation. I trust that as individuals make decisions on this important aspect of their lives, they will choose smartly. And if a major corporate leader can earn an advanced degree through an expedited executive and / or distance education format and receive all the praise, money, and admiration for it, then surely a uniquely gifted commoner like myself and all the others on this blog can be applauded for seeing our academic efforts through to completion. This is just my "less than 2 cents" editorial on the matter. Respect and accept it or to keep this distance group discussion going, refute it. LOL. Thanks.

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    3. Perhaps I am wrong, but your field sounds a lot different than chemistry. YMMV.

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  15. I would just like to preface 2 things: 1) I am NOT currently enrolled in UF's Master's Program in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and 2) I have done extensive research on pharmaceutical chemistry and medicinal chemistry programs (both online and traditional).

    In my opinion, I think there is a difference between the fields of chemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry/medicinal chemistry. Obviously, you need at least some chemistry courses for all of them, however, the degrees/content are different. Pharmaceutical/Medicinal chemistry doesn't equal chemistry. In Pharmaceutical/Medicinal chemistry, you need courses in chemistry, biology, mathematics, pharmacy, etc. Whereas in chemistry, you just need chemistry courses (maybe math and physics depending on your concentration).

    In regards to content and pre-reqs, I've compared UF's online program, with traditional programs of other schools, and maybe with the exception, if that, of 1 course, the programs are the same. Concerning labs, I too was somewhat surprised at this and was my biggest factor originally of completely discounting UF's online programs. However, the vast majority of traditional programs in pharmaceutical/medicinal chemistry are lecture and the few that do have a REQUIRED lab, it's only 1 course and that's it.

    Also, as far as I know, the only time you can get paid to be a TA at a traditional school is if you’re a full-time student. If you are part-time, (which is what I will be if I chose to go back to school) yes, you will have to pay per course. That is true whether it is online or traditional.

    One last thing, I too would be very doubtful of accepting an online degree in chemistry, mainly due to the lack of labs (with the exception of it being a hybrid course where you take lectures online and labs are at the institution). However, like I stated before, the vast majority of courses that I have looked at for pharmaceutical/medicinal chemistry, may they be online or traditional, are mainly all lecture. So, I would disagree with an employer being doubtful with an online degree in pharmaceutical/medicinal chemistry.

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    1. 1. Yes, the course requirements are the same.
      2. It depends on the structure of the master's program. Most bricks-and-mortar chemistry masters programs need some sort of research experience, which is much more than a tradition "laboratory" class.
      3. Yes, I agree that TA positions are usually held by full-time students. This is why, IMO, full-time is better than part-time.
      4. RE: "lack of labs", it depends on the degree level. If it's B.S.-level, yes. If it's M.S.-level, it depends.

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    2. So would you say for pharmaceutical chemistry, UF's online program is good in regards to content? What you get in the traditional brick and mortar schools you get with the online program? Or is something missing? Or do you not like any online programs at all?

      Please don't take my questions as being smakry/combative. I'm still unsure if I should go online or traditional for pharmaceutical chemistry. There's UF's program but their is a near by school were I could take it part time as well. I'm just trying to get as much information as possible from a variety of sources before I make a decision so, any help/opinions are welcome/helpful.

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    3. It is more than apparent that you're trying to figure things out, Anon. No problem.

      I would say that it really depends. Are you searching for a graduate program or an undergraduate program?

      Graduate school (and for that matter, undergraduate experiences) in the sciences are about 1) learning the subject matter and 2) learning how to be a member of that particular scientific community. I believe that bricks-and-mortar schools do OK at the first (some better than others) and OK at the second.

      To find a job in chemistry, I believe that the second is just as important as the first. I do not believe that online programs in chemistry have proven themselves in the second at all. If you read the above blog entry, graduate school (if you join a research group) usually involves a rich set of interactions (seminars, oral exams, group meetings) that are simply NOT replicated in online programs. Perhaps I am wrong, but this is my (un?)informed impression.

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  16. In regards to online vs brick and mortar (or full vs part time) degree programs, it's all about what you want to do. I'm a chemistry teacher and I'm looking for advanced course work in chemistry. I plan on either doing UF's online pharm chem program or the University of St. Joseph’s (in CT) online Master's degree in Biochemistry. That is what I think online courses/degrees are good for: increasing content on a part time basis (or full time if your schedule allows).
    However, if you're looking to get into research/industry, then I agree that online courses (unless there is maybe a hybrid type of program) isn't the way to go for all the reasons stated above. It is important to become a “community member” if going into industry/research and doing things like: joining a research group, oral exams, defending a thesis, group meetings, lit reviews, seminars, etc. can only really be done as a full time student at a traditional (or maybe hybrid?) brick and mortar school.

    That's just one person's opinion. However, I hoped I helped/contributed to the discussion.

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