Wednesday, January 28, 2015

7 things every chemistry PhD student should see before they go to graduate school

From Thoreau, a funny suggestion (emphasis mine): 
Adjuncts are planning a nationwide walk-out on Feb. 25. In my ideal world, any student seeking a PhD would be unable to register for the GRE or request recommendation letters until they submitted documentation that they had attended the protests and had written a 5-page essay on “What I learned from attending the National Adjunct Walkout Day protests.”  Those seeking a STEM PhD would also be required to spend a day shadowing a disgruntled 6th-year postdoc. 
Med schools want applicants to shadow practicing medical doctors to get a feel for what they are getting themselves into.  This practice should be extended to all doctoral programs.
Here's my suggested list of things that a prospective chemistry graduate student should have to do before they sign on:
  1. One full iteration of "someone should organize this flammable cabinet" at group meeting. 
  2. Be forced to have a 20-minute conversation with a 5th-year graduate student that stayed up all night running a column and rotovapping fractions.
  3. The discomfort on a PI's face when asked "so where have your students gone over the last 10 years?" 
  4. Fill out 20 applications to various entry-level Ph.D. positions in industry. You cannot leave until the phone rings or you get 5 rejection letters. 
  5. A required signature from the 10th-year graduate student who arrives in the lab at 11 pm each night to work the overnight shift.
  6. Sign-off from NMR staff scientist, asking "so what do you think of my chances?" 
  7. Required 30 minute conversation with department chair, mostly consisting of awkward pauses.
There's my (rather silly) list -- what's yours? 


  1. 7a. "So tell me Professor X, just how many of your students have obtained a tenure-track job in the past five years?"

  2. Make them run a 200 fraction column that fails to get separation twice.

    Lose all of an advanced intermediate (5+ steps) when a hose pops loose on a refluxing reaction and everything gets baked.

    1. ...And then explain it to the boss.

  3. 30 minutes of mechanism questions after a night with no sleep

    1. Only 30?

    2. Throw in some biology questions about whatever you're targeting.

  4. Assessment of ability to charm the glassblowers into making some custom, useless, piece of equipment

  5. Lunch with a laid-off middle-aged industrial chemist who can't pay the mortgage without spending down his/her retirement funds...

  6. Listening to 30 min worth of verbal insults. If your heart rate goes up, the clock resets. You're only allowed to leave when the full time expires.

  7. I'm feeling very jaded today so here's mine:

    1) Before joining a group: Find out exactly how many students have not completed their PhDs from the group/dept, and also how many do not have permanent jobs (with benefits and a salary larger than 50k) 10 years on from starting their PhD and calculate the odds that they will have a permanent job with a salary larger than 50k in ten years. Sign an agreement recognizing those are the basic odds and it might get worse. Make sure they recognize how old they will be in ten years. Have them plan our their finances (or lack thereof) over the next ten years, especially if they are thinking of starting a family/buying a house. Have a financial planner approve of their plan before they start the PhD.

    A 3-parter if interested specifically in academia:
    1) Find total number of positions open in their field in that year across all types of schools they would be interested in. Also count the ratio of research schools to PUIs. Look at the CV's of those people just hired at R1s and those just hired at PUIs. Count the first author JACS/Science/Nature papers. I was someone who thought I was going to go to a R1.... not realizing that my output in grad school was nowhere near what it needed to be. I'm glad I am a happy at a PUI, but I wish I had known back then.

    2) Have them job shadow an assistant professor at a small PUI in a city they have never been to (preferably a quarter system with a large teaching load). Count the "hours worked", including grading, advising, and class prep. Have them ask the dept how many applicants they get for 1 position on average. They need to ask what the average startup budget is (basically, they should recognize that they will never have as much equipment and funds available as they do in grad school/postoc). Have them ask the PUI prof how they learned how to teach and ask about someone who didn't get tenure and why it happens. The prospective student must then write a 5-page reflection on the experience. They should recognize that this professor could be them in 10 years if interested in academia. This will be very good practice and an eye-opener.

    3) Maybe not before starting the PhD, but before getting it: Write at least two different 12-page grant applications (don't need to submit, because we will assume they will be rejected on the first round round anyway) as if they were from a PUI. They won't be accepted if they can't be done by the individual working with 2 undergrads doing ca. 5-10 h a week, but also must be JACS-worthy science. This will actually be good practice for making job applications/writing grants later.

    After that, if they are still interested in getting a PhD and going into academia, more power to them!

  8. 21. Have them spend a full weekend troubleshooting the following question from the lab undergrad:
    "I keep injecting my sample into the HPLC, and I don't see anything out the other side"

    22. Put them in charge of updating the lab website. With posed pictures and full literature backlog.

    23. Ask the department emeriti whether they're keeping up-to-date with all the recent methodology.

    24. (Same as #23, but directed to the first-years)

    25. It's 4:00 PM. Grade a stack of 400 Organic Chem 1 tests by hand before midnight.
    Bonus - provide useful feedback to students.

  9. 1) have a conversation with an unemployed chemist who is now divorced, has been laid off every 2-4 yrs and is barely able to make ends meet (wife left him because he told her that they would probably have to relocate for a new job for the THIRD time).
    2) conduct personal research on the chemistry job market
    3) Shadow a McDonald's or Walmart employee for a day (you'll likely be working there after your first postdoc)
    4) Take courses in Economics and Abnormal Psychology (because ultimately choosing to do a Ph.D is not only unwise and financially risky but it is pure insanity)
    5) Write a personal essay on "The Meaning of Life" (you're either pondering it's meaning by choosing to go to grad school or you will ponder it sometime during or after grad school.. you might as well get it out of the way now)
    6) Interview with an adjunct professor with broken self esteem and listen to him ramble how he had to settle for a job with no benefits because tenure track positions are few and far between
    7) Interview with an honest P.I. who will tell you that you cannot make a stable, earnest living with a career in science and you'd be better off becoming a high school teacher, doctor, accountant or finance director (I actually had a P.I. tell me this before)
    8) Visit a psych ward. You'll be there at the end of your 5th year after your final product (a multistep natural product) fails to cyclize steroselectively (as you had planned) and you realize that you've wasted your prime earning years in a Ph.D lab. Then, a year find out that someone used an ENZYME to carry out the same step ONCE that took you unsuccessfully tried for YEARS.
    9) Have someone reject their graduate school admission application and at the bottom in italics it should read "You'll thank me later".

  10. Nattering nabobs of negativism.......

    How about:

    1. Ask a grad student how exciting it is the first time they see their name in print on a paper (not that I deliberately left this journal open to the page my first article was printed on....back when "libraries" had journals printed on "paper").

    2. Talk to someone who gets to move from a podunk town in the middle of BFE to SoCal for a post-doc. Yes, they'll spend a lot of time in the lab, but it's still pretty fun.

    3. Realize that you're getting paid, albeit it modestly, to go to school.

    4. Experience how much more fun it is to be on a vibrant university campus than in a grey industrial park on the outskirts of it-really-doesn't-matter-where.

    5. Ask a recent grad how good it feels to walk out of your comp/thesis defense.

    6. Check with someone who has had a molecule they conceived of and realized how they felt knowing a sick patient benefitted from their effort.

    7. Impressive your friend by knowing the difference between a erlenmeyer and a volumeteric flask is (or Abderhalden pistol vs soxhalet).

    1. bt is in fantasy land

    2. Glad to see a non-jaded post on here. I know its not the best odds to make it, and sure I didn't know what I was getting into heading off to grad school, but follow what your passion is.

    3. I'm sorry but #6 is just a recipe for disillusionment. People need to understand that they'll be lucky if one drug they're involved in ends up getting approval. My first research project was going to revolutionize pain management- in six months to a year. Many years later and I'm still making analogs and hoping the assay is providing actual data. Selling pie in the sky is the last thing people need before committing to graduate school. Besides I thought that's what advisors were for.

    4. Anon 10:16AM this is a reason I switched from medchem to process chem wanting more tangiable application of my efforts therefore if substitute "developed a scaleable manufacturing route" for "conceived" could target most process people

  11. A positive attitude is nice and all, but most of the outlined benefits are either not generally applicable and/or are not specific for graduate study in chemistry.

    1. It is nice to see your name in press. I'll give you that.
    2. Is every single postdoc in southern California? Is getting a postdoc or going to graduate school the only way to move there?
    3. You can get paid a lot more doing other stuff. You may even have the free time to learn about other things that interest you on your own. If the 5-10 years of graduate study isn't truly an investment and you end up doing something that didn't require that degree, you actually cost yourself a lot of money.
    4. You've obviously never been to MIT. Not all college campuses are Gardens of Eden. Not all regular jobs are in Depressionville, USA.
    5. How the student feels will depend on whether they've landed their next position. A more honest and valuable assessment would take place some time after the defense. Has defending the thesis really changed anything in his or her life?
    6. As Anon 10:16 AM said, the number of people who can claim this is quite small. Also, what if you're not into drug discovery? That's not the only worthwhile reason to do chemistry.
    7. Trust me, they won't care.

    You should go into chemistry if (1) you're willing to make sacrifices to learn more about the subject and (2) you are really good at it. Certainly don't do it simply because some Pollyanna blew smoke up your rear about the beauty of academics.

    1. 2. Clearly not every Post-doc is in SoCal, though for me the only way to have gotten there was via grad school. Personal choice: I'm sure the University of Manitoba is lovely at least once or twice a year.
      3. DK $$ is the be all/end all. It's nice to have, but I don't think it makes people happy (note, I am a ruthless ruthless capitalist).
      4. I have been to MIT. That big bldg with the dome facing the Charles is stupendous. Heck, even Carleton University isn't terrible.
      5. Defense maybe feels good the way finishing a marathon does---relief it's over + satisfaction of having accomplished something. It still feels good when I recall it, let's say, "years" later.
      6. Still has to feel good....
      7. Maybe sub in 'because nothing makes you feel alive first thing in the morning like adding fresh Pd/C to MeOH/HCOOH'?

      I agree one should study what you enjoy and think is of use. I'd posit that 5 years as an accountant making 6 figures would have cost me more in unhappiness than 6 years averaging less than 1/3 that as a grad student/PDF. But, hey, if putting on the same grey suit to go sit at the same desk everyday adding the same #s (and making sure A = S + L!) excites you, then have fun.

  12. Nice to see own name on a publication, but the excitement lasts 5...4...3...2...1.

  13. 1. Watch Costa-Gavras' "Les Couperet" (The Axe).

    2. Read "Lethal Chemistry at Harvard"

    3. Look at all the dissertations from your potential lab from the past 5 years.

    4. Obtain a list of all graduates from your prospective advisor/program and do a google "Where are they now?" search.

    5. Go to the Grand Canyon and trace the layers of sediment to the bottom to see the time when chemists were well paid.

    6. Ask to see where the postdocs eat? Notice what they are eating.

    7. Look at alternative careers before you apply.

  14. Is it just really bad for the synthetic/organic chemists? I've talked to a few physical/analytical chemists in grad school and it doesn't sound that bad.

    1. You know how the MLS is thought of as a place where famous international footballers come to retire. Well analytical chemistry is where synthetic chemist go to die. I have met and worked with more organic chemist (transitioned into analytical chemistry) during my time doing analytical chemistry than I did when I worked as a medicinal chemist. (Slight exaggeration but still true.)