Friday, May 29, 2015

CD: "My advice is to find the right advisor..."

Our fourth story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "CD." It has been redacted for privacy.
I was an undergrad at [large public university] and [a famous chemist] was scheduled to give a seminar. I managed to get myself on his schedule so that I could try to set myself up to join his group after I graduated. He was great and agreed that he would take me.  
When I joined his group, he assigned me to a project I wasn't so excited about. It was a weird time when he had no postdocs. My first assignment was to synthesize a class of compounds that a senior person on the project had failed to make. As [they were] the only person I could go to for advice, needless to say, my syntheses all failed and I was pretty depressed. In order to talk to my PI, I literally had to make an appointment with [a number of layers of admins] to see him. After finally talking to him, he encouraged me to stay in and even found me opportunities to do more teaching (my passion), but I knew I didn't have the background to figure out the synthesis on my own.  
I left (after successfully passing my 2nd year written and oral exams) and struggled to find a job in industry as a BS chemist. I finally did and was making [consumer product coatings] for a small company when I painfully discovered my allergy to isocyanates.  
I had already begun the process to finish a MS at [another, smaller public university] and switched to their PhD program. My new PI was AWESOME even though he made me take the ACS organic exam before he would accept me. He gave me to a postdoc to work under at first and an easy project to get my feet wet. I graduated in 4 years with 5 pubs, 2 first author, and 3 more in progress. 
I am now an assistant professor at a PUI and didn't do a postdoc. My advice is to find the right advisor and to realize that the right timing is everything.
Thanks to CD for their story. Readers, if you're interested in sharing your story of staying or leaving graduate school in chemistry, please e-mail me at


  1. Wow nice and inspiring story. Is it possible to get an assistant professor job without doing post-doc? I really do not want to do a post-doc, I would like to get a real job in industry or academia once I graduate. If anyone can give some advice to avoid that step I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

  2. This fall, I will be starting as an assistant professor at a PUI straight out of my PhD program. I am coming from a university where several of my friends have managed to do the same thing, so it is definitely possible to skip the post-doc. However, the reality is that for a lot of the positions you apply to, you will be competing with people who have completed post-docs and/or have been adjunct and visiting professors before. Generally, unless you have some extraordinary teaching experience from grad school (which I did not), you need to be willing to apply all over the country, interview at places that are not ideal for you but could act as a starting point for your career, and your application materials need to be pretty polished. My stats are as follows: 26 applications (although I had another 20 schools on my list that I never ended up needing to send out), 4 phone/Skype interviews, 1 on-campus visit, 1 offer (which I accepted). The position I got looks perfect for me and I was lucky that my particular experiences (outreach efforts, specific classes I had taught, etc) matched exactly what the search committee was looking for (although it wasn't all listed in their job posting). If you are serious about wanting to teach, I recommend looking into adjuncting some evening classes locally while still in grad school (some of my friends did this and had an easier time getting job offers) and getting involved in any pedagogical development programs your university might have. My university also allows grad students to teach their own course over the summer (as opposed to just TAing) and while it is a lot of work, it is a huge asset to have when applying for jobs at many PUIs. The disclaimer for all of this advice is that some PUIs will still care more about publication record than teaching experience, but if you want to be a teacher, those are not necessarily the types of places you want to go anyways. Finally, try not to get discouraged...all of the positions that I was really excited about when I started applying went to someone else but I'm very happy with where I am going. Good luck!

  3. It is definitely possible to get an assistant professor job at a PUI without a postdoc. It’s really about finding a good fit with research expectations. My colleagues at more prestigious liberal arts colleges all say they require a postdoc, mostly due to their expectation of research (external funding, several publications for tenure). Lots of other colleges have more modest research expectations and so they don’t require a postdoc. You will need to show research potential. It was especially important for me to have mentored undergrads while in grad school and also make sure my research proposal is structured for working with undergrads. Looking back, if you don’t want to do a postdoc, make sure to get involved in writing articles and grants for your research while in grad school. That will be helpful when applying for the startup research grants (PRF & ResearchCorp). My advisor was amazingly helpful in helping setting me up with the undergrad students to mentor and working with me through that process and letting me get some neat teaching experiences (PFF and lecturing in one of his courses). He is experienced in successfully working with undergrads and gave fantastic advice about how to structure my research proposal.

    From my own experience, I applied to 11 places, all in the midwest although my definition of the midwest expanded quite a bit during the process. I got one phone interview, three site interviews, and two offers. For the two places I got offers, I feel like I got offers because I was a really good fit. One was looking for a computational chemist and the other wanted a physical chemist that could teach organic too. I always get the feeling I might have gotten a little lucky for fitting right into what they wanted.

    Every year, the Midwestern Undergraduate Computational Chemistry Consortium (MU3C), which I am part of, has a summer meeting at an midwest R1 university. At the end of our meeting, we always have a Q & A session with the grad students and postdocs of the university. One of the most common misconceptions is that all PUI want a ton of teaching experience for their applicants. You definitely need some teaching experience and have shown interest and potential in teaching, but there is an expectation that your teaching will greatly improve after the first year or two.

    Hope this is helpful.