Is Grad School Right for You?
If you’re thinking about becoming a researcher, educator, or pursuing another career requiring significant expertise in chemistry, you are probably thinking about going to graduate school. But grad school is more than just an extension of college. Before embarking on the journey to a master’s or Ph.D., there are many differences between college and grad school you may need to consider.
As an undergrad, there is a huge focus on grades and GPAs. You are expected to learn from lectures, textbooks, and hands-on laboratory experiments — and then be able
to demonstrate your understanding of concepts through exams, projects, or papers. In graduate school, there is less of a focus on classwork and GPAs. You only take classes for the first year or two, which typically move at a faster pace and require more time outside of lecture.
Your focus in graduate classes should not be on the grade, but instead on setting the foundation necessary for further independent study in your field. Progress isn’t measured by credit hours or grades, but rather by completing specific program requirements, working in the research lab, and your ability to communicate results to other scientists. Graduate program requirements may include research reports, a qualifying exam, teaching requirements, a research proposal, a written thesis, and a thesis defense. Your research advisor will also have a big influence on your progression through graduate school and when you complete your studies.
As you progress through your graduate career, you will be expected to learn independently through reading the literature and attending seminars instead of reading textbooks and attending formal lectures. After classes are completed, there are no formal lectures
or exams encouraging you to learn; instead, you must motivate yourself to continue learning. Reading and searching through the literature will become a part of your daily routine. You will also learn from colleagues and visiting professors, and through group meetings and informal discussions with lab mates.
Perhaps the greatest difference between undergraduate and graduate school is that as a grad student, research becomes your main priority. If you do research as an undergrad, it is fitted into your schedule around classes, studying, and other extracurricular activities. As a grad student, everything is scheduled around your time in the lab, which can easily be 60-80 hours per week. Early in your graduate career, you will begin working on your
thesis project, and working on this project will be your primary focus for the next few years of your academic life. Research will often require late nights, early mornings, and weekends in the lab. Extracurricular activities and time with family and friends are often scheduled around experiments. In college, there are times when studying for finals or finishing a project requires your complete attention. This is also true for graduate school. The few weeks before a department presentation or a qualifying exam can be very stressful, but these are the times when the studying and planning skills you learned in college will come in handy. There may also be occasions when more time is required in the lab, right when you’re also trying to finish a paper or thesis, for example. The organizational skills you learn in college will be very useful during semesters in grad school when you have to juggle classes, teaching, and research, so don’t throw out that college planner just yet!
Completing your degree
The journey through grad school is unique for each student and is often influenced by your specific research project, as well as your advisor’s opinion of your progress as a researcher and teacher. Time to complete a graduate degree depends on the group you join, the research project you undertake, and the pace at which you work. One’s journey is also influenced by future career and personal goals. For example, someone who wants an academic career may focus more on teaching and mentoring compared with someone focused on a career in industry. Graduate school is a serious commitment, but it also provides many new and exciting opportunities to learn and make a contribution to the scientific community.