The Chemist : FAQs about Grad School

Hey everyone! I hope you all are having amazing weeks. My life has officially picked up and I am BUSYYYYY! The start of the school year always comes with a lot of stuff, e.g. recruitment events, new students, training, meetings, etc. so suffice it to say I'm trying to keep my head above water and keep track of it all. With that being said, I want to wish all my new undergraduate and graduate students a successful semester! YOU CAN DO THIS!

This week's post is dedicated to answering some frequently asked questions about our jobs/school. I picked 5 questions that I tend to get asked when it comes to the transition into graduate school. Check out my responses below.

1. Do I HAVE to get a PhD?

Okay, this is a really common question people ask me. I even asked this one a lot myself before officially deciding to pursue one. My answer to this question really stems from what you actually want to do long term. If you want to be a university professor, then yes you have to get a PhD. Most of those positions require you to conduct research, mentor students, write grants,teach etc. and you need experience to do that. If you want to work in industry, you may need one. A lot of times companies either want you to have years of working experiences before moving up the chain of command OR a PhD, which is years of experience in and of itself.

My best piece of advice is to really consider what your career goals are and ask people in those types of positions what they recommend. Getting a PhD is not easy and it's also not for everyone, so unless it's vital for your career/advancement, you may be able to do the same things with a B.S. or a M.S. degree.

2. How important is having research experience prior to graduate school?

This is one of those "it can't hurt if you have it" type of situations. Doing undergraduate research helps you develop skills you'll need/use doing research on the graduate school level. It also helps you start to think about the kind of work you want to do while you get your PhD - or the kind of research you don't like. If you have a really good experience, like I did, you can even have opportunities to present your work and publish it. It's not 100% mandatory, but if you find an opportunity, I'd jump on it. What I valued most from my undergraduate research experience was that I got a chance to really get a feel for the type of advisor and group dynamic I wanted in graduate school. I used it as a "test run" for my time here at OSU and I'm glad I took that opportunity at Pitt.

3. Who should I get to write my recommendation letters?

This is sooo important! You want to make sure the professors you use to write these letters are people that you have actual relationships with! I really can't stress that enough. You want people that can speak to your character as well as your work ethic and your grades. There are a lot of people applying to these schools and you want to stand out in the pile, so having good recommendation letters is a great way to do that. What I try to remind my mentees and other students I work with is to start early and get to know at least 2 professors, outside of your academic advisor. Doing that helps your chances of getting a letter that isn't generic.

4. Can I really live off a graduate stipend?

So my short answer is yes, it's livable, BUT it really depends on where your program is. Columbus isn't as expensive of a place to live like Maryland, so my stipend here stretches farther. You have to be smart with your money in graduate school. It's money, but it's not a substantial amount. Some people live alone, others have roommates, but you won't be crazyyyyy poor. Budgeting will be your friend, I can tell you that much.

5. How different is grad school to undergrad?

This may be my favorite question to answer the more I think about it. Undergrad is school, yes, but there's also this huge social component to it. You go to class, party, and party some more. You're involved in other organizations or volunteering, you're enjoying life because for a lot of us we're 18-22 years old. Graduate school is school too, but it's also your job. You have more responsibilities than JUST classes or even other organizations. You have research, teaching/grading, grant writing, jobs within your research group, writing scientific publications, presenting that research, among other things. Looking at school as a job is the biggest difference I see between the two. Yes, I still go out occasionally, but not nearly as much as I did at Pitt. You're also older at this point too, so adulthood is coming at you fast, people are getting married, buying houses, having babies, and all other adult milestones are being met while you're in graduate school. So it's definitely different, but I think in a good way. It almost has to be different because it's a time to grow as a person and an academic. The priorities I had at Pitt are not the same as the ones I have here at OSU, but I'm appreciative of them both nonetheless.

Have any other questions for me? Tweet them to me and I'll be happy to answer them!

-The Chemist