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Topic: Need advice from graduate students in Physical/theoretical Chemistry!  (Read 11854 times)

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Offline be7cailay

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Hello,
I’m Chemistry Major/ junior at a university in California.  My total GPA is 3.94, and major GPA is 4.0. I estimate I will have a total of 2.5 years of research lab experience when I apply to graduate school.
I love to pursue Ph.D. in Physical/theoretical Chemistry although people around me (even my family) discourage me from pursuing it.  They think that it is a challenging but dead-end field.  My parents are very mad at me and want me to pursue MD degree because they think that MD earns more money and is suitable for a woman than this field. However, despite discouragements and bouts of self-doubt, I will stick to my goal. My degree program does not well-prepare for this field.  I have bought books and taught myself linear algebra, vector calculus, Complex variable, differential equations, probability theory, and Fortran (I know that I need more knowledge).   
My questions are:
I heard that because there are fewer applicants for Physical/Theoretical Chemistry, it is much easier to get into Ph.D programs at top schools (UCB, Havard, Cal Tech, MIT, etc.) Is that right?
How did you guys (graduate students in Physical/theoretical Chemistry) prepare during undergraduate years when undergraduate program does not prepare much knowledge for this field?
What is your advice for me, an undergraduate who wish to get into top schools in Physical/theoretical Chemistry? What do you wish that you should have done or prepared during undergraduate years?
Thank you very much!

Offline Corribus

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I love to pursue Ph.D. in Physical/theoretical Chemistry although people around me (even my family) discourage me from pursuing it.  They think that it is a challenging but dead-end field. 
Challenging: yes. Dead-end: no. However:

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My parents are very mad at me and want me to pursue MD degree because they think that MD earns more money and is suitable for a woman than this field.
The woman stuff is nonsense. However, MD will generally earn money, be easier to obtain, and will have more job options. There is no getting around this fact. My parents also wanted me to get an MD degree, and I actually was accepted at a few medical schools. At the last minute I changed my mind and entered a PhD program to study physical chemistry. I felt during the interview process for MD programs that it just wasn't for me.

I often wonder whether it was the right decision. Getting a PhD is a difficult path and not something someone should do unless they REALLY love the science. I did! But I didn't have a good long term plan. You also should have a definite goal as to what you want to do AFTER you get your PhD. I think a lot of people get to the end of their PhD and are like, now what? Be aware that most graduate schools do a pretty poor job of offering career guidance. This is often left up to the PI, who often either doesn't care about, or doesn't know, what options might be suitable for you. You will be steered toward being a professor, a job which is certainly not for everyone. There are a lot of jobs for PhD chemists out there, but it can take creativity and personal drive to find them, because nobody in graduate schools are going to help you find them, and may actually pressure you against taking jobs outside of academia. Conversely, getting a medical degree with give you opportunities anywhere in the country. This is something important to consider.

Am I discouraging you from pursuing a PhD? No. You should follow what interests you. There is no value in getting an MD degree if it's not what you love. And you shouldn't go after a job just because the pay is better. A well paying job that you hate is not a route toward happiness. I love physical chemistry, and I was lucky enough to find a reasonably well-paying job -  outside of academia - that I also like very much, although I had to forge that path pretty much alone.

Still. I have to wonder whether I couldn't have grown to love being a physician as well. A much easier path that paid more money and gave me more job options for my family. My wife is also a PhD scientist and finding jobs for both of us in the same geographical location has been virtually impossible. We currently live in different cities. We both are happy and successful professionally (really, I LOVE my job), but our personal lives are very challenging. Our lives would be easier if one of us had a "normal job". Had I gotten an MD degree, it might be that we would both be happy in our personal lives, but I'd be dissatisfied with my professional life.

This is just my personal story, of course. Yours could be different. Ultimately, there is no easy answer. It depends on what you want out of life. My advice is to plan, plan, plan, follow your heart, and hope for the best. :)

(Note: MD/PhD is an option you could consider. I personally view them as a waste. I know of very few MD/PhDs who can successfully balance being a medical professional and a career scientist. Neither job is one that can be done well part time. I think most of them ultimately must pick one or the other to focus on, so the time spend getting the other degree is a waste. I also wonder at the quality of a 3 year PhD degree. Still, it does allow you to postpone your decision for a few years. Do note that these programs are geared toward more biological chemistry, although I think this is changing as the opportunities for physical chemistry and nanoscience in biomedicine are better recognized now than when I was looking at them. They can be quite difficult to get into.)

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I heard that because there are fewer applicants for Physical/Theoretical Chemistry, it is much easier to get into Ph.D programs at top schools (UCB, Havard, Cal Tech, MIT, etc.) Is that right?
Graduate schools ARE easier to get into than medical schools. If you are an American, you will also have an easier time, although I don't have data to back this up. Do note that there are a number of quite excellent chemistry programs at schools you wouldn't necessary think of right off the bat, so do your research. Don't just pick a school because it has a flashy name. Make sure there are faculty members doing things you're interested in before you select a school. Contact those faculty members and send them resumes. Having them interested in you ahead of time can't hurt when it comes to getting into a program.

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How did you guys (graduate students in Physical/theoretical Chemistry) prepare during undergraduate years when undergraduate program does not prepare much knowledge for this field?
I don't really know what this means. My undergraduate program prepared me very well.

If I do have one piece of advice, it is that in your chemistry career, try to learn marketable skills. Theoretical chemistry is great, but there will be far less job opportunities outside of academics than if you have experience in analytical chemistry techniques or other practical areas of chemistry. There are academic researchers out there who have labs that will give you experience in both experimental and theoretical chemistry. I STRONGLY urge you to consider one of those if your primary interest is physical theoretical chemistry. It will keep many doors open for you as you begin to consider careers later in your PhD program. Learn as many instrumental techniques as you can in graduate school. You will be a much more marketable professional if you know how to do ICP-MS, HPLC, GC-MS, and so on. Even if they aren't part of your core interest, I'd still try to learn such skills. Having options when you are close to graduation is never a bad thing.
« Last Edit: May 30, 2015, 08:56:34 AM by Corribus »
What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?  - Richard P. Feynman

Offline kriggy

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I think the woman part is ridiculous. The computational group at my Uni is like 50% women. Its tough choice but I think you should go after the job you want to do. Its your life and will have to deal with the consequences of choosing either of your options. My mum was convincing me to go for med school but I didnt want so I become a chemists and I dont regret it

Offline Arkcon

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That is an excellent summary for everyone considering the sciences Corribus: -- snacks aren't enough to highlight this importance.  I'm going to set this thread sticky for everyone to see as soon as they arrive.

be7cailay:, when you're confronted with a difficult opinion question like this one, it often pays to ask people to be more quantitative.  How much "better" is a doctor than a PhD chemist?  What criteria is your family using. Did I fall into a crack in time to the 1930's and are you going to hear, "You'll catch a better husband?"  Or something like that?
Hey, I'm not judging.  I just like to shoot straight.  I'm a man of science.

Offline Corribus

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@Arkcon

I am glad you found the post potentially useful to aspiring students. It is a topic that hits home a little bit for me because I experienced some of the same pressures as the opening poster. Having now the benefit of time, and being a parent myself, my view on the issue has matured since I was entering graduate school what seems like eons ago.

In the last few hours I thought about this topic some more. Here are a few additional thoughts on parental pressure that may be useful, not just to aspiring physical chemists, but also to aspiring chemists, aspiring scientists or even just aspiring professionals:

Parents can be useful sources of information, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Parents have different priorities than you do. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that they understand that priorities are different when you're 40 than they are when they're 20. In this sense, you should take their advice seriously because they have the benefit of wisdom. When I was 22 and entering graduate school, I wasn't thinking about the weighty pressures of careers, family, retirement, home ownership, and so forth, that now press upon me like the atmosphere of Venus! Now I see that some of the things they were concerned about I should have taken more seriously. At the least, I should have done a better job of trying to understand what an important decision I was making and what some of the possible downstream implications of that decision were. It's hard to do that when you're 22 and feel like you have eons of time ahead of you to find your place in the world. But those eons go by quickly and the decision you make now WILL set you on a path that will determine the course of your life. Perhaps not irrevocably, but the current is certainly stronger than I ever would have thought.

On the other hand, your parents can't get inside you and know what makes you tick as a person. They are looking at your decision from the outside. They consider the material part of happiness, but it's impossible for them to incorporate your personality, desires, ambitions, and passions into the complex algorithm that anyone must use when making a decision. When it comes to distinguishing between medical school and graduate school, they look at the physical aspects of a career, not the emotional ones. This means their advice, while valuable, lacks an important aspect of consideration. It also means they won't understand it when you show signs of choosing another path. This is true for any decision you will make, but especially so when it comes to choosing science over medicine.

Here's why.

Most non-scientists understand medical careers. People get what doctors do, what their value to society is, and - especially - they see the lucrative nature of a career in medicine. People interact with doctors all the time. Doctors cure our physical ailments, make lives visibly and immediately better. We will all need their skills sooner or later. And their lives in medical dramas on television are glorified. Shows like ER, Gray's Anatomy, and even House scream, "Doctors make a difference, dammit!" Doctors are usually depicted as handsome, successful, intelligent, wise, gregarious, confident, empathetic, sympathetic, and wealthy. They make weighty decisions over life and death with aplomb. They wear shiny white lab coats with their names embroidered on them. They drive nice cars, dress well, and live in big houses. Hell, physicians as professionals have even stolen the title of doctor from the common lexicon, as though the public has already collectively decided that the medical degree is the only doctorate worth recognizing.

The role of scientists in our society, while no less important, is abstract. This is even more true for research scientists. Our labor may not bear fruit for decades, even if we work in practical areas. Popular culture has a mixed view of scientists, casting them as villains or - if as heroes - as socially awkward, dumpy looking nerds, and movies, books, and computer games often are driven by themes related to the potential dangers and ethical quagmires of scientific progress. People love technology, but corporations and entrepreneurs like Apple and Steve Jobs are the sexy and exciting face of technology, not scientists. And people don't have many chances to interact with scientists to see what they are like or what they do in their daily lives. Their only first-hand experience with academic scientists may be their college professors, and their memories of those professors, if they are not scientifically inclined, are probably not good ones.

To be fair, some of these stereotypes ARE grounded in reality, although there is place here for what came first: the chicken or the egg? It is possible the stereotypes are self-perpetuating. I'll leave that open for discussion.

Like the opening poster, I was interested in physical chemistry in college, and this interest blossomed into a successful experience as a graduate student. My parents came to my dissertation defense and I know they didn't understand a word of it. They didn't understand its value. What the hell was I doing? What was the use of those equations, those abstract symbols all over my slides? The ubiquity of foreign students probably didn't help improve their disconnect with my professional environment, their tendency to feel like an alien in my world.  My conversations with my parents about my work life during graduate school were always awkward. Because they were my parents, they were interested in my life in a general sort of way, but there was simply no way to explain what I was doing, why it was important to me, much less to society. (Hell, it was even hard for me to understand it sometimes!) So when they would ask me what I was doing, I started shrugging off the question, even deriding what I was doing with a laugh about its purported uselessness. I certainly didn't give off the vibe that I loved what I was doing or found it particularly interesting. In retrospect, I don't think this was a smart thing for me to do, because it only fed into their concern about my choice to be a scientist. I should have been more up front about why science excited me, and done a better job explaining why the research was potentially valuable. As a scientist you need to work hard to bring people in your world, and it's a skill you better learn now. Admittedly, this is especially hard for a physical chemist. At least an organic chemist can point to pharmaceutical research or beneficial natural products.

This is better for me now. I am still a research scientist but my research is far more applied. I work for a well-known branch of the federal government, and thus it's much easier to point toward the value of what I do - if not my personal work, at least they understand the value of my employer. Honestly, I think this new avenue between my value as a professional and the sphere of experience possessed by the average person is the chief reason why I am so happy in my current position. When I'm asked what I do for a living, I no longer have to explain. I just tell them who I work for, and this is enough for them to nod their head with interest and respect. It is a good feeling to finally have people see value in what I do, even if it's a general kind of understanding. Beyond that, I think I've also gotten better at explaining what I do and how it's useful to people. Another valuable skill I've learned in my position outside of academia. Speaking to nonscientists is a necessary part of my current job, and it's something I would urge any aspiring scientist to start practicing early. Your parents, not surprisingly, would be a good audience to start with. (As an aside, I think a lot of scientists do the profession a disservice by treating laypeople with measured disdain: "They couldn't possibly understand, those ignorant masses, so I won't even both to trying." There is plenty of social science research to demonstrate the various negative impacts of the wide, bidirectional communication gulf between scientists and laypeople.)

Where I was going with all that is this. Your parents are a good source of information. Their hearts are in the right place and they do want what's best for you. You should heed what they say about careers and family and so on. But they don't know everything and they don't know what's in your heart. There's no easy answer to what you should do with your life. The best you can do is do what you love, but keep your options open. It's never too late to shift gears and do something else, and this is most easily accomplished when you have more skills, more experience, and a wider network of supporters, colleagues, and friends. So, if you choose to go to graduate school, learn as much as you can, work as hard as you can, meet as many people as you can, plan as far ahead as you can, and be the best that you can at everything you do. Expect disappointment, tragedy, setbacks, self-doubt, failure, sadness, frustration, heartbreak, stress and fear. But know that you'd encounter these in whatever career path you choose.  And most of all, tell your parents what you're doing and why it excites you. They can be your biggest fans, and can offer you the physical and emotional support you're going to need to make it to the end of your journey toward your PhD, but you have to help them understand what they're supposed to be cheering for.

One other thing, about women in sciences. Twenty years ago, it may have been an accurate statement to say that women in sciences, particularly in hard physical sciences, would have been an abnormality. But this is absolutely not true today. You can find actual statistics somewhere at the Chemical and Engineering News website, which publishes a kind of census every year. I believe it's pretty evenly divided now across the gender lines. It may be true that women are slightly underrepresented in theoretical chemistry, BUT there are still plenty of brilliant female physical chemists out there. Up until recently the editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics, the premier journal for theoretical chemistry for almost a century, was a woman. Many of the greatest scientific minds today in science, be it biology, physics, chemistry, or whatever, belong to women - my wife, I like to think, emerging as one of them, but maybe I'm a tad biased ;). Being a woman is the LAST reason that you should shy away from a career in science. So, anybody who thinks that a career in physical science is no place for a woman is simply misinformed. Period.
« Last Edit: May 31, 2015, 12:39:58 AM by Corribus »
What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?  - Richard P. Feynman

Offline be7cailay

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To Corribus:
Thank you very much for your great insight and advice! I really appreciate it.  Actually, I finished all prerequisites for med school with decent grades but did not apply.  I struggle a lot to decide that I will go to grad school at all costs.  I know a clear fact that medicine is not for me.  I mean I can learn to get a good grade but it is very painful for me to be in Bio class.  Reading Bio books bores me to death.  I’m tired of making flash cards and memorizing.  On the contrary, Math, Physics, and Chemistry books are so fascinating to me.  I want to understand more and more.  I don’t care what title or social status the society will give to me when I get an MD.  However, I acknowledge that fact that money is vital, and that priorities are different at different ages.  I, myself, was born in a third world country and in poverty.  We managed to survive in the economy that had been damaged heavily by war.  Now, our family’s economy improves a lot in the U.S.  Through all, I know that money is very important.  However, my harsh childhood makes me satisfied with a professor’s salary, and I do not have a desire to be better than anyone.  I just want to live a happy life and do what I love.  Anyways, I really respect your insight and experience.
Thank you very much!!!

Offline be7cailay

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Can I use your sentences "So, if you choose to go to graduate school, learn as much as you can, work as hard as you can, meet as many people as you can, plan as far ahead as you can, and be the best that you can at everything you do. Expect disappointment, tragedy, setbacks, self-doubt, failure, sadness, frustration, heartbreak, stress and fear." as my signature in forums ? ;D I actually  have experienced all of these feelings during undergraduate years.

Offline Corribus

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Sure, I suppose.

I hope you understand, though, that it's not really about salary. It's about job opportunities and the difficulty of maintaining a family. Combined my wife and I make more than enough money to be happy - although everyone has their individual barometer on that score.  But we can't find jobs in the same city because of the nature of what we do. So though we make a great living, we're living apart. That sucks as far as our family is concerned. If one of us was an accountant or a dentist or a school teacher, it would be a far different situation.
What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?  - Richard P. Feynman

Offline pm133

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Re: Need advice from graduate students in Physical/theoretical Chemistry!
« Reply #8 on: February 01, 2016, 03:27:55 AM »
My parents are very mad at me and want me to pursue MD degree because they think that MD earns more money and is suitable for a woman than this field.

This is the most depressing thing I have read on here.
To think in 2016 we still have people with attitudes like this is unbelievable.
I imagined what my daughter's response would be if I said this to her this.
I can pretty much guarantee she would absolutely explode at me before moving out, ignoring me and doing exactly what she wanted - I would deserve it.

It is my hope that this sort of attitude dies sooner rather than later.

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