Selecting a Graduate School

Many people find the decision to continue their education past the B.S. level to be straightforward; however the decision as to which schools to select can be far more difficult. There is a vast number of schools, specific disciplines, and research areas to choose from. The time to begin looking at potential graduate programs is when you have decided to pursue an advanced degree. At the very least you should start this process a year before starting graduate school.

There are numerous sources of information available within the Chemistry Department to aid you in the selection process. The ACS annually publishes Chemical Sciences Graduate Finder, which is located in the department library and office. This listing only contains schools which actually submit the requested data to the ACS and is by no means a comprehensive listing of all schools with doctoral programs. It is useful with respect to getting a feel for academic requirements, tuition and graduate stipend levels. Also available in the Chemistry Department office is a copy of the ACS Directory of Graduate Research which lists all schools in the U.S. having graduate programs in chemistry and related areas, their faculty research areas, contact phone numbers and addresses, etc.

You will also find helpful information on individual graduate programs on the Web. The information provided can range from simple descriptions of the program to detailed listings of the faculty and their research interests, admission requirements, department resources for research, and many other items of interest.

There are a couple of good references in Swem which may be of practical use. The first is “Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D.” by Robert L. Peters, Noonday Press; New York. There are copies available on permanent overnight reserve and the bookstore may also have copies available. A second reference available in the reference section of Swem is "A Research Doctorate Programs in the United States" (Call # Q180.N334 1995). This reference ranks individual graduate programs within universities. Such references can be useful in finding quality programs in what you may have considered to be less distinguished graduate programs.

A final option is to simply talk to our faculty in the particular areas of chemistry which interest you the most. They have a vested interest in your future and are happy to discuss potential schools which may be the most viable relative to your interests and aptitude. A list of schools which the chemistry faculty consider to be good choices for graduate work at the doctoral level is given in Appendix 3. A sound doctoral education and rewarding career in chemistry can be obtained at many schools which are not listed as well.

There are a number of factors beyond your particular field(s) of interest which may become part of your decision for acceptance into a particular program. These include:

Location: You may have specific preferences with respect to climate, proximity to family and friends, recreational and social opportunities, size of the surrounding community, etc. Try making a list of what you consider to be a good location to spend the next 4-6 years of your life (but don't get too idealistic; choose a school which will give you the greatest opportunities to achieve your goals)

Reputation of the school: The chemistry faculty associated with your areas of interest can be of some help here. In addition, numerous statistics are presented in issues of Chemical and Engineering News, a weekly publication of the ACS. If you become a member of the ACS as a student affiliate you will receive C&E News on a weekly basis. For example, one issue lists all doctoral institutions with respect to the number of doctoral and masters students graduated from the previous year. This alone can give some indication of the productivity of a program relative to its peers. Special editions of news magazines such as U.S.News and World Report also contain rankings of graduate school programs.

Funding for research: A good sign for an active graduate program is guaranteed stipend support for your entire doctoral stay (provided that you remain in good academic standing). The funding strength of graduate programs is reflected in the annual report given in C&E News which lists the most active programs with respect to annual research dollars generated. Remember that your primary responsibility in graduate school is to perform the research necessary to produce a doctoral thesis and graduate. The more time that you must be supported by teaching assistantships, the less time available for research and the longer your stay. Also, you should not select a particular school simply because it offers the highest stipend; what you want is a school which provides the highest quality of education in your field(s) of interest.

Teaching load: Most schools require entering graduate students to teach one to two semesters, usually in lower division courses. This usually amounts to 8-10 contact hours per week plus grading responsibilities. Teaching stipends are usually at levels comparable to research stipends. You may wish to pursue additional teaching at advanced levels if you are interested in pursuing a career in academics; however, this may also decrease your research time and increase your stay. 

Course loads: Most of your graduate course work is completed within the first year, which serves as background material for written cumulative and comprehensive exams in your area of specialty for formal admittance into the doctoral program. Usually your graduate advisor will expect that you take a minimum amount of course work so that the maximum amount of time can be devoted to research, which hopefully translates into the minimum time required to complete the doctoral degree.

Faculty research interests: Probably the most difficult decision rests in determining what area of research to pursue. Such decisions do not need to be made prior to arrival at your institution of choice; and choosing a school with greater diversity in the number of faculty with research which you find interesting provides more flexibility with respect to the selection of a research mentor. You may not get your first choice depending on the number of students that can be supported. The ACS graduate directory provides a good indication of the productivity of listed faculty members via recent publication records. The materials that you receive from individual schools will usually have comprehensive overviews of each faculty member's research interests.

Entrance exams: Virtually every school you apply to will require that you submit scores for the verbal and quantitative tests from the Graduate Record Exams. Some schools will also require GRE scores from the chemistry subject test. We recommend that you complete both tests in a time frame which provides more flexibility in the school selection process (see upcoming section on GRE tests). Many schools also require that you take a series of in-house exams in each major area of chemistry upon arrival. These serve to assess your general aptitude in chemistry and identify potentially weak areas. This may result in the need to take additional courses in those areas identified as being below expectations.