CSI grabbed your attention and you’re thinking about a job in the high-profile world of analytical chemistry. But you don’t know where to begin. If you’re like me and love science (particularly the science of chemistry), you’ll want to give yourself the best preparation possible. Forensic chemistry is one of the highest paid, fastest growing areas of chemistry, which means you’ll be sure to find a high paying job. But what about the biggest decision of your educational career: where to go to school?
Get your bachelor degree at a small school
When it comes to undergraduate education, bigger is not always better. Try to choose a school that has enough research grant money to ensure you’ll be able to get some hands on, real world experience. However, this does not have to mean a huge budget. Community colleges usually do not offer undergraduate research opportunities, though, so it is important especially in science to get some research experience early in your educational career. Choose a university that will allow you to do this. Some of the biggest names in graduate research, such as MIT, Caltech, Purdue, and others may not have enough space in laboratories to permit undergraduates to take an active role in chemical research. This is a big problem for you when it comes to applying to graduate school or looking for work. Most grad programs and employers want to see some solid research experience, and you can’t always get that as an undergrad at a big name school.
Networking is the key to employment
How many forensic chemists do you know? I am willing to bet that not many people in the U.S. have ever met or had any personal experience with a chemist outside of watching CSI. Scientific professions are truly different in that while you may know doctors, lawyers, and accountants, when you opt for a career in the sciences, it may sometimes feel like you’re flying blind. Get to know some professionals in your area. The best way to do this is to find out what firms in your area hire analytical chemists and talk to people working in those firms. This can help you to develop contacts who can help you land internships, and eventually find employment. Also, get to know your professors by going to their office hours. This can help you establish contacts both in industry and academia. It also helps if you’re thinking about grad school and need letters of recommendation.
Internships, internships, internships
Most forensic chemistry programs now require internships as part of their standard curricula. This is good because you will need some experience to get hired, and internships and volunteer positions count! When it comes time to seek your internship, those contacts you made by calling around or asking your professors will really come in handy.
In grad school, bigger is better
If you’re thinking about continuing on to graduate school, you have been well advised. While a decent salary as an analytical chemist is possible as an undergrad, if you really want to be an expert and take on a leadership role (i.e. if you really want to understand chemistry like the people on CSI) you will need more than a bachelor degree can offer. You will need to get your PhD.
When thinking about a PhD, a larger, better known school is usually an advantage. Larger schools tend to focus their efforts on their PhD candidates (NOT master’s degree candidates). Additionally, most PhD in chemistry programs will pay you a stipend monthly in addition to offering a full tuition waiver. You are probably well advised not to consider any program that does not offer these two things, as most of the competitive schools do. The best way to choose a school is to look at the U.S. News and World Report annual ranking of best graduate schools. This year’s listing for analytical chemistry included Purdue, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to name a few. After you’ve narrowed the list down to schools you would be willing to attend, check out their websites and research opportunities and apply. Once you are accepted, you will usually get the chance to visit each school on the university’s dime. This means you can evaluate each program and your potential research advisor’s for yourself. Notably, the top-ranked schools tend to have the funds and resources to support research, so take that into consideration when you choose a school.
As a member of one of the fastest growing professions in the country, enjoy your studies. The world of chemistry is captivating, and there is always something new to explore. Wherever you choose to get your education, you are becoming an important part of the scientific community and advancing the knowledge of the human race.