What Chemistry Graduate School is like


I had the privilege of attending graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1979 to 1984.  Berkeley was and still is considered to be the top graduate program in chemistry in the United States.  I formally worked for Glenn Seaborg, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951.  Glenn and I shared one thing in common.  We both graduated from high schools located in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.  He graduated from David Starr Jordan High School in the Watts section of Los Angeles and I graduated from Castlemont High School in the Elmhurst district of Oakland.  Professor Seaborg was winding down his career as a research scientist and I was his penultimate graduate student.  Because he was slowing down and taking care of other activities with the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), the Lawrence Hall of Science and even assisting teaching assistants for a freshman chemistry class, my de facto research director was a senior staff scientist employed by LBL.

Initially in graduate school you are involved with taking classes and serving as a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes.  As part of the graduate program you are paid a modest stipend to help assist with your living costs and tuition, which at that time was very low.  Unlike undergraduate life, you are expected to study topics well beyond that covered in class.  That is why exams are so difficult because the professor will usually test you on topics not covered in class but from the reading material.  Also a lot of analytical thinking is involved so that answers for an exam question can be quite long.  Working as a teaching assistant is also quite challenging.  Many students have no experience teaching and many consider it a distraction from their studies and research work.  Fortunately I had a teaching background since I completed a professional teaching program to obtain my teaching credential.  Although I was able to explain things clearly, I was not a good teacher because I was too “nice” and could not control my class.  However in college, especially at Berkeley, the students are much more motivated and well behaved, so that was not a problem for me.  I considered teaching both a joy and a challenge and it was a welcome change from studying for classes and doing research work.

Once you pass all your classes within the first two years of the program, the bulk of your time is committed to carrying out research work.  Research is quite different from taking classes.  You are expected to be creative and carry out original research, often with little assistance from your research director.  You are expected to have your own ideas and execute them.  This skill does not necessarily come hand in hand with doing well in classes.  Many students that have good textbook knowledge are poor researchers and vice versa.  Also you must be committed to spending many hours on your research.  Twelve hour days are not uncommon and you are also expected to work part of the time on weekends.  Finally there is the matter of passing your qualifying examination.  Depending on the program this can be either an oral or written examination or both.  You must spend many hours knowing your research as well as studying almost any topic in chemistry.  I even remember memorizing the Periodic Table to help with my discussions and impress the review committee at the same time.  Depending on the program, the wait after completing your exam to determine whether you have passed may be immediate or after several days.  At Berkeley the review committee takes a few minutes to discuss among themselves out of your sight whether you had passed or not.  Normally this is a quick process and when I heard that I had passed, a felt more of a sense of relief than accomplishment.  From then on you feel less anxiety and it is only a matter of time before you earn your PhD if you are willing to take the time to work long hours in the lab.  Finally you must write your PhD thesis.  For me this was not that difficult since I am a good writer.  However, you must be organized and able to piece together all the research work that you carried out to tell a good story.

Despite the grueling schedule involved with research work, there are many fond memories I have of graduate school.  You get to meet many famous and talented research people and develop a comradery with your fellow graduate students.  The most joyous moments are when you make a breakthrough in your research.  This confirms your abilities as a researcher and gives you more confidence to attain greater breakthroughs.  Also you gain confidence as you exchange ideas with your fellow graduate students, research director, and other research scientists.  In addition you can take occasional breaks by going out with your fellow graduate students to pubs, restaurants, and parks.  There you can blow off steam, sit back and relax and enjoy yourself while still being able to exchange ideas about certain research topics as well as other outside topics such as politics, philosophy, and sports.  Also occasionally you will spend time away from the campus.  My most memorable time there was after I had passed my qualifying examination, a bunch of graduate students plus some staff members went to a ski lodge near Lake Tahoe.  It was there that I saw snow for the first time and experienced freezing temperatures.  I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had only experienced mild temperatures.  Also it was the first time that I skied.  At first I found myself constantly falling down but after figuring out how to snow plow I started to enjoy myself.  I next graduated to parallel skiing after taking a lesson from a ski instructor there.

All in all chemistry graduate school is challenging, exciting, boring and tedious at times, but in the end enjoyable and rewarding.  I would definitely recommend chemistry graduate school if you are willing to work hard, have focus, and yet still have a balanced life.