Author: Daniel Bernstein
Institution: George Washington University
Undeniably, admissions committees prioritize a few select factors in considering applicants for scientific PhD programs. Foremost among them are previous research experience, matching interests with research groups, and undergraduate coursework. After three years of undergraduate research, I have received my fair share of advice on positioning myself for graduate school from colleagues, advisers, and friends. I would like to take a moment to articulate some of the most important insights, some of which I heard from others, but more often I had to find out for myself.
Independent research predominates the graduate student experience. Four to six years of work towards a singular, overarching goal is not for everyone. My first research adviser recommended I treat undergraduate research similarly, and devote at least two years to his research group to complete a small project and demonstrate my dedication to graduate schools. I agree that it often requires more than a single semester to master laboratory techniques and fully grasp conceptual underpinning. Only then, with both a technical and theoretical understanding, can undergraduates evaluate whether a subfield is a good match for their graduate work. However, extended stays in a single group prevent students from exploring various research areas and developing flexibility to translate their skills between fields and adjust to new environments with ease.
After a year of biochemistry work with this advisor, I began considering trying my hand at synthetic organic chemistry. I was told that I would not be able to find a research position in organic chemistry because my technical skills were limited to biochemistry. To his credit, I did not receive a single offer for summer undergraduate research programs after my sophomore year. I took the summer off, then enrolled in an experiential learning course while studying abroad at University College Dublin, where I learned synthetic techniques under the tutelage of a graduate student in an organic chemistry research group. While this experience was not a true research assistantship, this introduction to the field was enough to launch me into a new field; the following summer I received numerous summer research offers from prestigious institutions. Since making this transition, I have carried out research in organic chemistry research groups at Georgetown University and the University of Cambridge.
This diverse array of research experiences has been invaluable towards my personal development as a researcher and an individual. Experiencing four research groups, ranging in size from four to twenty-five, each with different structures and capabilities, endowed me with a better understanding of my preferences in research settings and made me more versatile. I have no doubt that leaving my first research position has made me happier and given me a more well-rounded view of research by exposing me to more academics and graduate students. Students are not bound to commit to the first research area they investigate, and only through exploring different environments and research groups can they make an informed decision about their research interests and ambitions.
Graduate students often point to a strong, personal connection with their adviser as the deciding factor in entering one graduate program over another. Research advisers, beyond providing technical expertise, become close mentors, providing guidance as students transition into graduate studies and then into post-doctoral work. Likewise, research advisers are unmistakably the most valuable resource for undergraduates as they consider their career goals, seek out summer research opportunities, or prepare for graduate school.
However, what happens when graduate school is no longer the goal? Or, a research adviser is aloof and difficult to get to know? It is equally important to develop close relationships with mentors apart from research advisors. These individuals, be they classroom professors, professional supervisors, or academic advisers, can offer unparalleled insight into various career paths and often are more than happy to share their wealth of experiences. While research advisers are often apt to push their students towards research careers, outside mentors often provide more objective assessments and provide different perspectives in how they challenge students to consider their goals. I have especially enjoyed my discussions with my thesis advisor, the chair of my university’s English department, because he asks open-ended questions and creates a non-judgmental atmosphere that allows me to articulate my thoughts at length in ways I had not previously considered. Other mentors are more confrontational and force students to come to terms with thoughts and feelings that students might not be ready to admit to themselves.
Between coursework, research, extracurricular activities, and finding time for friends and family, there is often little time to reflect on our research experiences and place our decisions in context. It is too easy to think that students should go into graduate studies because they have been involved in undergraduate work for several years. Bringing together diverse experiences and having mentors that ask the right questions help students reflect on their undergraduate work and make plans for their future. I would suggest students, especially those considering graduate school, consider some of the following questions that I have found essential for my own development:
What are the daily tasks in your research and can you find them in other activities? – I love working with my hands to turn starting material into new product. But as my interest in a career in chemistry has waned, I discovered an emerging passion for baking; I now have a recreational outlet for the same skills that will continue as I transition into a different field.
Do you love doing the chosen research or are you fascinated with the results? – Students often conflate what they like thinking about with what they like doing. The daily toil in research is rout with failure. While the potential for new therapies and technologies is captivating, students need to consider whether they enjoy the daily tasks enough to commit to long hours with a narrow research scope, or whether they care more for applying new treatments in real-life settings, for example as a clinician or public health official.
Does the research and the career outcomes directly relate to the larger contributions you hope to make in life? – The two main career trajectories after scientific graduate studies are academia or industry. In considering these outcomes, students need to assess how they feel about working in those environments and if those careers match their personal goals and desired contributions. While there is opportunity for young professionals with technical backgrounds in consulting, government, or non-profits, there are likely other pathways apart from a technical PhD to reach similar outcomes. Devoting four to six years in graduate research should serve as a clear stepping stone towards larger ambitions to warrant the commitment.
Taking the opportunity to work in various research groups through summer research opportunities yields insight into student’s preferences in work environment and gives students the opportunity to talk about career paths with graduate students, post-docs, and professors during formative years. Finding mentors who can offer diverse backgrounds and mentoring styles help probe a student’s thoughts as well as wrestle with difficult decisions. Taking the time to reflect on how various choices integrate into a larger personal narrative is essential for bringing together diverse experiences and mentorship as students make important decisions concerning their future and where they find meaning.