“Chemistry Department Hosts Grad School Seminar”

 Sarah Carter

Staff Writer

This past Friday, the Chemistry department welcomed students to sit in on a seminar about graduate studies in chemistry. The event was organized by Dr. Biana Sculimbrene of the department, who advised any prospective grad students to attend. Among the panel members were Dr. Kate Nicastri, Scientist at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Aaron Bosse, Medicinal Chemist at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Isabella Jankowski, PhD candidate at UMass Amherst, and Susannah Huth, PhD candidate at Yale University – all of whom are graduates of Holy Cross, themselves. Each current student and/or recent graduate on the panel had scores of information to offer on the graduate school experience– in terms of placement into a research lab, experience teaching undergraduate labs or lectures in grad school, and job placement opportunities post grad-school. Below is a list of some of the primary points of the talk:

  1. Graduate school in chemistry (and for many of the sciences) is tuition-free and fully paid for. It’s true! In chemistry and closely related fields, PhD students almost always receive financial support to allay the costs of tuition and living expenses– this is called a stipend. A typical PhD stipend ranges between $20,000 to $30,000 per year for a five-year program, and also includes subsidized health insurance. Additionally, programs for which you have been admitted will pay for you to visit their campus and meet current students on visiting weekends; this includes all travel expenses.
  2. When looking for potential programs, scour university websites for profiles of faculty members whose research interests you. The panelists could not understate the importance of this step in the process of graduate school applications. Dr. Bosse urged students to look beyond the subject matter of a program instructor’s research and to instead scrutinize the diversity of their lab group. He acquiesced that graduate school, similar to many professional industries, can, at times, be heavily biased and hierarchical; therefore, students should seek out research labs in which opportunities exist for all students of all backgrounds. He recommended that students investigate recent publications in the lab and look for a mixture of both male and female co-authors as a sign of the equity of treatment in a lab. Students should also ask themselves the following questions in their grad school search:
    1. What kind of mentoring style do you prefer? Would you rather have a program instructor who is very involved, or one who gives you the freedom to work without supervision?
    2. Would you rather work with a group of many research students and postdocs, or a smaller group?
    3. Is the lab environment supportive and professional?
  3. You do not need to enter graduate school already knowing what you want to research. In students’ first year of graduate school, there is a classroom and teaching component, in addition to completing rotations through several research labs. A lab rotation is a trial period to assess a lab and its people, while students are also being assessed for their fitness in the lab. First-year students commonly rotate through two to five labs (for a period between 2-8 weeks) before selecting a thesis lab– the one they will declare a commitment to for the duration of the graduate school career. When determining criteria for laboratory research, each one of the panelists advised that students look less into the subject of the research and more into who is on the research team. All members underscored the importance of selecting a program instructor wisely, who will serve as your supervisor in the lab for the entire length of your graduate school experience. Furthermore, they noted that a professional and functional relationship with your program instructor is indispensable for future job placement after graduate school. The quality of who you are working with is paramount to the type of work you are doing in the lab. Students can gauge the environment type of a particular lab by asking current students (preferably more senior members) about their experiences in the lab, to date. 
  4. Set boundaries for yourself and know when enough work is enough. Each of the panelists assured students that while their work can be cumbersome, they still all do (and did) have time for themselves while attending graduate school. Dr. Nicastri, in particular, expressed ruefully that she wished she had set better boundaries for herself going into graduate school. She conceded that she did not manage her schedule well and had less-than-ample time for just herself. She encouraged all potential grad school students in the room to do the one thing she had not – prioritize their personal health and wellness.  

If graduate school in chemistry (or related fields) is something that piques your interest, do feel free to contact any member of the chemistry department (or your academic advisor) for advice on the graduate school application process and experience.

Photo Courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross website

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