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Preparing for graduate admissions - some general questions and inquiries


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I am a high school senior planning on attending the University of Washington, Seattle. I would like to go to a high ranked PhD program for some subfield of chemistry or biochemistry. So as to ensure that I can maximize the strength of my application in the three years that I will be staying at UW, I have some questions and general inquiries about graduate admissions as well as what I should pursue during my undergraduate studies.

  1. Do graduate schools notice whether or not a course is 'honors'? I was considering taking the more rigorous 'honors' version of organic and physical chemistry my first year at UW; however, I am not sure if doing so would be a wise idea. While it would be more interesting and intellectually stimulating, at the same time, it would require a larger investment of time into problem sets and exams and would certainly decrease the amount of time I could spend doing research. I would appreciate comments regarding both the value of an 'honors' class over the non-'honors' version on my transcript as well as whether or not I should take the 'honors' version if it means that I will be spending more time on academics and less time on research. It is, of course, possible that taking the 'honors' version of organic and physical chemistry may yield lower GPAs than the normal versions of those courses - another consideration which I find is pushing me towards taking the non-'honors' versions even though I had initially planned on taking the 'honors' courses.
  2. What is the best, most effective way to find out what branch of chemistry or biochemistry I enjoy the most? Based on past experience with organic chemistry, I was considering pursuing organic synthesis; however, I would like to be exposed to more fields of chemistry, and I am unsure how to do so.
  3. What fields of chemistry are most likely to have opportunities for an undergraduate to participate in research, that is, what fields have the lowest 'entry barrier' in terms of both knowledge and lab experience for a person to be able to make useful, nontrivial contributions?
  4. I am planning on going into the industry after my PhD. What can I do now to prepare myself for that goal?
  5. I intend to self-study organic chemistry and physical chemistry over the summer. I am planning on using, respectively, Wade's text and McQuarrie's text. Are these the best undergraduate level texts available for those subjects or are there better textbooks that I could use? Moreover, I intend to study linear algebra - would it be advisable to begin with Axler's Linear Algebra Done Right? It seems quite difficult.
  6. How can I maximize the number of publications I can get my name on through undergraduate research and how can I maximize the efficacy of my undergraduate research in general with regards to boosting the strength of my graduate school application?
  7. How many of the GRE Subject Tests should I take? I was thinking about taking four: Chemistry, Biology, 'Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology', and Mathematics. For those that I should take, what textbooks and review guides should I be using to prepare for them? Is it true that Campbell's Biology text suffices for GRE Biology? That is what I have heard, and if that is indeed the case, then I will study it over the summer.

Thank you,


Edited by meguca
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Hi, I'll try to answer your questions as best as I can -- my undergrad was in Physics & Astronomy, so while it's not the same field, there are many aspects that are similar across the Physical Sciences. But also please see some notes at the end of these answers.

1. Honours classes -- I would recommend that you take them. At UBC (just on the other side of the border!), every science major takes first year chemistry and most of us don't intend to major in Chemistry at all. Since it sounds like you are very sure about what you want to do, taking honours classes in first year will help you get much more out of your courses. This is also a good way to form good connections with other students and profs in your department. In addition, these classes will better prepare you for research and future chemistry courses.

Personally, I think it's a little premature to worry about research at this stage (but I don't know you -- maybe it's not in your case). Unless you have something already set up, most profs do not take on freshman students as research assistants. Undergrad research is mostly done in the summer semester, and during your final year (honours/undergrad thesis). It is very rare for a student to get a research position after their first year and most don't get one until 2 or 3 years of completed coursework. I do notice that you said "3 years at UW" so maybe you have a bunch of IB or AP credits or something. My general advice is to focus on courses in the first 2 years, then worry about research.

My undergrad had a policy of scaling the honours class average in a way to avoid negatively affecting our GPAs because we were in an honours course. So the average grade was pretty high. Your transcript will say Honours though, probably, so grad schools will see this. I think, for example, an 80% in an honours course is valued more than a 90% in a non-honours course, anyways. Exactly how much more is completely subjective.

In Canada, the normal requirement for entry into grad school is an honours Bachelor's degree, but I don't know what it's like in the US. But that's what I mean when I say I think honours courses prepare you for research and graduate work better.

2) and 3) -- I can't really answer this for you since I don't know the field! Sorry.

4) I don't think there is much you can do now to prepare yourself for something after your PhD -- it's a long ways away. You could consider going into applied science instead of science though. When you start UW though, there would be much more information -- UW will probably have info sessions about careers in chemistry and probably have people in industry come in. You can try to get co-op or summer work placements in industrial positions instead of academic ones. But I'm sure others in the forum can help you with this better.

5) Again, I will defer this one to someone actually in Chemistry :)

6) I honestly think getting your name on publications is a matter of luck. You can do good work in one group and the project might not go anywhere soon so no publication. But you can do just as good work in another group and if the timing is right, you'll be in many papers! This is from experience -- my first co-op work placement was with a group that had been working on a telescope for the past 8 years. I had joined the group when they were near the end stage of the analysis work, so I helped with that and they published all their data and analysis soon after and I was on the publications where I contributed. If I had joined the group a year earlier though, my contributions may be less remembered/out-dated since I wouldn't be there to be revising them as we learned new things and the publications would have come much later, maybe not in time for my first round of grad school applications.

The best answer to this is to put 100% effort in all research work you do and have the attitude that you expect papers out of it. If you work with the idea of doing good science in mind, the papers will come naturally. If you do end up with a choice between research placements, you can try to gauge your chances of getting a paper based on how often your supervisor/group has published in the past, and whether they are young and active or getting old and closer to retirement.

7. Check with the schools that you want to apply to for graduate studies. You probably don't have to worry about GREs right now though? Just as an example, I checked UW Chemistry grad program, and they don't require a Subject GRE at all. I think it's unusual for an applicant to have more than 1 subject GRE. Even in a cross disciplined field such as Planetary Science, most schools I applied to gave me the option of taking ANY subject test that is related to the field. I'm not sure why you would need to take the Math subject GRE -- it's not like the SATs where you would take a Math Subject test to demonstrate your proficiency in Math. The related subject GRE test will be enough to show that you can do the math at the level required, for example.

I hope those general grad school answers were helpful. But I think it may be a little premature to think about grad school before even starting your undergrad! It's good that you have a long term goal to aim for and that you seem to know what you want to study. Based on this one post only, it sounds like you want to optimize your undergrad experience for one goal only -- to get into a great PhD program for chem/biochem. I would instead advise that new undergraduates be a little bit more open, or at least set themselves up in a way to not put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. It may be unlikely, but what if you decide that you no longer want to enter a high ranked PhD program 3 years down the road? It may make sense to plan your courses and time to allow for other opportunities as well.

Finally, the last piece of advice is that you don't have to do all your research in your subfield to get into a good grad school. I think the best decision I ever made in undergrad, in terms of getting into grad school, was to enter the co-op work placement program at UBC. I took 3 years of courses, then took 16 months "off" (in the co-op program, I still registered as a full time student) to do full time research work (in my case, both on campus but it didn't have to be), and then did my final year of courses and honours thesis. I worked for 8 months in extragalactic research, then 8 months in medical physics (PET), and my honours thesis was the only thing in my subfield -- planetary science. At some level, graduate schools value breadth as well as depth, so fine-tuning/focussing all your energies in undergrad on one thing may not be the best.

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