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Conflicting advice from professors - help! (Chem PhD)


How many would you apply to?  

5 members have voted

  1. 1. Should I apply to all 10 schools?

    • Yes, apply to all 10
    • Apply to 9
    • Eh, I'd cut a couple and apply to 8

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I'm a senior currently studying at Northwestern University, applying to chemistry PhD programs. I'm doing organic total synthesis research currently and will be earning a combined Bachelor's/Master's this June, but I want to move more into bioorganic/biochem for my PhD. 


My biggest struggle right now is deciding how many schools to apply to. I believe my GRE scores are pretty solid (160 quantitative, 162 verbal on the general, and 810 (78%) on the chem GRE), and my grades/research experience/ recommendations should be good. I currently have 10 schools on my list, but I'm paying for my applications myself and I'm concerned this is too many, even if I do get some of the fees waived. Anyone have any input on how many schools I should apply to (8, 9, 10?), or which schools from this list they would cut? Or have advice on how to make my final list? I'll be applying into chemistry PhD, not biochemistry PhD programs, although I want to work with a professor who does a little of both. Interdisciplinary programs are a must for me, basically.


- UC-Berkeley

- Stanford

- UW-Madison

- Scripps

- Caltech

- Harvard

^^ These I'm almost certainly applying to


More unsure:


(good ranking for biochem (#3), but my advisor says they're not as good as UC-SD? I like that they have a combined chem/biochem PhD program but I haven't looked into their research much)


(sort of unsure about this one - some of their research looks interesting, and they're a solid program, but this school doesn't excite me as much as the 6 top choices I listed above)

- Michigan

(my PI [the organic prof] says they have some really cool chemistry going on, but my major advisor says UM isn't as good as UC-SD or Illinois? Eek conflicting advice)

- Illinois

(I know they have a fantastic program, my only qualm is location - I'm from Illinois and I"m NOT a fan of Champaign-Urbana, plus I also did my undergrad in-state so I sort of want to get out of my comfort zone for my PhD, ya dig? Not sure if this is a good enough reason to not apply?)

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Personally, even 8 sounds like a lot to me. 


Ideally, you should identify the schools that you most want to go to, along with the faculty at those schools you want to work with, and focus on making very good, specific, applications to those schools. 


Most of my cohort didn't apply more than 2 or 3 places. I know some that applied to a lot more, but it didn't really seem to help them- just increased the cost. 


Part of the reason you're probably getting conflicting recommendations on schools is that it's not just field specific (chemistry), but also very sub-field specific. Some schools have fantastic and cutting edge bioinorganic research, but very little in organic synthesis. 


For grad school in chemistry, it's *who* you work with that is really important, moreso than what school you go to. Accordingly, you should be looking for specific research groups (ideally, 1 primary and 2 backup groups at each school) that you want to go work in, not schools as a whole. 

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Professors don't actually know everything.


A revelation which may come as a surprise (especially to the professors!).


They do not necessarily know the intricacies of league tables: the reason they may recommend a particular department is because they have friends doing research there, or they visited the dept for a conference. Conversely somebody they hate is head of department at University X, or they just have less information about University Y compared to University Z so say that's Y is a worse school. Their view of a school might be several years/decades out of date. You really don't know. 


As Eigen said, all you need to be concerned about in the beginning is if these schools on your list have 2-3 faculty you could see yourself working for. 

I applied to a total of 6 grad schools, but I'm an international so the odds of me getting accepted to a US school was slightly lower. I can tell you: applying to 6 grad schools is time-consuming. It is expensive (you pay some ridiculous sum for every extra GRE score you send out above the "free" limit). The risk of missing something out of one of your applications increases (a LoR or transcript overlooked, too many online application forms to fill out, leaving the name of University Y in your SOP to University W). 


Most chemists I saw on the forum last year applied to a maximum of 6 or 7 universities. Plenty more applied to fewer. 

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