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Concerns About Graduate School Admission/Performance


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Hello, I have a few questions/concerns about chemistry graduate school and was wondering if anyone has advice for me. Here is my situation:

I am currently a junior undergrad at Grand Valley State University and am majoring in chemistry. I want to attend graduate school and earn my PhD, but I am worried about my grades and was wondering about my chances of admission. (I know I won't make it into a top tier program, but I'm not concerned about that.)

I just had finals and don't have all my grades in yet, but based on what I do know my GPA is probably going to be about a 3.45-3.48. My major GPA will be between about a 3.20-3.24. I really struggled in calculus physics this semester and got my first ever C+. I also took an upper level biochem course this semester and I know I'll end up with either a B- or C+ (not good but my professor was god awful). Besides these classes my grades have for the most part been very solid - not always all As but almost never anything worse than a B. I've also been doing research for one of my professors since the summer and will continue through the next semester at least. I will also be presenting the research at Pittcon in March. I know I will get a very strong letter of recommendation from this professor. I haven't had any internships or other relevant work experience but I'm actively looking and will hopefully find something for the summer. I haven't taken the GRE yet but I am planning on it.

I am interested in applying to Michigan State University's analytical chemistry program. If I can keep my GPA at about a 3.5 it seems like I have a good chance of admission, but to be honest I really don't know, and I know they look at more than just GPA. It's probably hard to say what my chances of admission are since I haven't taken the GRE yet, but does it sound like I at least have a chance at this point? I'm afraid I won't get in anywhere because of my GPA. To me, a 3.48 sounds really low. I had a 4.2 in high school and even my college GPA was much better before this semester (3.62). The last few months have been really rough for me for a lot of reasons, and I think it has affected my GPA. I had a tough course load on top of everything else, but my courses next semester should be a bit easier and I do think I'll be able to raise my GPA back above a 3.5. Should I retake the biochem with a different professor and try to get a better grade? 

My other concern is this: If I do make it into grad school, I am worried that I won't be able to get the grades I need to pass. To be honest I get more Bs than As in my chemistry courses, but besides the biochem I've been very solid (nothing worse than a B). I'm afraid that if I can't get all/mostly As in undergraduate chemistry courses, there's no way I'll be able to handle the graduate courses. Any advice?

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Personally, as a Chemistry major back in undergrad, I think your trend of GPA means more than your current GPA. That being said, if you think you messed up this semester, just make sure you will bring up your GPA next year, and avoid taking classes that you think it may hurt your GPA before your application cycle (drop it if you think you cannot handle it). While it may seem to be a reasonable thing to do summer internship and such, unless it is a REU, I would rather stay in the same lab and work through your undergrad as time progress. Keep in mind that not too many undergraduates get publication to begin with (depending on the field and PI's perspective on who/how should I get his/her name on a paper), let alone getting a paper published in fewer semesters working in the lab. For that, I would recommend you stick around the lab and push your project further whenever you can -- unless you are not interested in your current research. At the same time, try to network with other professors who run their own labs -- you will want to have good recommendation letters from those individuals who can evaluate your ability to succeed in grad school.

While I'm not sure what discipline of Chemistry you are focusing on, when I was a "general" Chemistry major, calculus plays a huge role in a lot of upper division courses. If it isn't your thing, you definitely want to polish the basics up. If biochemistry isn't your major requirement, nor you are applying to analytical chemistry program with some emphasis on biomolecules (i.e. HDX-MS and such), I won't bother retaking it -- better spend my time elsewhere worthwhile. You don't have to be a perfect student in every aspect of Chemistry, you just need to be great at a discipline, or two, or three. However, if you think that you need to master that knowledge, you can self-taught or retake the class when time is available (on top of your research commitment and fulfill other course requirements for your degree).

Finally, it takes extra effort to fail a class in grad school even in top tier programs. For me, I didn't bother enough to try it.

Edited by aberrant
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Thank you for your response!

Your response about my GPA is helpful. I'm slated to take an advanced organic chemistry course next semester as it's the only elective that fits with my schedule, but I think I'm going to drop it and wait to take a different elective in a chemistry discipline that I'm much better at somewhere down the road. Organic chemistry is my weakest out of all the chemistry disciplines, and with calculus physics II next semester as well my GPA will suffer. I would rather fill those credits with a really easy class and boost my GPA and wait to take an elective later. 

As for calculus, it's actually one of my strongest points - I got an A in calculus I and an A- in calculus II. For some reason I'm really good at it until they bring physics into it...

Your response about internships is helpful as well. I've been a little panicky because I've had the same retail job for four years and can't seem to find a relevant internship anywhere. I'll still keep looking for one, but in the meantime I'll definitely stick with my current research as long as possible, as it interests me and is relevant regarding the discipline of chemistry I'm looking to go into (analytical chemistry, although I'm not sure beyond that exactly what I want to focus on yet).

Thanks so much for your help!


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You're welcome. Regarding your summer plan -- go check out other NSF-funded REU programs (https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.jsp?unitid=5048), both at universities and at national labs. Check and see if MSU has a REU program -- apply there if they do. If you get in one of those, assuming you are doing fine in the REU, your (future) PI during the REU will immediately be your LOR for graduate school. I know enough kids (undergrads at my current school) who did a REU at "university X", apply to that school's PhD program, and got accepted -- both Chemistry and Biology. It can only help your admission unless you figuratively set the world (or campus) on fire.

REU pays for your lodging and a program-long stipend, too. Relative to a publication as an undergrad, getting into REU is more achievable. Apply a couple (or more) programs while you can. The deadlines are coming up in January / February, which is program/location-dependent.

Good luck!


Update: MSU does have a REU (https://www2.chemistry.msu.edu/web/reu/). Although it may not necessarily exactly in analytical chem, but I would imagine that getting into that REU can only build your network in that department (of chemistry), and it can only help your admission profile.

Edited by aberrant
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