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Help! How do I become a competitive applicant for top grad schools? [Chemistry]


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I'm a junior ChemE major with a 3.9 GPA. My grades are probably the highest among my major but I have barely anything else to show. Ideally, I would be aiming for Stanford and MIT chemistry programs, but I'm starting to doubt that because of my sub-par record with research.

I did two summers of research under for university and published my first year's research in an undergraduate research journal. For my second year's research, I don't really have much to show, which is making me kind of worried. I still can't seem to produce interesting results and everything I try is failing. (In fact, yet another failed result is what caused me get worried and type up this rant.) I also don't have any research-for-credit on my transcript, whereas other applicants probably will.

I literally don't have any publications except for my first summer of research. And that publication is in an undergraduate journal, so it isn't exactly prestigious or "reputable", despite being peer-reviewed. I don't know what to do at this point in terms of publishing more research. Is it even physically possible to roll out a publication by December next year? Should I do an undergraduate thesis this term or something?

This summer I'm taking a research internship abroad and I probably won't be able to publish my research since it's proprietary. So that will probably be a "waste" as far as grad schools are concerned.

I'm getting fairly upset about my prospects at this point, especially in comparison to my peers (who have better research and stronger relationships with their professors). Also I didn't take any grad-level classes until this year and I have nothing to show for over a year of research. So how can I become more competitive at this point? Most other applicants would have several publications and great LOR's under their belts and I doubt I'll even have a chance of being in the top quintile of MIT/Stanford applicants by next year.

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In your position, I think you should put some serious thought into taking a year off following graduation to do some full-time post-baccalaureate research before applying to top tier Chem programs. Perhaps you could continue working in one of your undergrad labs as a research assistant/technician, or options also exist for short-term post-bac research programs that are specifically designed for recent grads looking to gain more research experience before applying to grad school (ex. NIH post-bac program https://www.training.nih.gov/programs/postbac_irta).

I'm currently in the middle of my year off, having recently submitted my PhD applications for top tier Chem/ChemBio programs. I derived significant benefit from taking a year off for the following reasons:

-Grad admissions committees like to see full-time research experience following graduation. With more and more applicants having a M.S. or multiple years of research experience following their bachelor's, it's getting harder to justify accepting PhD students straight out of undergrad. Having post-bac research experience helps a lot, although it definitely isn't necessary for getting accepted into top tier programs immediately after undergrad. 

-An additional year of full-time research experience = a lot more potential opportunities to engage in research projects that could lead to publication. And while having peer-reviewed papers at the time of application is definitely a plus, having manuscripts in progress is the next best thing, as long as your LOR's can support your claims. I wouldn't get too caught up on not having any publications. They're just one way for admissions committees to gauge your aptitude for research. There are other ways to demonstrate this aptitude (i.e. your LOR's). The additional year of research also gives you more time to build up your relationship with your PI, which will hopefully translate into a kickass LOR (the recommendation from your PI is arguably the single most important piece of your application).

-Being able to fully devote your attention to your grad applications during your year off, instead of having to balance them with your senior year Fall semester courses, can do wonders for managing stress and ensuring that you have adequate time to polish and fully flesh out your applications/SOP's. 

-Lastly, remember that once you start a PhD program, the next ~5 years of your life will essentially be spent as a research slave with very little downtime to pursue personal interests. If you take a year off, after you get all your apps in, you pretty much have the next half year to do as you please. Don't forget that we're in our 20's (our physical peak in life) so take the opportunity to live it up! Most grad students are approaching the age of 30 by the time they finish their PhD, if not older. 

Hope this helps.


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I think you're panicking because of the stress of your research project but that you're actually doing fine. You have an excellent GPA, especially for engineering, and I'm assuming you can get the GRE scores to match. My undergrad was ChemE, but I went the BME route instead of chemistry. I don't know anyone I interviewed with that had extensive publications, and I did interview with many people who had none, including at MIT and Stanford (although this was BME, not chemistry). 

I believe graduate schools care more about the time and effort dedicated to the research than the results that came from it. I spent three years in my undergraduate research lab and don't have any publications to show for it because it was a difficult project with a lot of challenges that came up along the way. The publication I do have is from a summer internship where they had a clear experimental plan before I started and everything went right with the research. My undergrad experience wasn't worth nothing just because I didn't publish, and it taught me a lot more about the challenges of research than the successful project did. 

If you're really concerned, do you have any opportunities to present? Like an undergraduate symposium or a regional conference? Those are great experiences that let you share your work and have something to "show" for your efforts. I also think a thesis would strengthen your application if you have the time for it. 

Also, be sure you apply to several schools! I'm not saying to apply to a bunch of "safety schools" (that really isn't even a thing for graduate school), but you should apply broadly within the type of schools you're interested in. That also improves your chance of being successful. 

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