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Should I apply for a Masters or a PhD in Chemistry?


raul.carmo
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I have strong interest in an academic career and since I received my BS in Chemistry I've been thinking about the next steps and trying not to screw up my best chances. Let me explain my background before moving to the actual question:

I've graduated in Brazil from a medium-sized university that has a very small chemistry department, so I didn't have that vast experience in research as an undergraduate at a big institution. I have actually been involved in research since my sophomore year but I couldn't make any publications out of it (only presentations in small symposia and conferences). I studied in the US for one year as a scholarship recipient but it was more coursework than research.

So basically I have two options:

  • Apply to a PhD program in a small chemistry department, in which chances of being approved are at least real (I got accepted to such a program last year but I had to refuse).

  • Apply to a master's program in a medium-sized university that offers a terminal M.S. degree, since departments with Ph.D. programs almost never accept students for a M.S.) so I can strengthen my CV and then apply to a Ph.D. at a top University

The reason for all this doubtfulness is that the Ph.D. is the highest degree in academia and obtaining one from an unknown university or program might kill your chances of getting hired at a good company or institution in the future. What I still don't know is that if an MS degree would be a plus when applying to a doctoral program later (I would try my best to come out of the master's with publications and conferences of course).

Is my reasoning correct? And if it is, which option should I consider?

Ps: My GRE scores are Q-154 (56%), V-160 (86%), AW 3.0 (18%) and 113/120 in the TOEFL score. My undergraduate GPA is not that high (around 3.1 general and 3.6 for chemistry) but I have good recommendation letters, although they are from faculty members at my university in Brazil. Is it possible to be admitted to any PhD programs with those scores? Of course I know that a top 100 program is out of question, but what about the smaller ones?

Edited by raul.carmo
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Since you don't think a "top 100" (or R1--research oriented university) is a reasonable expectation, I would probably strengthen my application with a thesis-based/terminal MS.  At that point, you can probably look at higher ranked schools and consider research fit (you'll have more defined research interests).  Just make sure you go for funded MS programs.

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On 9/30/2017 at 11:20 PM, raul.carmo said:

The reason for all this doubtfulness is that the Ph.D. is the highest degree in academia and obtaining one from an unknown university or program might kill your chances of getting hired at a good company or institution in the future

A Ph.D. is a Ph.D. What's the difference between a Ph.D. from a Ivy League and a Ph.D. from, I don't know, last "ranked" at a R-1 school?

There is none. What make the difference are what 1) you have accomplished, 2) what you have mastered, and what you are good at. It may also make a difference if you have a stronger letter of reference when you are going to postdoc and, ultimately, a TT position in academia. Honestly, though, your postdoc accomplishment matters more than your Ph.D. training, unless you are applying those Ph.D. to PI programs that some schools offered. As for getting a industry position, your connections matter more than anything else. While one can argue that top programs have more networking opportunities, I would counter-argue that it is solely based on how much of an effort do you put yourself out there for potential employer to hire. LinkedIn is a good start.

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27 minutes ago, aberrant said:

A Ph.D. is a Ph.D. What's the difference between a Ph.D. from a Ivy League and a Ph.D. from, I don't know, last "ranked" at a R-1 school?

There is none. What make the difference are what 1) you have accomplished, 2) what you have mastered, and what you are good at. It may also make a difference if you have a stronger letter of reference when you are going to postdoc and, ultimately, a TT position in academia. Honestly, though, your postdoc accomplishment matters more than your Ph.D. training, unless you are applying those Ph.D. to PI programs that some schools offered. As for getting a industry position, your connections matter more than anything else. While one can argue that top programs have more networking opportunities, I would counter-argue that it is solely based on how much of an effort do you put yourself out there for potential employer to hire. LinkedIn is a good start.

That's exactly how I used to see it, but after talking to my American friends and reading forums on the internet it now seems to me that what they are saying makes sense. They asked me to go to a small college chemistry department website and check the faculty members; 99% of them have graduated from top50 institutions. Even in small liberal arts college you have people from Harvard and MIT, but I have never seen a faculty from a small graduate program in the faculty listings. Perhaps my acquired perception of this is wrong, and I want it to be, but 5-6 years is a strong time and energy commitment so I would like to think about this thoroughly and consider every situation. 

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On 10/6/2017 at 7:34 PM, Chai_latte said:

Since you don't think a "top 100" (or R1--research oriented university) is a reasonable expectation, I would probably strengthen my application with a thesis-based/terminal MS.  At that point, you can probably look at higher ranked schools and consider research fit (you'll have more defined research interests).  Just make sure you go for funded MS programs.

I have applied to 5 funded MS programs. Those were the only institutions I found that offered a terminal masters degree in Chemistry, the others also have PhD programs and being admitted to the MS track is unlikely to happen.

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18 minutes ago, raul.carmo said:

That's exactly how I used to see it, but after talking to my American friends and reading forums on the internet it now seems to me that what they are saying makes sense. They asked me to go to a small college chemistry department website and check the faculty members; 99% of them have graduated from top50 institutions. Even in small liberal arts college you have people from Harvard and MIT, but I have never seen a faculty from a small graduate program in the faculty listings. Perhaps my acquired perception of this is wrong, and I want it to be, but 5-6 years is a strong time and energy commitment so I would like to think about this thoroughly and consider every situation. 

There are a few things that you have to considered:

1. how old are those faculties? faculty search process changes over time. it should be worth noting that how departments used to hire a professor back in the 70s or 80s would be way different than the current time.

2. who did they do their postdoc with? do they all worked with someone big name, or some of them worked with someone new/"small"? the perception of "school means everything" could be valid if there are cases where a Ph.D. student graduated from a top tier program, did a postdoc in a less well-known PI, and still managed to become a professor at a research-based university.

3. where did they do their postdoc at? similar to #2, except replace reputation of PI to reputation of a school.

4. how accomplished were they during postdoc? can they be unproductive and still managed to get a position, just because they were graduated with a Ph.D. from a top tier program?

Without doing extensive research, I would expect that most faculty members at a research-based university did their postdoc with someone famous (recognized by people both inside and outside of the field), well-funded (recognized by people in the field), or a supernova/new "star" in a new field, who typically at a well-funded school (not necessarily top 10), and, most importantly, extremely productive during their postdoc. It can be multiple papers, or a few big papers (the cliche 3 -- Nature, Science, Cell-kind of journals). If my expectation was correct, then, how do their achievement related to where they got their Ph.D. from? It may have some sort of correlation, but it isn't a strong one in my opinion. Because no matter where you are from, you still have to deliver -- demonstrate what you can accomplished as an individual, not as a student from a particular school. And you can most certainly work as a postdoc in a huge PI's lab without getting your Ph.D. from a top 10 program (including myself, and countless people that I know). So it really comes down to your luck, to a certain degree.

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I made a post a while back regarding small schools versus big schools and their pros and cons. As stated, a PhD is a PhD, however, yes a brand name can help you a bit, but what's really important are the connections you can make at the bigger schools versus the smaller schools. All that being said, go solely off research and nothing else. Join a research program that you are really interested in, whether that be a big school or small school. Each one has its pros and cons, as stated earlier, and each person has their own preferance. I personally like smaller schools, but there are many that like bigger schools. Also I know lots of faculty members that didn't graduate from top 50 schools, so that statement is not entirely true. Now on to your application itself. 

The GPA is a bit on the lower end, but that isn't too big of an issue (if you have a reason why its low, or have high GRE scores and good experience, etc.). Your verbal GRE scores are good, but your Quant GRE scores are pretty low. The chemistry field really focuses on the Quant GRE score (for top schools, average scores in the 60s). I'd also bring up the AW a bit as well. now to give perspective, I have a 3.0 GPA, and have lower GRE scores than you, however I do have quite a bit of background research experience, and I still plan on applying to PhD programs. However, the reason for my low GPA is i screwed up my first 2 years (really wasn't ready for college), but I was able to bring it up. I plan to retake the GRE and do better, so to help support that statement. I'd say, depending on where you apply, you'd still have a shot at a PhD (if you really wanted). 

The biggest takeaway should be though, do you want a PhD? You can have a great career with a MS, or even a Bachelors in Chemistry. What is your future career or goal? Once you answer that, then go forward with that ideal in mind, and apply to research programs that interest you. If you really want a PhD in Chemistry, and you found some professors/program at a top tier school that really interests you, then I'd say go ahead and apply. 

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9 hours ago, samman1994 said:

I made a post a while back regarding small schools versus big schools and their pros and cons. As stated, a PhD is a PhD, however, yes a brand name can help you a bit, but what's really important are the connections you can make at the bigger schools versus the smaller schools. All that being said, go solely off research and nothing else. Join a research program that you are really interested in, whether that be a big school or small school. Each one has its pros and cons, as stated earlier, and each person has their own preferance. I personally like smaller schools, but there are many that like bigger schools. Also I know lots of faculty members that didn't graduate from top 50 schools, so that statement is not entirely true. Now on to your application itself. 

The GPA is a bit on the lower end, but that isn't too big of an issue (if you have a reason why its low, or have high GRE scores and good experience, etc.). Your verbal GRE scores are good, but your Quant GRE scores are pretty low. The chemistry field really focuses on the Quant GRE score (for top schools, average scores in the 60s). I'd also bring up the AW a bit as well. now to give perspective, I have a 3.0 GPA, and have lower GRE scores than you, however I do have quite a bit of background research experience, and I still plan on applying to PhD programs. However, the reason for my low GPA is i screwed up my first 2 years (really wasn't ready for college), but I was able to bring it up. I plan to retake the GRE and do better, so to help support that statement. I'd say, depending on where you apply, you'd still have a shot at a PhD (if you really wanted). 

The biggest takeaway should be though, do you want a PhD? You can have a great career with a MS, or even a Bachelors in Chemistry. What is your future career or goal? Once you answer that, then go forward with that ideal in mind, and apply to research programs that interest you. If you really want a PhD in Chemistry, and you found some professors/program at a top tier school that really interests you, then I'd say go ahead and apply. 

I will try to raise my Quant score, but I don't know if it's going to work if I retake it this month or in the next. My problem is not with math itself, it is the timing, as a foreign test taker it takes me a bit extra time to read and understand what the question is really asking, specially the quantitative part which is tricky. When the clock timed 5 minutes for the end of the test I had done no more than 70% of the questions...

The PhD is something I have been dreaming of since I was a child because the major goal in my life is to become a professor at a higher education institution (I love teaching chemistry, but only to those interested in learning it), so I have no doubt about this. What is not clear to me right now is if I should apply to top100 research institutions or if I should apply to the less renowned ones. I am afraid that the structure, funding and networking of the advisor/institution I'm going to might make my 5 years of PhD a waste of time... (I had this experience when I started a MS in my country and my advisor was not interested in publishing at all, even though I had great results, he was just too lazy to review my manuscript and have it sent to the journal).

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13 hours ago, aberrant said:

There are a few things that you have to considered:

1. how old are those faculties? faculty search process changes over time. it should be worth noting that how departments used to hire a professor back in the 70s or 80s would be way different than the current time.

2. who did they do their postdoc with? do they all worked with someone big name, or some of them worked with someone new/"small"? the perception of "school means everything" could be valid if there are cases where a Ph.D. student graduated from a top tier program, did a postdoc in a less well-known PI, and still managed to become a professor at a research-based university.

3. where did they do their postdoc at? similar to #2, except replace reputation of PI to reputation of a school.

4. how accomplished were they during postdoc? can they be unproductive and still managed to get a position, just because they were graduated with a Ph.D. from a top tier program?

Without doing extensive research, I would expect that most faculty members at a research-based university did their postdoc with someone famous (recognized by people both inside and outside of the field), well-funded (recognized by people in the field), or a supernova/new "star" in a new field, who typically at a well-funded school (not necessarily top 10), and, most importantly, extremely productive during their postdoc. It can be multiple papers, or a few big papers (the cliche 3 -- Nature, Science, Cell-kind of journals). If my expectation was correct, then, how do their achievement related to where they got their Ph.D. from? It may have some sort of correlation, but it isn't a strong one in my opinion. Because no matter where you are from, you still have to deliver -- demonstrate what you can accomplished as an individual, not as a student from a particular school. And you can most certainly work as a postdoc in a huge PI's lab without getting your Ph.D. from a top 10 program (including myself, and countless people that I know). So it really comes down to your luck, to a certain degree.

Your considerations about the faculty members make a lot of sense... But isn't it much harder to get a post-doc position in a spectacular group (to make groundbreaking publications out of it) if you graduated from a small program, specially now that the post-doc system is declining?

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5 hours ago, raul.carmo said:

I will try to raise my Quant score, but I don't know if it's going to work if I retake it this month or in the next. My problem is not with math itself, it is the timing, as a foreign test taker it takes me a bit extra time to read and understand what the question is really asking, specially the quantitative part which is tricky. When the clock timed 5 minutes for the end of the test I had done no more than 70% of the questions...

The PhD is something I have been dreaming of since I was a child because the major goal in my life is to become a professor at a higher education institution (I love teaching chemistry, but only to those interested in learning it), so I have no doubt about this. What is not clear to me right now is if I should apply to top100 research institutions or if I should apply to the less renowned ones. I am afraid that the structure, funding and networking of the advisor/institution I'm going to might make my 5 years of PhD a waste of time... (I had this experience when I started a MS in my country and my advisor was not interested in publishing at all, even though I had great results, he was just too lazy to review my manuscript and have it sent to the journal).

Then how did you do so well on the Verbal section? If anything that is where the language barrier would hinder you. I also am slow when it comes to the quant section, I think its just a matter of learning what techniques to use for what problems ( I think it is for this exact reason the quant section is garbage). 

Secondly, again, its all about the research they do. I'd advise when you are looking at various programs, look at the research not the school. Look at all schools, large and small. Then pick them based of research interest not size. If you have a lot of options that interest you, then you can start to narrow based on the school size, but that should never be the priority. The priority is research interest. Also, sounds like you don't even need a PhD if you want to teach. There are a lot of faculty members in school who's majors were regarding teaching chemistry. Their research is also into teaching chemistry. They got Eds  (or w.e. the educational phd version is), instead of PhDs. If you don't want to do research, and only want to focus on teaching, I'd say you probably don't even need the PhD for this. Keep in the mind, the majority of people in University who teach, are primarily focused on research, not teaching. For them, teaching is a side activity, not the main focus of their work. There are those however that only focus on teaching, and their research is focused on how to effectively teach the subject. It sounds more like this is the route you would want to go for. I'd focus on finding faculty members who focus on this, and see if you can get into their "labs". 

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Just now, samman1994 said:

Then how did you do so well on the Verbal section? If anything that is where the language barrier would hinder you. I also am slow when it comes to the quant section, I think its just a matter of learning what techniques to use for what problems ( I think it is for this exact reason the quant section is garbage). 

Secondly, again, its all about the research they do. I'd advise when you are looking at various programs, look at the research not the school. Look at all schools, large and small. Then pick them based of research interest not size. If you have a lot of options that interest you, then you can start to narrow based on the school size, but that should never be the priority. The priority is research interest. Also, sounds like you don't even need a PhD if you want to teach. There are a lot of faculty members in school who's majors were regarding teaching chemistry. Their research is also into teaching chemistry. They got Eds  (or w.e. the educational phd version is), instead of PhDs. If you don't want to do research, and only want to focus on teaching, I'd say you probably don't even need the PhD for this. Keep in the mind, the majority of people in University who teach, are primarily focused on research, not teaching. For them, teaching is a side activity, not the main focus of their work. There are those however that only focus on teaching, and their research is focused on how to effectively teach the subject. It sounds more like this is the route you would want to go for. I'd focus on finding faculty members who focus on this, and see if you can get into their "labs". 

When I mentioned I want to become a professor, that's the whole package (teaching+research), I'm not interested in the field of chemical education (that's a field of research in chemistry which study the theories concerning learning and didactics).

Regarding my GRE scores, the Quant is harder because you have not only to understand what is being proposed in the question but also figure out the problem. In the verbal part you have only to understand the sentences and apply the words that fill the boxes or the appropriate argument, which in my opinion is much faster than solving math problems and analyzing graphic data.

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10 hours ago, raul.carmo said:

But isn't it much harder to get a post-doc position in a spectacular group (to make groundbreaking publications out of it) if you graduated from a small program, specially now that the post-doc system is declining?

imho -- absolutely not. it comes down to a few things in no particular order:

1. your PI's connection/network (which is why you should also consider PI who is big in the field but not necessarily in a top program),
2. your connection/network (consider making an effort to network with any future PIs that you may want to work with through conferences, for instance),
3. your skill sets (has to do with the 'fit' of the lab -- either the lab always need people with your skill, or the lab is looking to expand its research through your skills),
4. your own funding/POI's funding source (i.e. if you have a fellowship, or if the POI has funding to hire a new postdoc),
5. your interest into the lab work/theme/methodology (you will have a chance to explain in your cover letter, and during the interview),
6. your productivity as a grad student/track record (there is always a 'minimum requirement' -- at least 1 first author publication in grad school), and
7. your letter of references (you will need at least 3 including your PI, but you should have more than 3 people in case someone was unable to deliver for whatever reasons).

Hope it helps.

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