How (and Why) to Go to Graduate School

I was invited to give a talk to the American Chemistry Society Student Chapter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and again at the University of Arizona AIChE student chapter meeting a year later. The purpose of the talk was to give undergraduate students a little better understanding of the process involved with applying to, and what to expect once you get to, graduate school. Here is a brief overview of the topics covered:

Starting Salaries vs. Education Level

B. S. from Michigan State University in 1994

  • A low of $30,000, high of $50,000

M.S. from U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1997

  • $55,000

Ph. D. from U. of Illinois at U.-C. in 1998

  • $68,000

Comments: You'll make a little more money if you get a Ph.D., but you'll lose those years of earnings as you stay in school. So, don't go if you want to "get ahead" financially for lifetime earnings.

Why do you go then?

Not for the money you make while you're there!

  • Only make $16,000 a year + free tuition
  • Must pay fees, which can be expensive

Go for the job you want to get.

Go if you want to postpone some major life decisions, like where you want to live, etc.

Types of Jobs by Degree Level

Ph. D.

  • Professor
  • Research leader
  • Design engineer
  • Manager
  • Outside chemical engineering:
    • Computer programmer for software developer
    • Wall Street consultant
    • Consultant for other types of companies

Masters Degree

Not much different from a B.S. choice

The Components of Graduate School

(What you do once you're there.)

Conducting Research

  • Most of your time is spent on this!


  • Only a small part of your work
  • Not emphasized at all

Course work

  • Can last one or two years
  • Cover advanced and specialized topics

What Do You Do When You're Doing Research?

  • Do something new that has never been done before
  • Learn new techniques
  • Covers a highly specific area
  • Can be very independent
  • Not called search for a reason
    • You do it again
    • ...and again
    • ...and again

Timeline for Research

  • Do your work
  • Write Master's thesis
  • Write papers and get published
  • Do preliminary exam - a proposal for research you will do
  • Do Ph.D. work
  • Write thesis
  • Do oral defense

Total time: about 4 - 8 years

How Do You Get In?

  • Take the general GRE exam...NOW!
    • Gives you time to take it over if you don't do well that day
    • The longer you wait, the more you forget about taking exams like that
    • Wait to take the engineering GRE until your senior year
  • Need good grades from your classes now
    • The lower the grades, the better your GRE should be
    • Top schools require grades of around 3.7/4.0 to get in
  • Need letters of recommendation
  • Need application information

Getting Letters of Recommendation

  • How do you get a good one?
    • Work for a professor for at least one semester
      • Try to work for money first
      • If you can't work for pay, try to work in the lab for credit
      • If that doesn't work, try to volunteer to do some work
    • Get to know them outside of class
      • Say "hi" to them in the hallway
      • Let them know a little bit about yourself when they seem interested in you
    • Talk to them before or after class, even though you understand the material
      • Appear interested even though you might not be
      • Look like you've been working on understanding the material
    • Show effort and interest in activities outside the classroom
    • Let them know who you are!

How to Get Application Information

  • Chemical Engineering Education - November issue
  • Postings within the department building
  • Talk to professors
    • Where did they go?
    • Did they like it?
    • What was best about going there?

Picking Schools to Apply To

  • Where do you want to live?
  • What do you want to do when you graduate?
  • Do you want to go to a top school?
  • Who works where you want to go?
    • Are they well-known?
    • Are they good to work for?
    • Do they do intersting things?
    • Do their students get jobs?

Things to Be Wary Of

  • Pick at least 2 safety schools you'd be happy at
  • Make sure at least 2 professors you like work there
  • Is the department changing?
    • Are certain people leaving?
    • Will they have enough grant money to afford you?
  • How does funding work?
    • Most important if you don't want a lot of stress later!!!


  • Take the GRE...NOW!
  • Pick schools first semester your senior year
  • Apply and send letters of recommendation by Christmas break
  • Get accepted between January and February
  • Visit the school between March and April
  • Decide by April 15th
    • Must be submitted in writing by then
    • If not, then you can't go that year!

How to Pick the One School

  • Stipend
    • Can you live on what you'll be making?
    • What do you have to pay in fees out of that?
  • Impressions from your visit
    • Did you like the current graduate students?
    • Did you like the physical setting of the school?
    • Were there enough things to do to relax around town?
  • Professors
    • How many would you be willing to work for?
    • Were they friendly?
    • Do they get enough funding?
  • Resources for doing your work there
    • How good is the library?
    • Can you get equipment you need?
    • Will people be willing to help you with your work?
  • History of the department
    • How many graduates get the jobs they want?
    • How many people leave with their Master's?
    • Why have people left with or without a degree?
  • Cost of living to be there
    • How much do apartments cost?
    • Will you be able to afford to go out to eat?
    • How much is car insurance?
  • Other factors
    • Does your significant other go there already?
    • Do you have other ties to the department or school?


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2007 Arizona Board of Regents for The University of Arizona