Chemistry Lab

Tips for Applying for Chemistry Grad Programs

Heidi Hendrickson graduated from Hillsdale College in 2009 with a bachelor of science in chemistry. She went on to get her MS in educational studies and Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Michigan. She is currently pursuing post-doctoral research at Yale University.

What should you look for when choosing graduate schools?

I think you should pick a program that’s flexible and allows you to explore. Every single person’s career path and learning goals inevitably end up changing during the first year of grad school. My graduate program was open and had a lot of opportunities for students to explore different options. They had a rotation system set up that required you to spend at least two semesters in different research groups before you chose one. That way you weren’t immediately hedged into a research group that you’d later find out wasn’t a good fit.

How should you go about finding graduate programs?

Do as much research as you can and visit the places you are considering. Start at the top; don’t sell yourself short. Apply to a few “safe” schools, but do check out top-ranking universities. Consider a wide range of different types of schools, then do a lot of research into the faculty and areas of research at those schools. Make sure there are multiple professors whom you would be interested in working with at whatever school you’re applying to, because you’re never guaranteed a spot in a particular research group.

Do you have any advice about the application process?

Talk to your professors. When I was looking at grad schools, talking with my professors helped me identify my strengths and figure out what to include in my application. Your professors have been through this process before, and they often have friends and colleagues in programs that you’re considering.

Also, start your applications early. It takes a while to write an application. You really don’t want to be doing it at the last minute.

What are advantages that chemistry students with a liberal arts education have when applying to grad schools?

Hillsdale students have strong writing skills because they are taking humanities and social science classes where writing is much more of a focus. You still have to write in your chemistry courses, but in English classes, for example, you have to learn to think deeply about literature, reflect on your thoughts, and communicate those thoughts in writing in a rigorous way.

With a liberal arts education, you learn how to think; you learn how to learn; you learn how to reflect. This is helpful when you’re writing a proposal, because you’re accustomed to getting constructive feedback, not only with regard to your scientific argument but also your ability to clearly communicate your ideas.

I think that my experience with that sort of immersive core is what was helpful for me, especially the writing skills that I developed. It made my writing stand out from other applicants. For example, I was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship when I was in grad school, and the writing and critical thinking skills that I learned at Hillsdale were so helpful when I was putting together that proposal.

What other advice do you have for current undergraduate students?

Don’t stop learning, and keep working hard! Sometimes it’s easy for you to get obsessed with “the next step” and your grades that you forget learning is something that you can enjoy. Learning is meant to help you enjoy living. Appreciate the time that you have with all your friends, and get to know your classmates.

This interview has been edited for clarity.