Posted by: thediygeochemist | January 22, 2009

what I want out of grad school

During my hiatus from academia I developed many hobbies, one of which was home repair. I re-roofed my house, replaced the main sewer line, and so forth and so on. One thing I learned from all this is that you can do anything if you have the right tools.

I do not want to go to grad school to learn particular sorts of facts. As I said earlier, I’m an independent learner and could easily learn stuff myself. No, what I really want is to get the right set of tools to facilitate my future research.

For example, you might ask me, “If you’re such a hands-on person, why are you doing research with a theoretical chemist?” Well, one reason is that he’s the only one who was willing to ask a non-admitted student. 😉 But the main reason I said yes is because I see computational chemistry as a tool that can be used by all chemists, even the non-theoreticians. In fact, I foresee a day where molecular dynamics and density functional software will be as widely used as, say, NMR and IR spectroscopy.

I could take a class on how to use chem software; the school I’m attending has such a thing. But I can predict how the class will go: 2 weeks (4 lectures, 2 activities) on using Excel (which I can already do), 2 weeks on some programming language like Perl, 2 weeks on VMD, 2 weeks on molecular dynamics software, 2 weeks on ab-initio and/or density functional software…

I’ve just spent 2 weeks figuring out how to use VMD and the Maestro/Desmond suite. I can function in both, barely. It will take me another 2 weeks before I’m comfortable, but I won’t feel competent in either until the end of the semester–if even then. These are tools I want to learn how to use. I’m lucky to be working with SL because he’s willing to spend a lot of time training me. So I put up with research in theoretical chemistry, even if it means forsaking hands-on lab experience in favor of sorting through several dozen crystal structures, trying to decide which would be best suited for our simulations.

See, doing actual work with a tool, rather than hokey made-up assignments, is the real way to learn how to use it. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll take my share of classes in grad school, I’ll study hard, and I’ll do well. But what I really want to do is work with a good mentor who can train me in tricks of synthesis, who will share intuition about picking apart a difficult reaction mechanism, who will tell me when to encourage my perfectionistic tendencies and when to throw them out the window.

Is that too much to ask from grad school?



  1. it’s good to read about your journey to the grad school…hope u make it…mine seems to be quite similar to your’s though my sabbatical would be 2 years only …2 years of MBA have made me realize that i should go back to my filed of computer science …I also gave subject GRE(CS) so that i can prove my worth and i did that…..

    here’s wishing you all da best … ur an inspiration to all

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