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?