Preparing as an Undergraduate
Laying the Groundwork
The first phase of planning for graduate work in the chemical sciences occurs during your undergraduate studies. Your undergraduate education should help you explore and prepare you for a range of options, including graduate school in the chemical sciences. Fulfilling requirements for your bachelor’s degree and being involved in various activities as an undergraduate student can help you:
- Develop career goals
- Decide whether to pursue a graduate degree and, if so, in what area and in which program
- Prepare for graduate school
Each of the following activities can provide the insights and preparation needed to be successful – whether or not you earn a master’s or doctoral degree.
How can you make the most of these activities? How can you use them to determine whether graduate school is for you?
Chemistry is a broad and expanding field. You will only cover a portion of it in a bachelor’s degree program. Employers and graduate programs will expect that you have a solid understanding of subdisciplines such as analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, as well as an appreciation of polymer chemistry. Some bachelor’s degree programs will also cover other subdisciplines.
Regardless of what it includes and how it is organized, your undergraduate chemistry curriculum should provide a broad background in chemical principles and practices, along with in-depth study that builds on this background. Your chemistry curriculum should also develop skills essential for careers in the chemical sciences.
By learning a range of chemistry subdisciplines, you will gain a broad understanding of the field. Courses may be focused on specific subdisciplines or overarching themes, such as synthesis, characterization, and reactivity. This foundation provides you with the vocabulary, concepts, and skills needed for deeper exploration and helps you identify areas of particular interest.
In-depth courses build on foundation courses, integrating topics and investigating them more thoroughly. These courses should develop critical thinking and problem solving – abilities that employers and graduate programs also expect. Like the foundation courses, in-depth coursework may be focused on specific chemistry subdisciplines or multiple areas. Courses in areas such as materials science, biology, environmental chemistry, and bioengineering will help you explore how chemistry interfaces with other fields.
To the extent possible you should try to enhance your experience both in research and in in-depth course in your area of interest. Such a record will enhance your applications for graduate work.
What to Consider?
As you take foundation and in-depth courses, consider the following questions:
- What topics and activities interest you?
- What are your strengths?
- Where can you see chemical principles and practices being applied?
- How can you learn more?
To have a successful career in the chemical sciences, you need to continuously enhance your technical and professional skills. Graduate programs, as well as employers, will expect that you developed many of these skills as an undergraduate student. Even more importantly, they will expect that you know how to improve those skills and develop new ones.
Consider what technical and professional skills you will need in evolving interdisciplinary and global environments. In addition to technical skills, such as synthesis and characterization, you should be developing skills in problem-solving, the use of the chemical literature, computational chemistry, and safety.
It is important to develop your sense of ethics and practice ethical behaviors. Professional skills cover a wide range of skills needed to be productive in the workplace.
Pursue opportunities to develop skills in your courses, during extracurricular activities, and as an undergraduate researcher.
Skill Development Resources
Professional Skills Required
- Planning and organizing
- Managing projects
- Administering projects
- Leadershiping and providing direction
- Taking initiative
- Attention to detail
- Giving and receiving feedback
- Working in teams
- Counseling and advising
Gaining Research Experience
Conducting research is an excellent way to integrate and reinforce your chemical knowledge, while developing your technical and professional skills. Since research is an essential component of doctoral and many master’s degree programs, having an undergraduate research experience will inform your decision to do graduate work.
Undergraduate research can be carried out during the academic year, as well as during the summer. It can be conducted on your campus or at other campuses in the U.S. or abroad. Some undergraduate programs are also trying to include research projects, as well as activities that develop research skills, into courses.
Pursue undergraduate research experiences that involve original projects. These research projects should:
- Be well-defined
- Stand a reasonable chance of completion in the available time
- Apply and develop an understanding of in-depth concepts
- Use a variety of instrumentation
- Promote awareness of advanced safety practices
- Be grounded in the primary chemical literature
Preparing a comprehensive written report should also be part of your undergraduate research experience. Oral presentations, poster presentations, and journal article co-authorship are also valuable opportunities.
Learn about what undergraduate research experience programs are and why they are essential to your undergraduate and graduate experiences
Make the Most of Your Undergraduate Research Experience
- Guide to Undergraduate Research
Get guidance on undergraduate research projects.
- GET Experience
Search for research experience, internship, co-op, and other chemistry-related opportunities on this site. NO registration required.
- REU Site Programs
Programs that allow undergrads to work closely with faculty and researchers on research project
- SCI Scholars Program
Exceptional sophomores and juniors majoring in chemistry and chemical engineering can apply for a prestigious SCI Scholars summer internship.
- ACS International Center
Search for opportunities in other countries.
- Ask Faculty
Inquire about research opportunities on campus, campus-coordinated internships, and any connections they may have to help you find off-campus opportunities
Exploring Career Options
Continuous changes in science and the employment landscape require all chemical scientists to explore options throughout their career. During your undergraduate studies, look for opportunities to talk to others, read about chemical sciences, and envision yourself in different careers. Your answers to the following questions will evolve as you learn more about the wide range of options.
What Areas of Science Do You Want to Pursue?
It is difficult to categorize projects and programs in the chemical sciences, given the changing landscape. Most fall into one of the following categories.
- Traditional subdisciplines – As they have become established fields, biochemistry and polymer chemistry have joined the classical areas of analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry. Many chemistry departments and courses are organized by these subdisciplines.
- Emerging areas – New fields are developing in areas such as nanochemistry, bioanalytical chemistry, chemical biology, and materials chemistry. These clearly span the traditional subdisciplines of chemistry and other fields of science. In some cases, dedicated centers are where such work is conducted.
- Interdisciplinary areas – Chemistry continues to play an important role in areas such as environmental, food, and forensic science.
Where Do You Want to Work?
Your career path may involve one or more of the following types of workplaces.
- In academe – Most academic institutions, from research universities to community colleges, expect faculty members to have Ph.D.s. Degree requirements vary for other positions, such as those in stockrooms, instrumentation facilities, and teaching and learning centers.
- In industry – Scientists at all degree levels are employed in industry. A few conduct basic research. Some focus on more applied projects and taking them to market. Others ensure the quality and safety of products. Still others market and sell products. Those with doctoral degrees are generally given supervisory roles more quickly than those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees and often move into management tracks.
- For the government – Government agencies and national laboratories also employ people with a range of degrees for a variety of laboratory and non-laboratory work.
- For yourself – People at various degree levels have started successful businesses by providing consulting and services, manufacturing products, and licensing ideas. A range of activities and skill sets are needed to run your own business.
Regardless of employment sector, the nature of your responsibilities is likely to change as you get more experience. Anticipate working with interdisciplinary teams of people, some of whom may be international, and taking on leadership responsibilities.
Answering these questions will inform your decision to pursue a graduate degree and your search for graduate programs. Considering whether and where to go for graduate school will also help you answer these questions more deeply.
Even if you know what you would like to do with your degree, it is important to learn about a range of career options. This exploration may open up new opportunities and will help you articulate why you want to do what you want to do.
Your future professional pursuits will be influenced by the people with whom you interact. Connecting with other chemical scientists and students will help you:
- Find mentors and champions
- Gain general information about possible career sectors
- Build your professional reputation
Networking is a two-way activity. Even as an undergraduate student, you have valuable insights to share and can offer to help others.
It is never too early to start building connections with other people. Get to know people with a range of perspectives:
- Levels of experience (e.g. students, interns, new hires, mid-career professionals, highly seasoned professionals)
- Places of employment (e.g. various sectors in industry, types of post-secondary institutions, agencies in government)
- Types of employment (e.g. management versus bench chemist, various functions in industry, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty at different types of academic institutions)
Networking with others is not just something to do when you are looking for a job. People who are in your network may help you learn about job opportunities, but they are not the people who will get you a job. In fact, asking them for a job may just prompt them to exclude you from their networks.
Where You Should Network
- At Meetings
Attend sessions of interest and engage presenters and other attendees
- On Campus
Establish contacts through professors, classmates, career office, alumni association
- At Work
Establish contacts across the organization
- Other Organizations
attend events and volunteer for activities that interest you
Establish contacts through social networks and through professional networks like LinkedIn
How to Make the Most out of Your National Meeting
- Present an undergraduate research poster
Share your science, meet others interested in your work, and start to build your professional portfolio
- Participate in Speed Networking Events
Meet scientific professionals in a range of positions, learn what they do, and get career insights
- Attend the Graduate School Events
Meet graduate school representatives and learn about applying for and thriving in graduate school