On Being a Teaching Assistant, Lauren Wagner – Graduate Student in Synthetic Chemistry (Bertozzi Group) (

As a first semester graduate student, you will be challenged to juggle coursework, research, and teaching.   Among these, teaching tends to inspire mixed feelings, from anxiety and apathy to enthusiasm.  Although entering PhD students have experience and interest in graduate coursework and research, many of us have not explored teaching as thoroughly.  A range of previous experience with teaching often leads to a range of expectations for your first semester as a GSI.

Most synthetic students will teach either of the CHEM 3A/B introductory organic sequence, while most physical students will teach general chemistry (CHEM 1A).  Later in your graduate career, you may teach other advanced undergraduate chemistry courses or graduate courses.  You will spend between 15 and 20 hours per week on duties including teaching lab, holding office hours, grading, attending course lectures, meetings, and preparation.  These duties may vary from week to week, and they can consume as much time as you allow.

During my two semesters teaching, I have found it best to over-prepare initially, and then to reduce my workload as I learn the format of the course.  In particular, this means attending course lectures to review the material and to see how subject matter is presented to the students.   With lecture material under your belt, the burden of preparation for office hours is significantly reduced.  Additionally, planning the workflow of each lab experiment in advance can actually reduce your burden during the lab period itself.  This includes anticipating the amount of time each step should demand, and succinctly introducing the experiment to the students so that they grasp the purpose and the main techniques first. Finally, grading student work promptly and thoroughly is particularly important at the beginning of the term.  With quick feedback from you, students learn sooner how to improve their reports, and your job grading becomes easier.

I taught CHEM 3B my first semester, which was challenging because my training was largely in molecular biology.  With limited synthetic experience, I found myself learning alongside my students when experimental results deviated from those described in the lab manual.  In those times, it was critical to maintain authority by keeping my cool and fully assessing the situation before responding.  I left that semester significantly more comfortable with synthetic organic techniques, and I have since been more confident troubleshooting my own research.

Teaching is a mixed bag: the tedium of grading is at one end of the spectrum, while at the other end is the spontaneous, seat-of-your-pants response demanded during lab time.  Leading a lab section demands patience and ingenuity, not to mention diplomacy. Because students have very limited access to professors, you may be their main contact  for the course.  Your attitude and knowledge will impact their laboratory experience, as well as how much they gain from office hours.  Ultimately, you must invest enough in teaching to walk away confident that both you and your students had the best possible experience, considering your other obligations as a graduate student too.

On Being a Teaching Assistant, MaryAnn Robak – Chemistry Lecturer, (

Teaching as a graduate student instructor (GSI) can be a valuable, enjoyable and rewarding experience. As an integral part of the chemistry graduate program, your teaching assignments will provide invaluable experience in communicating scientific ideas effectively to people from diverse backgrounds. Developing the ability to explain complex (and not-so-complex) subject material in a straightforward manner and tailor your answers to questions to meet your audience’s needs will be useful to you even if you do not plan to pursue teaching as a career.

The job responsibilities for any GSI assignment will include some combination of lecture attendance, office hours, grading, and teaching sessions (such as reviews, discussion sections, or laboratory sections). The overall GSI experience can vary greatly depending on what type of class you are assigned to teach. As an incoming first year student, you will most likely be assigned to teach a lab section for one of the large, lower-division classes (Chem 1A, Chem 3A, or Chem 3B.) Later on, you can choose to seek out teaching assignments in upper-division classes or even graduate classes, based on your interests.

There are many effective methods of helping students learn material, and the particular methods that you employ will of course change based on the course setting. For example, lecturing can be an effective way of conveying a large amount of well-organized material to many students at once. You might find that you use a lecture approach for conveying safety information at the beginning of a lab period, or for reviewing course content in a discussion section or exam review setting. However, lecturing has its limitations. By default, it tends to be a fairly passive learning experience for the students. While a lecture may be appropriate as a first step in the learning experience, it is usually not sufficient by itself to provide the student with a working knowledge of the course content. As a GSI, you will usually be working with students who have already attended a lecture given by the course instructor. As a result, you may find that very little of your time is spent lecturing. Instead, you may spend your teaching time facilitating class discussions and question and answer sessions, supervising small group problem-solving sessions (including laboratory work), and interacting with students one-on-one. The common element in this list of teaching techniques is that each encourages the students to take a more active role in the learning process, allowing them to develop a deeper understanding of the subject material than they would from a lecture alone. The use of a variety of teaching techniques insures that you can reach students who have a variety of preferred learning styles.

In a laboratory setting, it may sometimes be tempting to feel that your only responsibility is to make sure that the students are working in a safe manner and efficiently completing the assigned tasks. While safety and efficiency are certainly important, the laboratory class also provides the opportunity for you to engage small groups or individual students in active discussions of the concepts they are learning. Making an effort to do so will make the teaching experience more enjoyable for you and also much more useful to your students. Careful, consistent, constructive feedback in written format, such as on graded lab reports and exams, can also be a very valuable teaching tool.

To be effective at teaching, no matter which techniques are employed, it is important that you spend enough time on preparation that you are confident in your knowledge of the subject material, and organized enough to keep discussions and other activities on-track. It is equally important that you are flexible enough to allow students to really participate fully in an interactive experience, and sometimes you may find that you need to deviate from your plans because your students’ level of understanding is different than you anticipated. As you listen to the questions that your students ask, you have the opportunity to tailor your explanations to meet their needs.

Occasionally, you will be faced with a question that you do not know how to answer. This happens to everyone, and should not embarrass or surprise you. In these situations, keep in mind that the last thing a student wants is to feel as though the instructor is lying to them, and if you try to bluff your way through, you stand a good chance of severely damaging the student’s ability to see you as a helpful resource. Your credibility as an instructor will benefit if you respond honestly, acknowledge that you need a chance to find more information, and make arrangements to follow up with the student after you have arrived at an acceptable answer (if this occurs during office hours when you are not sure you will see the student again soon, asking for the student’s email address is a good option). Then, make sure that you remember to follow up with the student in a timely manner.

The effort and enthusiasm that you put into your teaching (including both preparation for classes, and your in-class work) is repaid with the satisfaction of seeing progress in your students’ understanding of the material. You will find at least a few students in your class who begin the semester apprehensive or indifferent about the course content. As you make an effort to reach out to these students, it can be particularly rewarding to watch these students gain confidence in their ability to learn the material and become more engaged and excited by what they are learning.

On the Student / Advisor Relationship, Marcin Majda – Professor of Physical Chemistry, Undergraduate Dean, College of Chemistry (

Chemistry graduate study in Berkeley is intrinsically very challenging. The coursework and research, in particular, require intense intellectual effort, and the standards of performance are very high. Scientific research and learning proceed hand in hand and the process is necessarily extremely demanding of the student’s time and abilities. Good progress cannot be expected to result from a mere accumulation of time spent at a desk or in a laboratory.

This notwithstanding, the rewards of scientific progress are great and easily outweigh the effort that they require. The learning process is intrinsically satisfying. A taste of scientific discovery, mastering a new, broad area of science, development of a professional relationship with a faculty advisor and her/his recognition of the student’s progress and accomplishments all bring enormous satisfaction. Of course, the ultimate formal reward must not be forgotten: a Ph.D. degree almost instantaneously opens many doors of professional opportunities.

The corner stone of the chemistry graduate study is a mentoring relationship between a faculty advisor and her/his student. The relationship begins by mutual consent when a student becomes a member a professor’s research group. This specifically implies a commitment of both the student and the professor to work together on a specific research project. Naturally, the nature and the scope of the research project may change numerous times in the course of student’s graduate study. However, the mutual commitment of the student and the professor to pursue together their scientific goals remains the foundation of their relationship.

While the pursuit of scientific excellence in research and learning is the common goal of a student and her/his faculty mentor, their roles and burdens in this relationship are necessarily different. The student commits to mastering a new area of chemistry, to acquire technical expertise necessary to carry out research in this area of science, and to using her/his creativity to learn how to ask scientific questions and how to conduct research to find the answers. The role of a faculty mentor is multifaceted: setting the initial course of student’s research, directing research, teaching and mentoring her/his students represent some key elements. In addition, faculty advisors are obligated to evaluate the student’s progress in order, ultimately, to judge the student’s chances of timely graduation. Thus mentoring and passing judgment are two seemingly conflicting, yet necessary elements of a professor’s responsibilities in the interactions with her/his graduate students. These various demands may sometimes strain student – faculty relations. At such times, some basic rules are important to keep in mind.  Firstly, the student may, at any time, leave the research group of his advisor and join, upon mutual consent, a research group of a different professor. Likewise, a faculty advisor may terminate his mentoring relationship with a student and ask the student to find a different advisor. It is extremely rare that such decision on the part of a faculty advisor is dictated by reasons other than his assessment of student’s inadequate progress towards the Ph.D. degree in his/her group. Moreover, the faculty advisor’s mentoring role requires that any serious deficiencies in student’s performance be discussed with a student early on, and that a plan be developed to correct such deficiencies, including outlining a timeline during which student has a reasonable chance to improve his performance. However, since the faculty advisor is ultimately responsible for evaluating and judging his/her student’s progress, his judgment and decisions in such matters prevail.

The decision of a faculty advisor to ask his/her student to leave his research group is not synonymous with putting a student on academic probation or initiating formal dismissal from the graduate program. A student may be put on probationary status, and ultimately dismissed, only by the Dean of the Graduate Division.

In addition to their individual faculty research advisors, the chemistry graduate students may and should also seek advice of the Vice-Chair in charge of their program (physical, synthetic, and chemical biology).  The Vice-Chairs act as Graduate Advisors and are thus responsible for the academic advising of graduate students in all academic matters, including student – faculty advisor relations. It is important to stress that while the Vice-Chairs cannot directly interfere in the student – faculty advisor relationship, they are nevertheless able to offer insightful commentary, often putting difficult situations in a proper perspective. Their advice and suggestions take into consideration the best interest of a student and of his academic progress. Needless to say, advising with Vice-Chair is completely confidential. In addition to seeking advice of Vice-Chair, graduate students may seek counsel of Ombudsperson for Students (to make an appointment call 642-5754). The office is currently held by Ms. Kathleen Dickson.

On the First Year Report, Jonathan Ellman – Professor of Synthetic Chemistry

The first formal requirement in the synthetic graduate program is a research report to be submitted at the end of your second semester of graduate work. The first year report is written in the style and format that one would use in writing a full paper. Writing the first year report therefore can be an extremely valuable educational experience. Do not be concerned if you have not made sufficient research progress to actually submit your work for publication. Due to the varied nature of research and multiple responsibilities in the first year, at the end of the second semester most students have not yet reached a stage where publication of their work is warranted.

Report organization

The first year report should begin with an introduction (one-two pages) outlining the rationale upon which your project is based, followed by a brief presentation of the experiments you have done, and concluding with an experimental section. The total number of double-spaced pages is limited to ten, exclusive of title page, references, figures and experimental section. It is important not to exceed this number of pages, otherwise your report will likely be returned to you for revision.

At the time that the first year report is written several handouts are provided. The samples of experimental write-ups, which illustrate proper style, are quite valuable because common mistakes are highlighted. The ACS Style Guide edited by Janet S. Dodd is an extremely useful additional resource.

The exact nature of these reports varies to some extent depending upon each student’s research area. Although your research director will not formally be part of your evaluation committee, he or she should have significant input on how the report is to be written. For that reason, consult with your research director several months prior to the deadline for submitting the report. Many research advisers will in fact review a draft of the report to provide guidance.

It is also extremely helpful to look at a copy of one or more successful reports that have previously been submitted by students from your group or from groups with related research focus. It is also advantageous to have a senior student proof-read your report prior to submission.

Report evaluation

Your evaluation committee will consist of two faculty members other than your research director, one of who will serve as chair. Both members will read your report, and the chair will provide you with written comments. You will have some level of input on who serves on your evaluation committee. Specifically, at the time that the report is submitted, each student submits a cover page listing his/her preferred committee members and chair. You should request input from your faculty advisor in making this selection. The Vice Chair for Graduate Synthetic Chemistry, who will assign the evaluation committees, tries as much as possible to accommodate each student’s requests. However, because of faculty sabbaticals, other departmental service obligations, or popularity of specific faculty members, students will typically be assigned some but not all of their faculty selections.

Your committee will base their evaluation on your understanding of your research project, your level of research progress, the clarity with which your report is written, and your ability to correctly report experimental procedures and data (the committee will carefully read the experimental section). Three types of overall evaluation are provided. (1) The report is accepted without revision. (2) A statement that the report needs certain revisions with a deadline for rewriting. Most students receive this type of evaluation and are required to submit a revised report within approximately two weeks of receiving the evaluation. This should not be taken negatively, but rather should be looked at as opportunity to learn from mistakes that have been made. (3) A need for additional experiments and a supplementary report, usually due one to three months from the time that the student receives the evaluation. A relatively small percentage of reports receive this evaluation, which indicates that the committee either feels that insufficient research progress has been made or that the student has a poor understanding of his/her research project.

Upon satisfying this first formal requirement of the synthetic graduate program each student should feel confident in his/her ability to report on original research in peer reviewed journals, which is arguably the most important mechanism for communicating significant new scientific results.

On the First Year Report, Rebecca Murphy – Graduate Student in Synthetic Chemistry (Sarpong Group), (

The first year report (FYR) is pretty much exactly what you would expect – a paper on the research you have done over the course of your first year. There will be a meeting, held by vice chair Prof. Dean Toste, in March that outlines the details of the report. This will prepare you to submit it (to Prof. Dean Toste) on June 1st.

The FYR is written in the same format that a paper published in an American Chemical Society journal, such as JACS or JOC, would be written. The report should be 10 pages of text, double-spaced, before figures are added. Additional sections not included in the 10 pages will be a title page at the beginning, and references, an experimental section and any 1H NMR spectra at the end. Of the 10-page body, there should be three sections: Introduction and Background (2-3 pages), Results and Discussion (6-7 pages), Conclusion and Future Directions (1 page). The Introduction and Background section should outline what your project is and why it is important. In the Results and Discussion section you will show all of your forward work toward your goal. The Conclusion and Future directions section should tie everything together concisely and show what your next steps will be. The experimental section is akin to the supporting information that would be attached to a published paper. This is where any compounds that you have made during the year will be tabulated. This should include full characterization: 1H NMR, 13C NMR, IR and HRMS.

The most important (and tedious) part of getting ready to submit a first year report is making sure that all of the compounds you will be discussing are fully characterized. In that sense, you don’t need to wait for the meeting about FYRs to start getting ready. Starting in the spring semester, it is best to make a checklist of all of the compounds that you have been using, and fully characterize them. This allows you to get ready slowly, and on your own time instead of rushing at the end.

Once you are ready to start writing the actual report, it may be helpful to first write an outline that you can go over with your advisor or an older student. This will ensure that you are on the right track before you put in a lot of work writing. Other great resources include old FYRs written by senior group members. Nothing is a better guide than a report written in the same field of work.  After you have written your first draft of your report, you will want to have a few (2+) older graduate students edit it for both content and grammar. After these drafts, if possible, you will want to have your advisor read through it as well.

When you submit your report you will be able to choose two professors who will serve as readers. You will want to choose these members carefully because they will also be on your Qualifying Exam and Thesis Advisory committees, as well as eventually writing you letters of recommendation after graduate school. Ideally, they will have similar research interests to yours.

Your first year report will be returned before the end of the summer. There are three possible outcomes: 1) Accept as is, with out revision (this is rare), 2) Accept with 2 week revisions (this is the most common outcome), 3) Resubmit after 3+ month revision (this is very rare). The more drafts you do before you submit your report, the more likely it will be complete and polished, so the more likely it will be accepted outright.

The first year report is actually very useful. It is a great way to see how much you have been able to get done in your first year, and it should give you an idea about when you will be ready to give your GRS/GRC and take your qualifying exam. It also serves as a great outline for making your talk, which you will appreciate in your second year!

On the GRC/GRS, Matthew Francis – Professor of Synthetic Chemistry (

Regardless of the setting, professional scientists must be able to describe their research findings, develop interactive collaborations, and educate those around them. To foster the development of these and related communication skills, students in the Chemistry Graduate Program are required to present their research progress in the format of a formal seminar during their second year. The presentations are given in the Pitzer lecture hall and are attended by the majority of the synthetic students and the faculty. The talks are limited to 25 minutes in length, including a 5 minute “question and answer” session at the end. Although PowerPoint-based slide presentations are most commonly used, facilities are also available for overhead projector use.

Due to the diverse nature of the research in our department, the exact format of the seminars varies somewhat. However, all presentations should include a clear introduction that states the goals of the research project and its relevance to the overall scientific community. Commonly, the introductory section will also describe related work by other researchers in the field. From the faculty standpoint, this segment of the talk provides an excellent way to gauge a student’s knowledge of the background literature, as well as their appreciation for the “big picture” aspects of the project.

Following this, experimental descriptions and obtained data should be presented clearly and succinctly. Invariably students will not describe all of the work that has been carried out; instead, the most relevant and informative results should be selected and emphasized. The data should be interpreted carefully and presented such that they can be understood by a diverse audience. The most successful talks create a sense of flow by linking the outcome of one experiment to the rationale for the next. In addition to being more satisfying scientifically, this “story” format provides an excellent way to maintain the attention of the listeners. Near the end of the seminar, the data should be summarized and a logical set of conclusions should be presented. Most talks also include a brief description of the future research directions that will be undertaken. Finally, the presentations should conclude by acknowledging coworkers who also contributed to the work. After the presentation, the students and faculty in the audience will have the opportunity to ask questions and to make suggestions for future work.

It should be noted that in most cases, the end goals of the research have not been reached by the time of the GRS. This is understandable, as the projects are usually expected to continue until the completion of the student’s Ph.D. studies. However, each student is expected to demonstrate significant progress toward their research goals during the presentation. It is also critically important for the students to show that they have contributed to the intellectual development of their project, rather than simply carrying out the instructions of their advisor. Meeting these criteria ensures continued success as the student progresses through the Ph.D. program.

Many students and faculty have commented that they enjoy the GRS talks more than the regular departmental seminars. In addition to the consistently high quality of the talks, the seminars provide an invaluable opportunity to learn about a broad range of topics. Every effort is made by the faculty and the students to provide a supportive and welcoming atmosphere. To maintain this scientific environment and to provide support for their colleagues, students are strongly encouraged to attend as many of the GRS presentations as possible.

On the GRC/GRS, Chelsea Gordon, Graduate Student in Synthetic Chemistry (Bertozzi Group), (

The GRS/GRC is an invaluable opportunity to develop your skills as a communicator. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but the ability to give a clear, interesting, and well organized talk is extremely important, especially for scientists. So, instead of thinking of your upcoming GRS/GRC as a terrifying hurdle standing between you and your PhD, think of it as a golden opportunity to get tons of people to listen to all the awesome things you’ve been working on and give you advice about how to become a better communicator. Just remember that no one is out to get you, and everyone in the audience wants you to succeed.

Everyone is nervous about his/her GRS/GRC, but luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure you are well prepared for the big day. First, you will need to make a presentation. Ideally, you will have completed a first draft of your slides 1-2 weeks before your scheduled talk. Your slides should give a general introduction and background information so that people in the audience can understand your amazing project and just why it is so amazing. Don’t forget to make it abundantly clear why you are doing what you are doing. What is your motivation? Next, give a summary of your results to date. There is no need to cram in a full description of every single experiment you have done, but at the same time, you don’t want to be so general that people are left with tons of questions and a poor understanding of your work. You want your slides to tell a detailed story, but not come across like a laundry list of experiments. I would recommend attending as many GRS/GRC presentations as possible during your first year so that you can get a good feel for the amount of data that is appropriate to include in a presentation.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, it’s time to practice! Don’t make the mistake of spending days polishing your slides before your first practice talk, because believe me they will change. A lot. So, a rough (though complete, so as not to annoy the people who are listening) first draft is all you’ll need for your first few practices. Schedule these talks with people in your group as well as with graduate students in other labs. Your group members can help you pinpoint technical areas that need correction, whereas those outside your group and less familiar with your work can help you judge the clarity of your presentation. It’s also a good idea to have people ask you questions about your research. This way you’ll get in some practice for the Q&A section of your talk. The nice thing about the GRS/GRC is that everyone has to do it. As a result, older graduate students feel your pain and are generally more than happy to help you practice. It’s a really nice way to meet people in other groups and get some productive feedback about your research. You’re likely to receive extra-productive feedback if you bring snacks for your listeners. But this, of course, is not required.

After you’ve gone through a few practices, it’s time to start making corrections and really perfecting your slides. If possible, I would highly recommend giving a final practice talk in 120 Latimer. This way you will know ahead of time if the projector is going to accurately project your slides. Pay careful attention to how colors translate to the big screen!

After you’re finished with all of your practices and your slides are polished, you’re ready to go! Generally, students discuss the order of presentations and make arrangements for laptops etc. with the other graduate student(s) presenting on the same day. Definitely make sure you have a backup copy of the presentation saved somewhere just in case! When it comes time to give your presentation, try to relax and enjoy it! It’s not often you get the attention of so many professors and students at once. Be proud of what you have accomplished so far!

How to Prepare for and Take a Qualifying Examination, Robert G. Bergman – Professor of Synthetic Chemistry (

How the examination is structured:

The qualifying examination is divided into two parts. The first part usually concentrates on the candidate’s research, and the second part is devoted to a defense of the research proposal (synthetic chemistry students) or outside topic (physical chemistry students). At the beginning of each phase of the examination you will typically be asked to start with a short introduction to your research (or proposal/outside topic), followed by more detailed discussion during which the committee members will ask questions.

One thing that surprises many students is that at the beginning and one or two other times during the examination, you will probably be asked to leave the room for a few minutes. This is not meant to represent anything ominous–the committee uses those short periods to make some decisions about how to structure the examination, and to make sure the outside member is familiar with how QE’s in chemistry are run.

Preparing for your examination

The questions on a qualifying exam are often designed to determine how you can think your way through a problem, rather than just asking you to regurgitate facts. However, even though this is the general goal of the examination, the following adage is true: “it is difficult to learn how to think if you don’t have anything in your head to think about.” Therefore, in preparing for the exam, try to identify the most important (not necessarily comprehensive or picky) things that you should know, and refresh your memory about them. For example, considering the goals of your research, it is important to know what papers in the literature might have discussed trying to reach that goal, and how the approach in the earlier work differed from yours. With respect to quantities that are important in your area of research, often ball-park values, as long as they are close enough to the correct ones, are ok. For example, you might do reasonably well by guessing that the bond dissociation energy in methane is 100 kcal/mol, even though that is not exactly the right answer. However, you will be in trouble if you guess that it is 20 or 1000 kcal/mol. It is also a good idea to have relative quantities in your memory. For example, even if you don’t know the exact numbers, it is important to know that ammonia is more acidic than propene, rather than the other way around.

Another important aspect of the “what should I know” question is that the committee will expect that you know the most important things that you (should have) learned in your undergraduate and first-year chemistry courses. It is quite surprising how many students, in preparing for their exam, do not think to go back and review their course notes, exams, etc. from their first year courses. The committee will also expect you to have a good familiarity with the literature in your chosen field of research. It is very difficult to pick this up during the few weeks before the exam, so get in the habit of reading the literature regularly, and talking with your research advisor and other coworkers about papers that interest you, as soon as you join a group and begin working on your project.

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the faculty members are out to “get” students by failing them. The members of the faculty are serious about setting a good intellectual standard for passing the exams, but it is important to the department to keep the failure and attrition rate low, so no one is happy when someone doesn’t get through his or her exam the first time. Faculty members have nothing to gain by making anyone come back for a repeat exam. Furthermore, all of us can say from personal experience that having to tell a student that s/he has failed an exam is one of the least pleasant jobs that a faculty member can have, and the chair will typically try as hard as possible to avoid having to carry out this task. So please believe that nobody wants to fail a student, and you will  therefore be doing everyone a favor if you prepare for the exam effectively and perform well enough to pass the first time you take it.

Because there are so many different committees, and oral exam evaluation is inevitably subjective, it is impossible to run all the exams in exactly the same way. If for some reason you do not make it through your exam the first time, we realize it is discouraging–but please try not to give up hope. Talk extensively with your chair and your advisor, and try to correct the problems that the committee identified, rather than giving in to the feeling that you have been treated unfairly. Nearly everyone who listens carefully to the chair’s advice and takes the exam a second time passes and goes on to a Ph. D. It is somewhat ironic, but true, that if you can avoid the feeling that failing your first exam is the end of the world, this attitude will actually help to prevent you from getting into a situation in which stress limits your ability to think and answer questions clearly and logically, and actually improve your ability to pass.

Because the type of questioning that is characteristic of qualifying examinations (see below) is different from what most people have experienced, an absolutely crucial aspect of preparation is to schedule (preferably several) practice examinations. This should start a substantial length of time before the date of your examination, so that you can develop an intuitive understanding of how the questioning works. In some groups, the research advisor participates in some or all of these practices–this is often important, because he or she obviously has had more experience posing the types of questions that occur during qualifying examinations. However, if your advisor does not do this, at least set up these practice exams with your coworkers. You could also look into the possibility of sitting in on practice exams that other research advisors hold for their second-year students.

You are required to meet with your committee chair to obtain approval of your outside topic or proposal. However, you should make an effort to talk more extensively with your chair about the exam in general, especially to discuss any concerns you may have about the experience. It is also good to get to know the other members of your committee. It is not a good idea to go into your examination with the committee members hardly knowing who you are. Establishing a relationship with them (including your outside member) will inevitably increase their understanding of your work and their support for your goals, which will help make your mutual interaction more comfortable during the exam.

The way exams work

One important goal of the qualifying exam is to establish whether a student is approaching his or her problem as an independent researcher, rather than operating more like an assistant to the research advisor, or to a senior student or postdoc who may be working on the same or a related problem. Therefore, a good thing to ask yourself is the following: what would I have to know, what concepts would I have to be in control of, and what literature would I have to know in detail, if I were managing this project myself, with no one else around to fall back on? The committee will try to establish through its questioning whether the student has taken the initiative to “own” his or her research project at this level of responsibility. Because of this goal, a classic question that often comes up in QE’s is “why are you working on this problem”? You should be able to justify the rationale for your project clearly and convincingly, and in your own words. This also holds true about the day-to-day design of your work. If you are asked why you did a particular experiment, it is not a good idea to say, “because my research advisor (or anyone else) told me to do it”. Certainly consulting with your research advisor and laboratory coworkers is important, but the committee will expect that you have played a significant role in directing the course of your own research.

If you have not had a lot of experience with oral examinations, you may find that the nature of questioning that occurs during a qualifying examination seems unusual or confusing. For example, the following scenario often occurs. A committee member (CM) asks a question, and the student (S) offers an incorrect or incomplete answer. So CM asks another question. S may have trouble with that question, too, which will prompt CM to ask yet another question. This can often go on for a while. The result: S perceives that s/he is being asked a series of unrelated questions, and is being given no feedback about whether the answers are right or wrong–or maybe that the answers are wrong, but s/he is not being told how to correct them. CM perceives that S is being unresponsive to attempts to help S understand the questions. The result of this is that CM gets increasingly frustrated, and S gets increasingly stressed out.

What is really going on here? In actuality, the reason CM keeps asking more questions is that each subsequent question is related to the earlier one, but is meant to be somewhat easier than the earlier one, and is thus meant to provide a hint to help the student answer the earlier questions. However, if S does not understand that the questions are related to one another, it is often difficult to see any pattern in the questioning, and it becomes harder to figure out the answer. So it is important to understand that this method of questioning/hinting goes on all the time in qualifying examinations.

The key to doing well in this process is to keep track of the earlier questions while thinking about subsequent ones, so that the relationship between the questions can be figured out. Once that relationship is perceived, often the answer to all the questions becomes apparent at once. If S not only answers one of the questions, but volunteers that s/he sees how the series of questions is interconnected, this invariably brings smiles and head-nodding from members of the committee (because, as noted above, they are becoming confident that they will not have to come back for another exam!). Often it is the recognition of these “relationships” that the committee member is actually looking for in the student’s responses.

Finally, try to avoid going for long periods of time without saying anything because you are trying to silently work out the answer to a question. It is important to stay in clear and constant communication with the members of the committee during the exam. You should think carefully about questions you are asked before you start responding, but it is a good strategy to “think out loud”, and get your initial thoughts on the blackboard, so that the committee member can use the sequential-question method described above to help you reach the understanding s/he is trying to lead you toward. It is also important to ask for clarification about questions you do not understand.

Because of the above style of questioning, another unexpected aspect of QE’s is that the questions may or may not stick closely to the student’s presentation. A typically astonished comment from many students after their exam is, “They spent hardly any time asking me about my research (or proposal, or outside topic).” The reason for this is that another goal of the QE is to make sure that the student is in control of the most fundamental concepts in his or her field. Therefore, committee members will often use a particular aspect of a student’s presentation to branch off into a more fundamental, or textbook-type, question that is related to the subject that the student had been discussing. The multiple-question format described above can then take the discussion quite far from the original topic.

At the other end of the performance spectrum, QE committees are also trying to establish not just whether students have adequate understanding of their research and general field, but what the “outer limits” of their understanding are. Therefore, students are often perplexed to find that if they are performing well on a topic, the committee may abruptly drop it and go on to something else (usually something more complicated). This is often a good sign–it means the committee is satisfied with the student’s performance in one area, and wants to “push the envelope” and find an area that the student is less familiar with, to see how s/he analyzes a new or unexpected question. Sometimes the exams move into areas that are quite unknown, and cover topics that committee members might be interested in, but have not reached a clear-cut answer to themselves. If this happens, you should try not to worry if all the answers do not pop into your head immediately. It means that the committee has a lot of confidence in your ability to handle basic questions, and wants to see how you deal with something more complicated (and usually more interesting). For the few students who do not get through their QE the first time, it is not because they do not understand something complicated–it is much more often because they have had difficulty answering questions that the committee felt were  much simpler or more fundamental. Most people who do not do well are unable to communicate even broad swaths from junior/senior-level undergraduate courses and, in the most disappointing cases, even from freshman chemistry. It may seem strange to recommend that you refresh your understanding of such basic material in preparation for your QE, but you really do not want to be caught struggling to answer questions that your committee will undoubtedly feel “every chemist should know.”

Believe it or not, many examinations (after the first few minutes of nervousness, which essentially everyone experiences) go very well, and are an intellectually satisfying experience for both the committee and the student. If you can maintain your confidence that it is possible for this to happen in your case, you will maximize the chances of doing actually making it a profitable educational experience, and of getting to that bottle of champagne that is waiting for you in your laboratory after the exam.

On the Qualifying Exam, Adam D. Hill, PhD – Assistant Professor, St. Lawrence University (

(Adam took the Physical version of QE)

“DON’T PANIC” – Douglas Adams

The qualifying examination is one of the defining moments of the first half of graduate school. The courses, talks, and research you’ve experience will have prepared you. In considering the following advice on the qual, it’s important to have a healthy mindset:

The qualifying exam is intimidating only if you let yourself be intimidated. It is ultimately a test of your ability to speak cogently on science (both your own experiments, and those of others.) After graduate school, you’ll no longer be sitting down to take exams that determine your knowledge of a topic; your tests will be to describe your work to others. Your goal in your pre-qual preparations should be to become comfortable with your experiment and your field, to the extent that you can answer questions, and make reasonable guesses about questions you hadn’t expected.

Getting Started:

In May of your first year, you’ll receive the first paperwork for your exam, allowing you to choose a date, a committee, and the material on which you’ll be tested. Your responses are a guide by which whomever is assigning members to your committee can get a handle on roughly what sort of work you do.

This is a good time to have a meeting with your advisor; some advisors have strong preferences as to whom you request for your exam and when you request to take it. Their advice can be invaluable in the first steps of preparation. It is also critical to visit your advisor because of their role in the qualifying exam: they will be writing a letter on your behalf to the examination committee. It’s a good idea to be certain that your advisor feels you are on the right track in your graduate career.

While choosing a time for your qual is a matter of personal preference, it will have an effect on when you choose to GSI in the upcoming year, and how you’ll plan your studies. It’s best to avoid taking your qualifying exam during the same semester in which you GSI; studying is much easier if you aren’t under pressure from other work. If you feel a high degree of comfort with your research and you’ve accomplished a lot in your first year, taking your exam in the fall will get it out of the way. If more time to prepare and do research sounds appealing, spring is a better choice. Consider the date of your qual as approximate; it’s often the case that scheduling conflicts amongst the various professors on your committee can lead to the date of the qualifying exam being moved by up to a month.

Choosing a Committee:

Though you do not have complete control over the professors assigned to your committee, you’ll typically get at least two of your three choices. Rather than choosing three professors who all do work that is very similar to yours, it’s best to choose professors who represent a broad variety of fields that are relevant to your experiment. It’s often a good idea to consult with your group members and advisor for suggestions.

Later in the summer, you’ll also choose an outside member. This member of your committee should be another Berkeley professor with no connection to the Chemistry Department (though Chemical Engineering is fine.) They act as a unique viewpoint on your committee. It is your responsibility to find this professor yourself. Many graduate students consult with their research groups on this choice. It’s also worthwhile to check faculty listings in other departments to find professors who might do applicable work. You should contact this faculty member yourself.

Studying and Preparation:

In the months leading up to your qualifying exam, it’s a good idea to focus on two key areas: (1) learning the details of your experiment, including any necessary theoretical justifications for why it should work and (2) the background material of your field, including any seminal papers on similar experiments with which a professor might be familiar. Your general goal should be to acquire the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about your own work—to become an expert in your own experiment.

About eight to nine weeks before your qualifying exam, it’s a good idea to start thinking about tasks to be completed before you take the exam. Depending on whether you’re taking a physical or synthetic qual, you’ll want to begin planning for the outside topic portion of your qualifying exam. For physical students, this means searching the literature for a high-impact paper to present. For synthetic students, this means beginning to brainstorm an experiment for your proposal. Once you think you have a few good choices of paper or project selected, it’s wise to meet with your advisor and get her input. This is also a good time to meet with the chair of your committee—both to get to know her, and to check with her on the outside topic you’ve chosen.

Eight to nine weeks pre-qual is also time to start studying for your exam in earnest. There are a few particularly effective techniques:

  1. Read through your lab notebook and familiarize yourself with the details of your experiment. This might mean knowing the conditions for a reaction, or being able to sketch a part of your experimental apparatus. You want to get comfortable with the details of your experiment that are not always necessary to make things work on a daily basis, but are important for describing why the experiment works.
  2. Read an upper-level undergraduate text book. Physical students, for instance, will often reread their physical chemistry book. Because the qualifying exam puts a premium on confidence with basic material and having a strong background, this is a great way to refresh yourself on the fundamentals. Your goal should not be to know everything about everything, but rather to know enough about the right things.
  3. As you begin to synthesize your chemical knowledge, you’ll also be working on preparing your GRC/GRS presentation. This is a great chance to think about the important points regarding your experiment, and the story that you want to tell. Having a strong experimental narrative makes the qualifying exam less complicated; as you finish answering one question, you can return to your narrative.


Once you’ve studied and practiced the narrative of your qual, most students choose to have at least one practice exam, during which fellow grad students and post-docs will behave as an ad hoc exam committee. If it’s feasible, choose graduate students from several relevant research groups, to get a variety of perspectives on the exam.

Though not everyone does practice exams, they can be a good way to raise your confidence, if conducted well. Some qual skills are only refined during a qual-like experience. A practice qual is a chance to practice using the black/whiteboard efficiently; it’s important to be able to draw meaningful and clear figures to describe your work. Practice exams can sometimes be stressful, however; avoid practice exams in the two weeks before your qual date.

Taking the Exam:

The night before your exam, try to relax and do something non-science-related. Cramming one more equation can add a lot of stress with little benefit. Get a good night’s sleep, and try to have a good breakfast. Make sure to bring water with you to the exam; if you need a moment to think about a question, pausing to drink is a great cover.

Your exam will take place in a professor’s office—most frequently your chair’s. Typically, upon arrival, you’ll wait in the room for all of the professors to arrive. After greeting them, your chair will send you to wait outside while the professors discuss how they’ll approach your exam. This can be the most nerve-wracking part of the qual, but remain calm.

You’ll be called into the room, and the chair will typically start you off by saying, “Why don’t you tell us a bit about your experiment.”

Your committee will likely give you about five minutes to talk about your work without interrupting, to help you get comfortable. After a while, they will ask some casual questions. Typically, if you can answer the question correctly, they’ll move on. If you give an answer that wasn’t quite what they expected, the professors will ask more leading questions to try to help you find the correct answer.

There will always be some questions that you cannot answer; this isn’t a problem. Professors are much more interested in evaluating how you respond to a new topic with which you might not be familiar. After speaking on your inside topic for an hour or so, you’ll be sent outside again while the professors discuss the exam again. You’ll then return to cover your outside topic in much the same manner as your inside topic. After the outside topic, you’ll go outside while the professors discuss whether you have passed. The decision must be unanimous. They’ll have you return to hear the results, then have a one-on-one meeting with your chair, during which she’ll deconstruct your performance.

After the Exam:

If you passed your qualifying exam, it’s traditional to take a few days off. This is a good time to decompress, but also to evaluate the state of your research. With fewer formal requirements in your graduate education post-qual, it’s worth thinking about where you’d like to take your research and plan the next few years. Feelings of malaise are common after the intensity of the exam itself.

If you did not pass one or both parts of the qualifying exam, it’s time to consider the future direction of your graduate work. For many students who fail their exam the first time, there is a realization that graduate school is not what they want to be doing. At this time, these students may choose to leave with a master’s degree. For others, failing to pass on the first try is a wake-up call that they need to rededicate themselves to their study. Students who choose to take the qualifying exam a second time typically pass.

Final Thoughts:

The qualifying exam is hyped as the “make-or-break moment” in your graduate life. Though it should not be taken lightly, the qual is really an excellent opportunity to polish your scientific and speaking skills. Approach it with a level head, and you shouldn’t have trouble.

On Finding a Job, Piper J. Klemm, PhD – CEO, Klemm-Hill, LLC Consulting Firm (

Decide what kind of job you want, whether it is a post-doctoral scholarship, an industry job, a teaching position, a consulting position, or whatever you can think of. Talk to people who had gotten a job of that nature. If you do not know anyone in that particular field, ask your friends, use your facebook, twitter, google plus, or linked in network to find someone willing to help you. Speaking of social networking, make sure your profiles reflect the image you want to put out of yourself- monitor your pictures, your posts, and your friends’ posts on your wall to show your qualification for jobs.

Get a Linked In account. Chemists have been recruited directly off the resume they have posted to Linked In. Follow the jobs that are posted, and gather as many connections as you can. Get your account fully set up with recommendations, resume, etc.

Ask your friends, mentors, and connections to pass on job opportunities to you, go over your resume, and listen to all of the advice you can get. Make sure your resume and curriculum vitae (CV) have been read over by someone in your field.

Network. Go to parties and meet other chemists, go to cocktail hours and meet people in other fields. You can never know enough people and these people will ultimately help you find the right job. Make sure you have business cards to pass out at conferences and social gatherings. Ask the administrative assistant in your lab for help. Visit the Career Center at UC Berkeley. They can help find positions, go over resumes, etc.

Use American Chemical Society resources. ACS ( has many resources on finding a job, how to interview correctly, and interviews at their national meetings. Going to an ACS national meeting (Spring or Fall) and doing the job fair is one of the best ways to get an industry job and meet potential employers. On the ACS website, both resumes and jobs are posted to connect employers with chemists.

Talk to your recommenders. Many positions require at least three letters of recommendation, which can be difficult at a place as large as Berkeley. Make sure you get to know your recommenders well (usually your research advisor and members of your qualifying exam committee) and that they know the research you pursue after your qualifying exam.

It is never too early to start thinking about the job you want and building your network.

On Life in the Bay Area, Chandra M. Richards – Graduate Student in Environmental Science (Pallud Group) (

It’s hard to believe that you’ll have any free time while in graduate school at Berkeley, as we are in one of the top chemistry programs in the country. While mainly true, you’ll still find yourself itching to explore the many treasures that the Bay Area has to offer. Besides, everyone needs a break from grueling life as a graduate student. Luckily, you will come across many welcomed distractions during your time here.

Nestled against the Pacific, the Bay Area has historically been a place of great diversity with cultures and ethnicities differing from neighborhood to neighborhood. Whether it is food, music, theatre or sporting events, there is something for everyone from all parts of the world. Sometimes, the adventure of discovering new spots to eat, or parks to hike is just as much fun as the places themselves. For example, simply walk down Telegraph Ave and you will find a plethora of restaurants and interesting sights and sounds. Or if you prefer to be more adventurous, head across the bridge to San Francisco where there is always something fun and new to experience regardless of what day it is.

Venturing outside of Berkeley to nearby cities is convenient with available public transportation options from AC Transit and BART. Like Berkeley, both cities offer an exotic array of food and drink options. In addition, since both cities border bodies of water, the delicious fresh seafood is abundant.

For those of us from land-locked regions of the world, we now have the opportunity to enjoy our beautiful ocean and the potential activities that come with it. All water sports are aplenty in the bay and along the coast, including sailing and surfing; Cal offers classes to learn both of these at the Marina. With occasional warm weather throughout the summer, it’s nice to relax at one of San Francisco’s many beaches, including Ocean Beach and Baker Beach. For a setting outside of the city, head to Muir Woods and Point Reyes where you will be immersed in nature and beautiful scenery.

During the winter months, it is suggested to head to Lake Tahoe, a perfect resort three hours northeast of the Bay, for some world-renowned skiing, hiking, and camping. However, if you prefer to stay indoors, the Museum of Modern Art and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco are also beautiful options.

Ultimately, regardless of your interests, you will find exactly what you’re looking for in the Bay Area since the possibilities are endless. The world is literally at your doorstep.

On the Purpose of a Graduate Education, Carl Onak – Graduate Student in Chemical Biology (C. Chang Group), (

Your graduate school education will be profoundly different from the education that you’ve had to date. It’s true that your first couple of years will be similar to your college education. You’ll attend classes, you’ll do problem sets, and you’ll study late into the night. You’ll read papers feverishly, and you’ll become an expert in your field. In graduate school, though, you don’t study and learn just for its own sake. The reason you do these things is to put yourself in the position where you can generate more knowledge. Until now, you’ve been a consumer of knowledge, but in graduate school, you will produce it.

It’s easy to explain why engineers and doctors, for example, go to school. They learn how to build bridges and how to cure patients. Learning how to produce knowledge, though, is often frustrating because the end result is intangible, and you usually can’t sell it. Granted, your research may eventually lead to a better bridge or a miracle drug, but those applications are usually so far away that they’re impossible to see. And it’s true that by the time you graduate, your engineer and doctor friends from college will be earning much more than you are. So why go into research at all?

Academic research is worth it precisely because there is no pre-specified goal. You are neither a slave to the market nor to the bottom line. The fact that there’s no tangible product is the very thing that gives you so much freedom in your graduate career. When you find something interesting, you can follow it up. Indeed, many impactful discoveries start with a serendipitous observation – an occasional weirdness or a minor inconsistency – that someone looked into entirely out of curiosity.

In fact, your curiosity is your best protection against drudgery and burn-out. You’re here because you like to experiment and see what happens. When you can think up an experiment, and you’re genuinely itching to see what will happen, it makes all the tedious steps in between go by faster. And Berkeley is the best place you could dream of to do your experiments. You’re guaranteed to be at the cutting edge of whatever area of chemistry you choose to study. The faculty and your fellow students are among the brightest people in the world. In your five or six years here, you’ll become the world expert on your project and a specialist in your field, and you can do it all while getting paid.

So take advantage of everything available to you at Berkeley. Focus on your project, but keep your mind open to other areas of chemistry. You can’t anticipate or force serendipity, but you can prepare for it. If you learn as much as you can and stay curious, then you’re bound to stumble upon something that turns out to be terrific.

Resources for addressing the “Broader Impacts” criteria for the NSF graduate fellowship

Prof. Ming C. Hammond

There are two review criteria for the NSF graduate fellowship, the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposal. Typically, the latter has been more difficult for students to address in their fellowship applications. The good news is that now that you are here at Berkeley, there are many resources that you can draw on to strengthen this part of your proposal.

A quick primer: there are 5 categories of activities that qualify as broader impacts, which are the same as for NSF research grants. (1) How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? (2) How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.) (3) To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? (4) Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? (5) What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

For graduate fellowships, category #3 does not really apply. But you should try to address the remaining four categories by describing activities you have done in the past and will do in the future. NSF provides a helpful list of representative activities for each category that you should take a look at ( This article emphasizes resources at Berkeley that will help you fulfill categories #1 and #2, but a quick note about category #5: this really boils down to you drawing a connection between your basic research project and specific outcomes or applications that people like your aunt or your dentist (e.g. taxpayers) would care about.

The following is a list of diverse Berkeley programs that would dearly love to have chemistry graduate student serve as research mentors, tutors, or teachers. Some of these programs have hefty time commitments, but where “team effort allowed” is stated, you can combine efforts with some of your classmates or labmates to volunteer in teams. For all activities, especially for research mentorships, you are strongly encouraged to discuss plans with your research advisor.

  1. Berkeley Engineering Research Experiences for Teachers (BERET): Help a K-12 teacher and a CalTeach undergraduate bring science research into the K-12 curriculum. Time commitment (team effort allowed, must be in same lab): 8 weeks over the summer for research project, plus 5-8 hours during the academic year for a classroom activity. Contact person: Kate Spohr, Website:
  2. Cal Corps Public Service Center: Tutor and inspire a student in an East Bay K-12 school. Time commitment (team effort allowed): 1-3 hours/week during 1 semester or full academic year. Contact person: Carrie Donovan, Website:
  3. Bay Area Scientists in Schools (BASIS): Show cute elementary school kids that science is cool. Time commitment (team effort allowed): 1 hour classroom visit / month or 1 full day visit during the school year, can be flexible. Contact person: Kristen Seim, Website:
  4. Summer Math & Science Honors (SMASH) Academy: Get paid a small stipend to teach current topics in science research to high school students from underserved communities. Time commitment (team effort allowed): 2.5-5 weeks over the summer, 15-30 hours total. Contact person: Rachel Winheld, Website:
  5. Center for Energy Efficient Electronics (E3S) Summer Research Program and Transfer-to-Excellence (TTE) Program: Mentor an undergraduate on your chemistry or ChemE research project over the summer. Time commitment: Over the summer. Contact person: Sharnnia Artis, Website:

Bridges to Baccalaureate Program: Tutor underrepresented community college students in the subject you’re already teaching (Chem 1, Chem 3, Chem 112). Time commitment: TBD, over the academic year. Contact person: Patricia Lin, Website: