Getting into chemistry grad school with no chemistry background?
April 29, 2012 1:00 PM   Subscribe

I would like to pursue research in supramolecular chemistry, but I am a couple years out of school and do not have a chemistry background. Also, I lack letters of recommendation. I am certain I cannot get into a decent Ph.D. program, but do I have a shot at getting in a Master's program? Or must I resort to taking classes at a university somewhere?

Some background: I graduated in May 2009 with a B.S. in electrical engineering. I graduated summa cum laude (3.95 GPA) and attended on a full-tuition academic scholarship.

I took a semester off and went back to school for two semesters starting in January 2010. I took classes in Math and CS and was in the process of applying for the Master's program in Math, but halfway through the second semester I realized that my interests were not in math. Demoralized, I stopped attending classes. So I got a 4.0 my first semester, and something bad my second semester (two C's, an F and an incomplete, last I checked). My cumulative GPA is at 3.8.

Since then I've been working in IT and studying in my free time.

Given my lack of background in chemistry (the last chemistry class I took was in sophomore year of high school), I'm assuming I can't get into any Ph.D. program. Getting into a terminal Master's program seems potentially doable, but I did not cultivate a network while in school, so my letters of recommendation will be either crappy or non-existant. How competitive are terminal master's programs in chemistry? Will I be fine with bad letters of recommendation if I kill the GRE subject test?

A last resort I have thought of would be either sitting in on or taking chemistry classes at a university somewhere in order to get letters of recommendation, but I enjoy self-study and would like to avoid having to pay for expensive chemistry courses if at all possible. Are there other options here that I have not considered?
posted by nhamann to Education (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) Why do you want to study chemistry?
2) Since you haven't taken any chemistry classes, do you have any chemistry lab experience at all?
3) What makes you think that you would enjoy and be good at doing research in chemistry?

These are the sorts of questions that you will need to have good answers to in order to go to grad school in chemistry. Most graduate programs, including master's programs, will expect you to have some research experience in the subject. These are funded programs (don't enter a STEM program without full funding!), and they are not going to spend their money educating you unless you seem like a good investment. Although your background is quite impressive, you have not presented anything relevant to admission to a chemistry program.

Unless you have really good answers to those questions, your best bet is to go back and take chemistry. At a minimum, I would imagine that you need a 2-semester intro sequence and a 2-semester organic sequence to even approach being a viable candidate for admission to a graduate program, but you should obviously contact programs directly for more specific requirements. This is especially important in lab sciences, because there is no way to "self-study" lab skills.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:10 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

What aspects of supramolecular chemistry interest you? Would you be willing to do your Ph.D coursework in EE/CS/Math while doing your actual research with a chemistry group? (This sort of interdisciplinary thing is not terribly uncommon.)

Have you tried getting in touch with chemistry professors that do work you're interested in? If there are any who live in your area, have you asked them about volunteering/internships in their lab? (some places only allow this for people who are working towards a degree, but I've had friends who graduated and then landed an unpaid position building up some experience/references.)

Is community college/state universities an option for you, as far as taking classes? Getting letters from people who can attest to your ability to work can actually go a pretty long way, but it's difficult to get into graduate school without at least one letter attesting to your ability and demeanor in classwork.

Keep in mind that terminal Masters programs in chemistry (and many of the sciences) are relatively uncommon now, and are not a great use of your time if you're interested in research.
posted by kagredon at 1:11 PM on April 29, 2012

Why chemistry?

If your only background in how chemistry works is from High School you may have a mighty skewed perception of how chemistry works, what chemists do, and the kinds of skills and disposition needed to do well at it.

Entering a masters program would not make any kind of sense without a solid understanding of general chemistry, organic chemistry and generally at least one other variety. Unless you have a decent understanding of how chemical nomenclature works, no one could really even properly explain their work, much less teach it to you. No one wants a graduate student who doesn't know how pH works, much less how to interpret a Fisher projection, how to balance a chemical equation, how to build a simple compound from an IUPAC name, how to push electrons in a reaction, or how to calculate a change in enthalpy.

These are the kinds of skills you will need to acquire before even thinking of the application process for graduate school in chemistry. Thankfully community colleges will be happy to teach you GenChem and OChem very well and for cheap, while transferring to a four year institution can give you access to working in a lab that will give you experience.

Also, if you give us an idea of what attracted you to supramolecular chemistry, we might be able to suggest something more accessible.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:22 PM on April 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

A quick google shows that you need the coursework for an undergrad chemistry degree to get into a master's program.

For example (picked for no reason other than being on the first page of google hits):
American University
SF State
Fairleigh Dickenson
posted by hoyland at 1:39 PM on April 29, 2012

Regarding my specific interests, I started out interested in biological sensory systems (I spent some time studying bacterial chemotaxis), but eventually realized that you could just study molecules in general as information processing devices. I'm still fuzzy on specifics, but something in the general area of this review article is what I'm interested in. Organic chem seems highly relevant here as many examples of molecular information processing will come from biology, but I should emphasize that I'm not interested solely in biology here.

> Entering a masters program would not make any kind of sense without a solid understanding of general chemistry, organic chemistry and generally at least one other variety.

Perhaps I didn't make this clear in my description, but I am currently in the process of learning general/organic/physical chemistry. I was just hoping I could do it on my own by reading textbooks and using online resources like MIT OCW, instead of having to pay for expensive university classes. But hydropsyche brings up the good point that I will miss out on lab experience here, which may or may not be a dealbreaker.

So as of right now it looks like my best option might be to take chemistry courses at a community college, as this will give me both lab experience and more recent letters of recommendation.
posted by nhamann at 1:41 PM on April 29, 2012

I can't imagine that a Master's program involving chemistry would even consider your application if it lacked undergrad coursework in chemistry. I would imagine you would need at least gen chem 1 &2, o chem, and probably biochem to even be considered. Lab experience and solid recommendations are an absolute must.
posted by OsoMeaty at 4:13 PM on April 29, 2012

One way you might consider "proving" your basic knowledge of chemistry after taking at least some community college courses with labwork would be to take and excel at the Chemistry GRE even if it is not explicitly required by the program itself. From what I understand, it is in fact terribly difficult, so doing well is a very impressive feat.
posted by Keter at 5:30 PM on April 29, 2012

I'm going to give you some slightly different advice: look for and apply to an interdisciplinary PhD program, something that takes many different types of students. Interdisciplinary programs often have people from idiosyncratic backgrounds (the physics->bio transition is something I've seen a lot) and in my experience care a lot more about whether you have successfully studied something difficult in the past than what exactly that difficult subject was.

The one thing your app really needs is research experience, but it doesn't necessarily have to be in a wet lab - you might be better prepared for more computational research, for instance, and if that pans out you could also segue into doing wet-lab work later on in the context of a PhD program. This would fix your rec letter problem also, which is significant. (Cold-calling faculty with a CV and a cover letter actually can work pretty well for finding research opportunities as long as you don't expect to be paid, but hey, cheaper than taking classes or getting a MSc.) If you find a great Masters program that will help you get experience and rec letters, that will also work, but based on what you wrote I think it's doable for you to apply to PhD programs without additional qualifications/expense -- if not immediately then in a year or two.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:08 PM on April 29, 2012

But hydropsyche brings up the good point that I will miss out on lab experience here, which may or may not be a dealbreaker.

If you're thinking the traditional chemistry route, this would be very like trying to get a P.Eng with no practical experience at all. No lab experience is a non-starter. Chemistry is a hands-on discipline. Technique and lab practice are a big part of a degree education. As others have said, this will be two to three years of study. Honestly, I'd bet on three, minimum. There's not much overlap between EE and chemistry.

However, I think en forme de poire has the right approach. You've got a much better chance at getting in from the side, as it were, than the front door. Your obvious point of contact is in theory and computational studies. Look to your strengths in math and computer science, both areas that most chemists, even theoretical chemists are not the strongest (speaking as a former theoretical chemist).

I'd go talk to a few computational and theoretical chemists at your local university and see what your options are. At a minimum hang out at a few departmental seminars---if nothing else they're free lectures. There is often an open series of lectures run by the department. Every department I've been affilated with ran a series from Sept to May. Look for posters near the departmental office. Go to the reading rooms and read some journals (at minimum, Physical Chemistry, Chemical Physics, perhaps even Physical Review B) Get to know the grad students and postdocs.

Grad school may be for you, it may not be. There are other ways to contribute that give research experience too, an RA position, for example. I've even seen people volunteer in labs for a short period (6 mo to a year) to get their name on a paper or two, which then got them a job later on. I'd encourage you to explore your options and not to limit your choices at this stage. If you can find someone on faculty who is receptive to your approach, they can be a great ally for you. Don't try to do this alone, it will be many times more difficult.
posted by bonehead at 6:33 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

On further consideration, have you also considered your broader options? The field of study you are looking at is very interdiciplinary: surface & macro-molecule engineering, physical chemistry, spectroscopy, quantum mechanics. It can equally be approached from engineering physics, nano-engineering, materials science, condensed matter physics or biochemistry (and more). Have you thought about coming at this from an engineering or physics perspective? An engineering physics or condensed matter physics degree? There would be a lot more overlap in either discipline with your previous EE degree and many fewer undergrad courses to catch up on. With your marks you might not even have to make too many compromises or adjustments.

You also have a chance to move further refine (or even change) your research area at the post-doc level. I switched disciplines at that point myself.

Does it matter which side you climb the mountain? It won't much to employers or journals.
posted by bonehead at 7:11 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does it matter which side you climb the mountain? It won't much to employers or journals.

It actually does matter to employers, but from the opposite end. A degree that says "Ph.D., Chemical Engineering" or "Ph.D., Materials Science" is going to be considered more valuable to employers than "Ph.D., Chemistry." A better bet would be to brush up on your chemistry and approach your research goals from an engineering perspective, with some chemists on your thesis committee.
posted by deanc at 7:55 AM on April 30, 2012

For average salary that's true. Salary is highly variable by sub-discipline and region of employment though.
posted by bonehead at 8:20 AM on April 30, 2012

It's worth your while to also look at materials science (/materials engineering) and chemical engineering departments that include research in polymers/soft materials. Both of those are more apt to admit students with physics-ish backgrounds, sometimes even straight-up math if they intend to do simulations -- are you interested in simulations?
posted by ecsh at 3:30 PM on April 30, 2012

Try a search for 'supramolecular' here. The professor leading a given project (who would be hiring grad students to work on it) is likely to be either the first author (presenting) or last author (if the student presented).
posted by ecsh at 3:37 PM on April 30, 2012

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