These are supposed to be the best days of your life, right? Ah, living the college experience—swinging in a hammock on the quad with the sunshine in your face and partying late into the night—while your parents foot the bill. Wait, what?
The reality is that while your friends are taking in the football game, you the chemistry major are taking in copious amounts of caffeine and carbs as you flip through note card after note card filled with strange chemical structures and seemingly nonsensical reaction names. In fact, these days it seems that your new BFFs are quickly becoming the evening janitorial crew at the library where you spend your weekend nights studying.
But college is more than an experience, and you realize that. You are here because you love the excitement of making sense about the natural world around you and the quest for new knowledge. But it can be hard, really hard—from the weed-out courses, like organic chemistry and calculus where professors brag about dropping students like flies, to juggling your personal life and the delicate glassware in the lab (which of course will cost you a small fortune if you break anything).
It’s even harder when you have other life responsibilities that aren’t necessarily compatible with school life. Your professor may single you out for being five minutes late to class, never minding the fact that you just got done pulling an overnight shift stocking shelves at Wal-Mart to help pay your way through school. Or, you are penalized for missing an exam because you were up all night with a sick, crying child and it wasn’t considered a valid excuse.
For all of you chemistry undergraduates who are struggling in one way or another, know that you can and will survive and that you’re not alone. But you have to be proactive, take ownership of your future and define what it means to be a scientist on your own terms. We offer the following guiding principles to also help you make it through to graduation.
Don’t compromise your personal integrity. While the other students are down the hall swapping homework answers or tweaking lab results, don’t be tempted to cheat even when the pressure gets immense. Science more than ever needs honest people who won’t falsify results just to advance their careers. Stay true to yourself, and let hard work and dedication guide you to success.
Accept failure and learn from it. You are going to fail. That’s just a fact of science and a part of the process, no matter how experienced you are. Some of the greatest discoveries in science have been by accident. If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not trying hard enough.
Respect and value your individuality. You may feel different than the rest of the students in your class and that’s a good thing. Science thrives off of individuality. Innovation requires a diversity of people who bring different experiences and ideas to the table. Learn to embrace your individuality and use it to your advantage. Know that science needs you, just the way you are.
Build a positive support system. Life as a science student can be extremely isolating, like being transported into the Upside-Down, a parallel dimension where no one can hear your cries for help. But you don’t have to do this alone. Surround yourself with positive and encouraging people who will let you vent and offer you practical advice. And don’t be afraid to seek out professional help when you need it. There’s no shame in talking to a counselor about issues you are experiencing, and most campuses have staff on hand for this purpose.
Supplement your classroom education. Take advantage of all the resources available to you outside the classroom. From free tutoring services on campus to peer study groups and the massive availability of online courses and tutorials, there are alternative ways to reinforce your learning. Also know that education is a two-way street, so use those designated office hours to ask questions and get help; the more effort you put in, the more willing your instructor is to provide guidance.
Diversify your skill sets. Your future employer will care far less about your GPA compared to what you have accomplished. Take advantage of on-campus or online courses to update your skills to be competitive in the job marketplace. For example, science is moving more toward “big data” and modeling, so computer-science skills like programming are essential. Also, get involved with hands-on experiences, like undergraduate research or working as a peer tutor, as soon as you can. There’s no better way to connect with science than to actually do it or teach it; plus, it looks great on the resume.
Explore career options and pursue your interests. While some of your professors seem to be grooming you as a “mini-me” for a life in academic science, there are infinite opportunities for science careers outside the walls of academia. From science policy to product development, chemists are needed in a wide range of industries. Check out the career resources from the American Chemical Society to explore career fields. And consider doing a summer internship; in fact, we know of a great one in the material science industry. Most importantly, talk to other people to find out how they are using their chemistry degrees.
Recognize your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to periodically reflect upon your strengths and weaknesses. A weakness just means there’s an opportunity to learn and grow. Take note of what you do and don’t know when approaching any problem. If it’s math, write out what variables are known, what information is missing and devise a logical approach to get to the solution; this works for life, too.
Take care of yourself. Be sure to take time for yourself, whether it’s hitting the gym during a study break or scheduling time to meet up with friends. Oh, and don’t forget about taking a shower and doing laundry; your classmates will thank you. Also, take lab safety seriously. Chemistry is fun but dangerous; and one wrong step in a procedure can lead to unintended consequences. That safety equipment is there for a reason so use it. We want you to graduate with all your body parts intact.
And no matter what, always embrace your inner nerd. While school can seem like all work and no play, it’s essential to have fun and enjoy what you do. Personalize your lab coat with your favorite science-y patches or go all geek-out for chemistry-related holidays like National Mole Day. Here at PSI, we live by this “work hard, play hard” motto that is integral to everything we do.
We hope this advice will follow you throughout your future chemistry career. And know that we are here for you, so feel free to reach out to chat with any of our scientists or to inquire about future internship opportunities.
Do you have any words of advice to share with chemistry students? Please comment below.
We’d like to thank our team members that took time to share insights about their undergraduate experience, which helped generate ideas for this letter. We also must thank the friends of PSI that generously shared their experiences and ideas to ensure the realities were accurately depicted. Many thanks to Jacob Strain, Cyndi Dose, Chris Iversen, Jessica Linville, Kris Light, Nicole Buan, Jessica Velez, Josh Powell and John Stone. Your contributions to supporting the next generation of chemists are sincerely appreciated and making a difference!