Applying to Graduate School 101: Interview with a Graduate Student

Lasers in the Dyer Lab.
Lasers in the Dyer Lab.

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post is the fourth in the series, an interview with current graduate student, Morgan Bair Vaughn (Dyer Group).

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Morgan in the lab. Photo provided by Morgan Bair Vaughn.
Morgan in the lab.

Q. What made you decide to apply to Emory?

There were a few factors . The first is that the chemistry program is one of the top ranking programs in the country. Additionally, Emory offered opportunities that would help me gain the experience I need for my desired career after graduate school. For example, the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship is an award that provides support for students to teach their own class for a semester in their last year at graduate school. Currently, I’m teaching a section of Chem 150, which will give me valuable teaching experience beyond a teaching assistantship. Finally, Emory is in the Southeast near my family. I am close to my family so staying close to them geographically was important to me.

Q. How did you choose Emory over other schools?

Weighing the pros and cons of each school can be difficult, but the one thing that pushed me to accept Emory over other schools is that there were multiple professors at Emory that I was interested in working with. I narrowed down my labs of interest after visitation weekends, and Emory was the only place where I could see myself in more than 1 or 2 groups. The piece of advice that I heard over and over again from professors and graduate students alike was not to go to a school where there was only one professor I’d want to work for. There is no guarantee that you will get a position in the lab, even if the professor likes you. Things happen; professors move, lose funding, or can only accept so many students into their lab in a given year. Additionally, at Emory first year students do a series of research rotations to learn what it is like to work in a few different labs. Student tend to start rotations with a particular lab as their top pick, but often their top choice changes throughout the rotations as students realize that they prefer certain areas of research, or they like the environment and culture of a particular lab, or they like the mentoring style best of one professor. It is important to go to a school where you have options and a chance to explore them prior to making a final decision on which lab you join.

Q. What was the most challenging part of the application process?

I found the writing the Statement of Purpose to be the most difficult part of the application process. (Hey! We can help with that.) When I was applying to graduate school, I wasn’t sure what research area I was interested in pursuing. I had bioorganic and organic synthesis research experience from undergrad, but I also enjoyed all of my chemistry classes. All areas of chemistry seemed interesting to me! So, deciding which professors I was interested in working with was quite a challenge for me. Ultimately, I picked professors from all different divisions. This isn’t necessarily a strategy that I would recommend, but it worked out because I was able to explain why I was interested in each research group. That is the important part, explaining why you are interested in a group and how your previous experience will be helpful.

Q. Now that you’re in grad school, what have you done to be successful? What do you think successful grad students have in common?

I think the most successful graduate students are the ones who start graduate school with a goal in mind and know why they are pursuing a PhD. The reasons for going to graduate school can vary, from wanting to become a professor, patent lawyer, industrial research and design scientist, or simply to gain a very high level of knowledge in a topic of interest. Having a goal provides focused motivation and allows students to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Starting graduate school, I knew that I enjoyed teaching and envisioned working at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). Since being in graduate school, I’ve learned that there are many other options for education besides the traditional classroom. Now I am considering a much wider range of career options from medical science liaison, to science communication and writing, in addition to teaching at a PUI or community college. To learn more about these opportunities I attend events on campus with Emory Alumni such as a breakfast with science writers and a Q&A session with high school teachers.

Knowing your goal is important, but so is actually completing the work required to earn a PhD. To that end, I urge students to treat getting a PhD as a marathon and not a sprint. The research necessary to write a dissertation cannot be done all at once; it takes time. The way I’ve approached it is to find a nice comfortable pace to work at, one that I’m making good progress in the lab, yet I can sustain for many years. When a big deadline or yearly report comes along I can push a little harder when necessary for a short while. Then, I go back to the same pace as before. Often, I see students in crisis mode around yearly reports, frantically trying to complete as much work as possible, only upon passing, they drop down to doing almost nothing. I don’t like to do that; it is a very stressful way to operate! Work on your project every day, bit by bit. Just like science as a whole, occasionally there are leaps and bounds, but most of science happens incrementally, bit by bit.

Q. Is there anything you wish you had known before applying to graduate school?

I wish I had known how helpful visitation weekend would be to make a final decision about which school to accept. [Note: Emory Visitation Weekend is by invitation only and will take place February 23rd-25th, 2018.] When deciding which schools to apply to, be open minded. It is difficult to know the culture and environment of a school just by looking at the website. Pick several schools where there is some research you are interested in and where you wouldn’t mind living for several years. After visiting, I had a much better idea of what each school was like. If you can’t attend visitation weekend, I highly recommend contacting the school to ask about speaking with a few of the graduate students to get their perspective. I also wish I had known that lab websites are often out of date. While the overall research area of a group doesn’t change too much over the years, the current individual projects may be quite different than what’s posted online.

Q. Do you have any tips for students starting the application process?

Start now, don’t procrastinate! Applications take time and professors need advance notice to write reference letters. Conversely, you do have to actually submit the application. It is good to be detail oriented, but you must be able to let go.

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Ready to apply? Visit chemistry.emory.edu/apply. Applications are due by December 1st, 2018 for entry in Fall 2019.

Want to learn more about chemistry @ Emory? Fill out an inquiry form and join our mailing list!

 

Event Report: ChEmory Alumni Career Panel

On Wednesday evening, April 12th, ChEmory held their inaugural alumni career panel in Atwood Hall 360. The event was well attended by both undergraduate and graduate students.

Featured alumni guests were:

Dr. Vicky Stevens (American Cancer Society)

Vicky Stevens received a B.S. degree in Chemistry and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Emory University and then did a postdoctoral fellowship at Merck Research Laboratories in the area of lipid metabolism.  She returned to Emory to begin her independent research career in 1990 and was subsequently promoted to Associate Professor in the Division of Cancer Biology in the Department of Radiation Oncology.  While at Emory, Dr. Stevens’ research focused on glycolipid metabolism and its role in regulating folate transport.

In 2003, Dr. Stevens joined the American Cancer Society in 2003 as a Research Scientist in the Department of Epidemiology and Surveillance. In 2006, she became the Strategic Director of Laboratory Services and in 2008, assumed responsibility for the Biospecimen Repositories for the Cancer Prevention Studies

Dr. Holly Carpenter (Aeon and HiQ Cosmetics)

Dr. Carpenter earned her doctorate in chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in the area of peptide and protein engineering. With over 10 years of experience at the highest levels of academic scientific research in protein materials, Holly leads the research and development division of Aeon as well as coordinates projects in University Partnership initiatives and business development. She has recently launched a new company and venture in skincare and cosmetics.  HiQ Cosmetics leads the market in offering all-natural, high-performance luxury skincare products.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Holly accepted a tenure-track faculty position at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia, where she achieved a status of tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Holly regularly taught courses for undergraduates in biochemistry and medicinal chemistry, as well as introductory chemistry courses.  For over 7 years, she conducted academic research with competitive national grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in the area of protein engineering. Holly has also served as a reviewer for competitive grants at the national level for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Nelly Miles (Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

Nelly Miles earned her Chemistry degree from Emory University in 1999.  In her undergraduate career, she served as a New Student Orientation Captain, President of the NAACP, and was a member of the Omicron Xi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Upon graduation, she began working as a Forensic Chemist for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).  After six (6) years, she was promoted to Assistant Manager of the unit.  A year later, she was promoted to the Forensic Chemistry Manager where she oversaw the daily operations of GBI’s Forensic Chemistry Unit for the next nine (9) years.

After 16 years with the GBI, she transitioned to the Public Affairs Office where she now serves as GBI’s Public Affairs Director.  In this role, she works with the media to communicate information to the public about the GBI.  Additionally, she serves as a legislative liaison to Georgia’s legislature and the Governor’s Office on behalf of the agency.

Mrs. Miles is a current member of Atlanta Metropol, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors and holds past memberships in the Southern Association of Forensic Scientists and the American Chemical Society.

Mrs. Miles’ most significant role is that of wife and mother.  She resides in Stockbridge, GA with her husband, Cleveland Miles, and their three children.

The fourth panelist was current graduate student (and future alum!) Allyson Boyington who talked about graduate school as a career path. Ally is a second year PhD candidate in the Jui Group at Emory. She received her B.S. in chemistry and environmental science from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

The panel was spearheaded by ChEmory freshman rep Ashley Diaz (with help from PACS and Emory development representatives Robin Harpak and Michelle LeBlanc.) “I had a lot of people say that they didn’t even know some of those career paths were options. There was a lot of excitement about the possibilities,” said Ashley. “We have to do this again!”

Thank you to our alumni guests. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for our current students

 

 

Alumni Spotlight: Chris Curfman’s Transition from Science to Law

Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.
Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.

By: Yuan Chang (Salaita Group)

When Chris Curfman (00G) entered Emory, he could not have imagined where he would end up two decades later. After completing a PhD in chemistry, Chris shifted his focus away from academic research to pursue a career in intellectual property law. Since then, he has been named a Georgia Super Lawyers “Rising Star” by Atlanta Magazine and became a founding member of Meunier Carlin & Curfman, which has since evolved into one of the largest intellectual property firms in the Southeast. In a climate where more PhD students pursue careers outside the professoriate, Chris’ story is an inspiration. “While we are all united by our intellectual curiosity and our love of science, this common drive can diverge into various fulfilling careers,” says Chris. From his trials and triumph with his research at Emory to his self-discovery and transformation into the rising star that he is today, Chris has accumulated a vast wealth of memories and insight, which is highlighted in this edition of Alumni Spotlight.

During graduate school, Chris joined the lab of Dennis C. Liotta, who would have a profound impact on his trajectory. Chris undertook a particularly difficult thesis project working with sphingolipid analogs. The process of constantly overcoming challenges instilled in him the crucial lifelong value of perseverance that would later prove pivotal outside of the lab. This determination was also critical in prevailing over another personal challenge. While Chris had always fostered a passion for teaching, he grappled with a fear of public speaking. As one of the graduate qualification exams, he was required to present his research in front of the entire Department of Chemistry student body. He recalls that he would “enter the conference room when it was empty and practice over and over again.” He went on to deliver a successful talk. Invigorated by this positive experience and his innate passion for teaching, Chris began to actively seek out opportunities for public speaking, which paved his way to standing on the podium of Emory law school as an adjunct professor.

Nonetheless, Chris’s time at Emory was not “all work and no play.” Chris has fond memories of his time as the president of the Pi Alpha Chemical Society. He recalls organizing graduate events, such as movie nights and picnics, to promote social interaction and collaboration amongst graduate students. To him, “It was a fun and great environment. It was a place where you could set aside the work and just talk and socialize.”

During Chris’ last year of graduate school, his advisor began to take notice of his skill at technical writing and public speaking, as well as his proficient interpersonal skills. Realizing that Chris’ skill set complemented the profession of patent law, Liotta catalyzed Chris’ foray into the world of patent law by inviting him to events where he could network with established lawyers. It was at one of these events that Chris had a fateful meeting leading to an interview offer. That was an electrifying time in Chris’ life. Within the span of that final summer in graduate school, Chris managed to simultaneously complete 3 milestones: defending his PhD, gaining acceptance into law school, and receiving a job offer working in a law firm.

After Chris completed his J.D. at Georgia State University, he practiced several years at a small intellectual property firm. However, that firm was acquired by a much larger general practice and Chris found himself at a crossroads. Chris felt that the large firm business model did not align with his own passions and goals. Chris wanted to retain the close relationships with his clients and have the opportunity to devote more time and attention to their needs, yet he found this more difficult in a large general practice firm. It was at this pivotal moment that Chris received a life-changing phone call from a former colleague who shared a similar vision. That initial conversation ultimately blossomed into a group of eight like-minded patent lawyers who pooled together their resources and brought their vision to a new company. When asked about his emotions at this time, Chris said, “this was both a thrilling and terrifying period in my life. I had to invest everything I had into this venture, including putting my life savings on the line, but I could finally do what I had originally set out to do.” At long last, he had the autonomy to become the champion he had dreamed of becoming for clients who must navigate the treacherous waters of patent law.

It has been nearly two decades since Chris made that decision to transition from lab work to law, but all the lessons he learned during graduate school still serve him well today. Chris says that he finds his current profession to be fulfilling and fun, and he feels fortunate to be involved in a career that allows him to intersect science with people, especially being in a position to be able to help others achieve their goals. When asked what words of advice he would give to current graduate students, he implored encouraged them to “never give up, finish their Ph.D., practice public speaking and effective writing, and network whenever you can.” Chris’ journey serves as an inspiration for the next generation of students looking to apply their doctoral studies to broader society.

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Yuan Chang

Yuan Chang is currently a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Khalid Salaita. She entered Emory in 2011 and has been studying live cell tension using molecular tension fluorescent microscopy (MTFM).