The Master List

The list extends life. The list expands consciousness. The list is vital to grad school.
Ok, so, the list and “the spice” actually have little to do with each other…

Anyway, for those that are curious, here’s the full breakdown of places I’m applying, as well as professors I’m interested in working with. First and foremost, I’m all about total synthesis (and associated reaction development). However, if I can also find a lab that incorporates biologically active products¹(optimization/library type work), that would be icing on the cake. Living somewhere that doesn’t suck is not required, but highly recommended. The going theme generally tends to be 2 professors I’m really interested in, and 1-2 professors in doing related work. Commentary follows.

  • Yale – Herzon (thanks paul!), Phillips. Considering Miller, Ellman, Spiegel. I’m very interested in the chemistry here. Herzon and Phillips are my choice professors for straight up synthesis, but the other profs’ biological/methodology work is nothing to sneeze at, and also, if the planets align, some possibility of doing some heavy-duty synthesis as well. Of course, this would mean having to live in New Haven for a few years. Frankly, I’ve had my fill of New Haven after spending time waiting to change trains, so I don’t know how a few years would tread on me, but we’ll see
  • UCSB – Pettus, Zakarian. Considering Read de Alaniz and Lipshutz. I like Zakarian’s chemistry a little more, but I’d be happy as a clam on Pettus’ work, too. Read de Alaniz’s or Lipshutz are a different story. Read de Alaniz is a total mystery – brand new faculty, and only 1 publication thus far at UCSB. Claims to do carbon-nitrogon bond forming methodology, to be used for alkaloid synthesis. I’m not enthralled with fledgling faculty and the idea of just methodology, but methodology AND alkaloid total synthesis? I could be into that… Similar sentiments toward B-Lip. Bonus points for california weather, double bonus points for getting to hang out with Ψ*Ψ.
  • UCLA – Garg, Kwon, Jung. Considering Merlic. This one’s actually a curiosity: at the current moment, there’s nobody that scores insanely high on who I’d like to work with, but I’m generally intrigued by the “all around” aspect of the professors I’m interested in. Although recently, Garg’s work has been a little more methodology-y, I’m curious about future total synthetic prospects. With respect to Kwon, her syntheses aren’t exactly as hard-core as I’d like, and like Garg, recent looks slightly more methods focused, but the prospect for legit synthetic work is there, alongside diversity oriented work. Jung and Merlic round out the lot for some (in my opinion) “standard” total synthesis and methodology, respectively.
  • UC Irvine – Rychnovsky, Vanderwal, Overman. Considering Jarvo. So… if you’re beginning to see the thought process here: Rychnovsky and Vanderwal for synthesis, Jarvo for methods. Overman’s a possibility, but he’s on the older side of professors I’m looking at, and I don’t know how much longer he intends on staying in the game.
  • Colorado State – Wood, Ferreira. Considering Rovis. Wood and Ferreira are doing stuff synthetically interesting, but don’t really offer much of a look into the biology of anything. Rovis for methods. Bonus points: I got the opportunity to see Wood give a presentation, and I liked his research and how he appears as a mentor. Minus points: CSU scores lowest on my NMR scale of grad school interest. (access to 300/400/500, but regular walkup use seems pretty much relegated to the 300)
  • UT Austin – Martin, Magnus, Siegel. Considering Krische. Martin and Siegel for synthesis (especially interested in Siegel’s work. He seems to strike the exact balance I’m looking for), Krische for methods. Like Overman, Magnus is also one of the older prof’s I’m lookin to work for, but I like his work more.
  • UNC – Crimmins, Johnson, Nicewicz. Considering Alexanian. I like the list of synthetic guys here, but there’s not a lot of options for looking at biology of anything. Regardless, whereas most other schools have only 2 professors I’m really into, I’d like to work with any of the three here. Plus, backup plan of Alexanian if I should defect to methods…
  • U. Pitt. – Wipf, Curran, Koide. Originally, I had not really considered it until a professor I’m getting a rec from suggested I check it out. I’ve since taken quite a shine to U Pitt. Wipf and Koide are in the right vein of synthesis, and Curran looks like he does a fairly decent mix of synthesis and biologically relevant stuff (although, I’d like a bit more biological breadth than just tagging everything with fluorines) In the Northeast “bracket,” I think Yale edges out Pitt a little bit when it comes to chemistry, but when it comes to living somewhere that’s not New Haven, Pittsburgh wins, hands down.

Most likely, I’ll have two or three templates for my personal statements. Something along the lines of:

  1. blah blah blah I want to do organic synthesis. Specifically, I’m interested in the work of professors so-and-so, et al. Let me in.
  2. blah blah blah I want to do organic synthesis. Specifically, I’m interested in the work of professors so-and-so, et al. Additionally, I’m interested in biological studies and optimization of biological activity, alongside heavy synthetic work. I believe that professor whats-his-face offers the best opportunity towards this kind of research. Let me in. 
  3. I’ll bake you cookies. Please let me in.

Now then… if you happen to have any comments on this list, please let me know. If you think I’m on the right track, or think I’ve forgotten a professor at one of these universities, I’d be glad to hear it.

If you have any scathing comments toward certain professors, I’d certainly like to hear them too, so I can get as comprehensive a view as possible. However, at the least, be diplomatic if you’re going to leave a comment, or if you want to be extra hateful, just email it to me.

If you also think I should look into XYZ university that was not listed here… well, I’ve probably already looked at it/ruled it out. Most commonly, there would be 1 professor I’d like to work with, and a bunch of “back up” professors that I wasn’t too interested, or in rare cases, maybe 2 professors I’d like to work with, but zero “backup” options I’d really want to/consider doing. The master list is an attempt to optimize the amount of professors I’d truly like to work for, as well as the amount of “back up” options that I wouldn’t mind working for.

[1] Not that I’m exactly looking to do the assays on anything… I’m no biochemist. However, having the option of working with collaborators (in-house, or external) where I can make stuff, and they can test it would be the dopest. (dope-est? most dope? whatever, it’d be cool.) That’s the system I used on the previous project I was working on, and it was a pretty sweet deal.

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13 Responses to The Master List

  1. HB says:

    Don’t be a fool: Painting yourself into the Ph.D corner of total synthesis puts you in the unenviable position of having to fiercely compete with legions of intelligent, accomplished people for ever-diminishing positions that are more and more poorly-compensated with each passing year.

    It’s not 1960 anymore … Woodward is dead. If you really like Chemistry, get into another field.

    At any rate, good luck.

  2. UCLA-PhD says:

    I got my PhD at UCLA in the chem dept. A few things you should know. It might be different now, but 5 or 6 years ago, the following was pretty much true: Merlic makes you teach every quarter because he had little or no money; in fact, I think he was stopped from taking new students for a few years because he had no grants. The attrition rate was quite high for grad students in the Kwon group (for one reason or another). Jung – meh. Garg – probably the best bet out of the ones you list, but just how high will his star rise?

  3. Stewie Griffin says:

    I second HB. I too love total synthesis but I can tell you that although it may “provide the best training grounds” for chemists, nobody cares much about it these days. Jobs are limited and competitive, and it most likely won’t get better for synthesis folks (IMHO) You’d be much better off mixing your organic with some biological and/or analytical skills. I’m talking mass spec, learn how to run some gels, etc. Lots of jobs requiring those skills now.
    Second, at least Crimmins from your list hasn’t taken any grad students for several years. Not sure whats going on there, but I’m guessing he’s on the way out, or at least moving towards only taking postdocs. I would scratch him off the list unless you can get a verbal commitment to join his lab.
    Third, the idea behind your list is pretty much how I started my search for grad schools. Years later I can say that I was naive and what I thought was important (big names, big schools) wasn’t. Consider that you’re going to spend at least 5 yrs with this person and you want to actually learn from them, not just be a pair of hands for them and hope for a good letter some day in the future. Find someone who shares your attitude towards work/life balance. Find someone who can give you encouragement when you need it and criticism when you need that too. Find someone that will help you consider how best to use your talents in the future and even help place you into a postdoc or job. Consider also how often will you be able to get to talk to the boss (about your chemistry, about that cool new paper you just read, about your future plans, about the big game last night, whatever). In other words, it may be worth it to sacrifice the prestigious name for a less prestigious one if it means you’d have a true mentor and not just a figurehead.
    Best of luck!

  4. Paul says:

    Are you at least going to throw your hat in the ring for Scripps? Seems like a number of people on that faculty would be right up your alley.

    I second the comment above not to underestimate the importance of being able to interact with your advisor. Also, when you are going on visits, make sure you like the culture of the department (e.g., do labs interact, or is each its own island? Are classes and teaching taken seriously?)

    Finally, if Seth is your #1 choice, you should probably not spell it “Herzen” in your applications; it’s “Herzon”.

    Good luck with the search.

  5. mitch says:

    Good luck, I’m at UCLA now and if you come for a visit let me know.

  6. OrganicSynthetiker says:

    As a fellow undergraduate applying to grad schools with a total synthesis groups, I was wondering why you passed the obvious choices of Harvard, Scripps, MIT, and even UC Berkeley for total synthesis. I understand it’s risky to go somewhere where there is only one prof whose work excites you, but getting a PhD in total synthesis is also risky (plus, you get to meet some of these crazy SOBs during visitation)

  7. another ucla phd says:

    a friend did his PhD at UCLA with Merlic. very bad experience. pass.

  8. Anon. says:

    From that list I would highly recommend UPitt, and specifically, Prof. Wipf. I would not suggest Koide – not enough name recognition, not a great group (equipment, etc.); nor would I suggest Curran – personally I don’t like his work, but his group has a strange dynamic. He (Curran) is pretty aloof to his group and is not the most involved PI. On the other hand, I think Wipf has all the qualities of a good PI – the one caveat is he has a large group. He does excellent total synthesis, chemical biology and has an excellent reputation among industrial people, and a growing reputation in the academic world (Prof. Phillips, Yale and Stephenson, BU are former Wipf group members). He’s pretty demanding with the amount he expects of students; however, very fair – you work hard and he’ll treat you that way, you don’t, well… Plus, Pittsburgh is an excellent city to live in as a grad student for cost of living, entertainment, getting around, etc.

    Disclaimer – I got my Ph.D. with Wipf.

  9. bad wolf says:

    I second the nice things said about Pitt: the department is pretty strong, and the city livable. The Wipf group is impressive but definitely a taskmaster–kinda surprised to see such a positive note from a former student! On the other hand Curran is probably less available than Overmann at UCI. UCI is a very strong department with many possibilities and nice weather etc etc (although expensive).

    btw, i have to question your NMR criteria: running all your spectra on as high-field an instrument as possible only amplifies your impurity peaks….

  10. Anon says:

    As to Prof. Wipf…he does expect quite a bit from his students – but that was what I expected from a PI as well. I had no delusions (sorry, but many students do) that I would be doing anything but graduate work when I was in graduate school. I was briefed by previous co-workers about what to expect in graduate school – which was, work hard and work long. I think having that expectation allowed me to work well with Prof. Wipf. We each had the same high expectations. Most of the people in the group when I was there were of the same ilk. There were several other individuals that did not share the same view of graduate school that had trouble working for him. However, the amount that one can learn in his group is second to none – comparing my experience with anyone from any group. That being said, I would make sure you and he are on the same page (actually, that’s one bit of advice for any PI).

    One last comment about Pitt – there are 2 other Profs that worth mentioning. Prof. Nelson and Prof. Floreancig both do excellent work. And no disrespect intended to Prof. Koide – he would be 5th on my list at Pitt behind Wipf, Nelson, Floreancig, Curran, Koide.

  11. psi*psi says:

    Javier Read (de Alaniz) is pretty much the nicest guy you’ll find in organic chemistry. Period. Anywhere. He’s also brilliant and full of ideas. Has some very cool projects in the works. Some of my best friends here are in his group, and they LOVE him.

    (I can tell you things about the other organic profs here too…but not in public.)

  12. Fred says:

    Heard all sorts of bad things about Merlic@UCLA. Avoid.

  13. See Arr Oh says:

    RE: Grad schools – make sure you check around with students in the groups you’re considering to figure out how much $$ your potential Prof. raises (generally). If the group makes you TA every other year, or “strongly” considers you find your own funding – PASS!

    Also, I was at UNC, and I would recommend you look through the website – stroll through all the faculty. Some of them are listed as “organometallic” or “inorganic”, but are actually very good methods and catalysis chemists. They also tend to have better funding than the TS groups.

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