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Current Students FAQ

What is this journal based proficiency exam? 

The Chemistry and Biochemistry graduate group requires all graduate students pursuing the Master’s or Ph.D. to achieve a passing score on a series of journal based exams administered throughout the year. Exams are based on journal articles spanning different subdisciplines of chemistry. Each exam will be graded as worth 0, 1, 2, or 3 points. A score of 3 points demonstrates a knowledge level sufficient to proceed in the Ph.D. program, a score of 2 points demonstrates that the student has deficiencies that need to be addressed and that the current knowledge level is more appropriate for someone continuing at the masters level, and a score of 1 point demonstrates substantial deficiencies that need to be addressed. To achieve a passing grade and satisfy the Ph.D. requirement, students are required to acquire 6 points total and to have one score 3 of points on a given exam.  The exam may be taken each time it is offered, and a passing score should be reached no later than the start of the fourth semester (a maximum of five attempts).  If a student has not passed the exam after three attempts, this should be discussed at the first annual committee meeting and the committee may provide advice and guidance for future attempts. 

You have two weeks to carefully study a journal article to prepare for these exams. Use the time to dig in! Some paths to success:

Do a detailed analysis of the figures. What does each show? Why is that useful for the overall claims of the paper? Do you agree with the authors’ interpretation of what is shown? What would make them better?

List the methods used. How do they work? Why did the authors choose them? 

Look up papers that are cited or that cite this paper. List the ones that seem most important and write two or three sentences summarizing why the link to them is important. 

Write up notes to explain what is going on in each section of the paper.  Look up unfamiliar terms and approximations, trying to understand why a certain approximation might be made and when such an approximation might break down.

Work with other students to think of questions that might be asked. Are their notes similar to yours?  Can you come to any consensus about which points of evidence or logic are most important in the paper?

You will be graded on the quality of your explanations and scientific thinking, so practice explaining your scientific thought process! Do this verbally, with diagrams and/or equations, and especially in writing!


How do I choose my Ph.D. committee?  

This is a good thing to discuss with your advisor. Your committee should have 4 people, which include three members of the Chemistry and Biochemistry grad group and one outside of the grad group. One of the members is your advisor and one of the Grad Group members is the Chair of your committee.  The outside member must be present for exams but need not be present for annual meetings. In deciding on committee members, you might think about which faculty have complementary research interests so will be able to give research suggestions.


What do I do for my annual committee meeting?  

You must establish your faculty advisory committee in your first year, and then meet with them each year after. Often these meetings are scheduled for the summer when schedules are a bit less hectic. However, there is often a lot of traveling happening in the summer, so it is good to try to schedule this meeting with your faculty advisory committee two or three months in advance. Before your meeting, you should prepare a two-page written research report (with research background and context, connetion to other work, and future plans), you and your advisor should fill out the Excel_Template and the _Individual Development Plan, and then you should send these documents to the committee to review at least one day before your meeting.  A day or so before the meeting, you should also fill out the mentoring survey.  During your annual meeting with your committee, prepare some slides on: classes taken, conferences and workshops attended, talks/posters presented, papers published, and any other professional development activities you’ve taken part in over the past year. You’ll also give a short research update and discuss your future plans. Plan to go over the slides with your advisor well ahead of time so that your advisor can answer questions and provide feedback, and so that you can polish your slides.   The committee meeting often lasts about an hour. 

After your meeting, your committee chair should return the IDP with comments. Email both the Excel document and the IDP to, the graduate program coordinator, and graduate program chair, with the email subject Student_ID_Name and have the files also titled the same to be 1234000_John_Doe.xlsx and 1234000_John_Doe_IDP.


How do I balance my time as a TA or GSR?  

 If you are a TA for a course, this is your job and you have clear responsibilities to the instructor for that course.  A TA position should not take more than 20 hours per week, on average. Your primary purpose in graduate school is to do research, publish papers, and get your Ph.D.  TAing can take all of your time if you let it, but you will need to learn how to carve out space to prioritize your own classes and your research.

If you are supported as a GSR, you are expected to do full-time research.  Take advantage of this as much as possible to be productive and do some amazing science! It is fantastic that you get to focus full time on your project(s)!  Getting stuck, and learning to get unstuck is a huge part of the PhD process.  If you’re unsure about your progress, check with senior researchers in your group to see if they have any tips for you. 


What is the annual technical presentation requirement? 

Grad students are required to present an open technical presentation once a year. This could be a talk or a poster at a conference, a department seminar, or, especially for students just getting started with research, it might be a presentation about a paper or a technique. These presentations are an opportunity for you to practice your scientific communication skills with a broad audience.  If you haven’t given a talk at a conference, there will be an opportunity to give a talk at a department seminar. First year students are encouraged to present at the department poster session.  To get good feedback from fellow students and your advisor, give them a draft of your slides or poster well in advance of your presentation. Often quite a few iterations are necessary to polish your presentation, and it can be useful to give more than one practice presentation as well.


How should I prepare for my qualifying exam? 

Karina prepared this awesome document to guide you through the process! 

The intent of this oral examination, which often lasts about two hours, is to ascertain the breadth of your comprehension of fundamental facts and principles that apply in your major field of study. It will also determine your ability to think critically about the theoretical and practical aspects of the field. Accordingly, the examination should be focused on your field of research, but may and should venture into other areas of scholarship that underlie or impinge on the thesis topic. The faculty advisor is a voting member of the committee, but will normally not participate in the examination except to provide technical clarifications as requested by the other members of the committee.  Students are encouraged to discuss oral presentation and written document expectations with their faculty advisor and committee well in advance of the exam date.

At least one week prior to the examination date, provide to the committee a written document that describes your research topic, summarizes progress to date, and outlines what you propose to do, why it is relevant, and what will be learned. In both your presentation and your written document, you should focus on the big picture - Why is what you are doing important? How is it different from what other people are doing? What new knowledge will be gained?  What is your future plan? These big questions are far more important to the committee than the details of your analysis, method, synthesis, etc. Ask your advisor what the length of the document should be; most are 8 - 15 pages.

The committee will ask you about topics related to your research and chemistry fundamentals. They will want to see how you explain things, so the more practice you have explaining and answering questions, the better. Get together with your fellow grad students and practice. Students who have taken their qualifying exam will have an idea of the kinds of questions that faculty might like to ask (e.g. "Professor Isborn always asks about harmonic oscillators..."), so ask them for advice.


How do I communicate and establish expectations with my advisor? 

Some advisors may want a daily update on how you are doing with your project, some may want to meet with you regularly, some may want you to come to them if you get stuck or have a question.  Because faculty have mainly been trained in being thoughtful scientists, we are not always trained to be great managers or communicators. You will need to be proactive in communicating when you get stuck and in asking questions.  Try to solve the problem first yourself or by asking/ working with another grad student. If you aren’t making progress, ask your advisor, as they will want to see you making research progress each week. You and your faculty mentor are each unique, as is your project, so what works for progressing in one group might be less successful in your own. Keep trying, and don’t be afraid to brainstorm with folks throughout the department about how to structure your work and the usual research struggles.

All faculty want to help you succeed, and all faculty are excited about doing awesome science with you!  Your faculty mentor is here to support your training and development, but it may be difficult to speak up when things are not going well given the power and authority dynamics. Establishing and aligning clear expectations with your mentor is important.  It is good to discuss with your mentor the ways  (e.g. in-person, Slack, email) and how often you both prefer to communicate.  Ask your advisor what they expect from a successful grad student in their lab.  There are some general expectations that most faculty share: 

Your advisor likely wants you to keep up with coursework and to let them know if you need a break from research to focus on courses. 

They will want you to get to know the literature of your field, so block at least one hour per week to peruse current tables of contents for journals or do literature searches (Participate in journal clubs. Better yet, organize one!). 

Your advisor will expect you to work cooperatively, collaboratively, and respectfully with other members of the research team, while working hard and giving your best effort.Do your part to create a climate of engagement and mutual respect. 

They will want to see you participate in meetings and seminars by being prepared, being curious, and asking questions. 

Your advisor will expect you to be responsive to advice and constructive criticism; the feedback you get is intended to improve your scientific work. 

Your advisor will expect you to strive to meet deadlines: This is the only way to manage your progress. Talk with your advisor if you are having difficulty completing your work. 

Although your advisor is here to help you become an independent scientist, and to help you plan, design, and conduct high-quality scientific research, you have the primary responsibility for the successful completion of your degree.


What about writing papers? 

Publishing papers is the currency of science. It is how you let the rest of the human world know about what you discovered about the chemical world.  Writing a clear and compelling scientific story, with the evidence to back up your claims and putting it into context of other work in the field, is not easy.  It takes practice to write a good paper. Hopefully, throughout your Ph.D., you are practicing your scientific writing skills. By the end of your Ph.D., we expect you to be able to put those skills to use and have two, preferably three or four, first-author publications that showcase the work you’ve done during your time at UC Merced.  Grants and UC Merced funding are supported by taxpayer dollars, and thus you have an obligation to complete and disseminate your research findings.  For many of us, communicating our results and analysis to the wider scientific community is the most rewarding part of the scientific endeavor!