Information for graduate students

Pursuing a graduate degree in theoretical chemistry requires considerable amounts of hard-work, talent, focus, and dedication. It is perhaps the most difficult subdiscipline of chemistry to work in since the field is rich with hard-working and talented individuals competing for small number of jobs and resources. Theory students must not only have an excellent grasp of Physical Chemistry, but must also posess highly developed mathematical and computational skills. I requre all my students to take at least one advanced course in physics and take a course in Mathematical Physics before taking their oral progress examination. The UH Chemical Physics program provides probably the best programmatic match between course work and research skills needed for a theoretical thesis.

Joining My Group

Effective Fall 2014, all PhD students who wishing to join my group will agree to take their ORP exam in the Fall of their second year. Note, that this is higher standard than the Department of Chemistry's current requirement since students will be expected to perform at the same level as students taking their exam in their 5th-long semester. Students who find this to be unreasonable are free to join other groups with lower standards.

Progress Reports

One you have joined my group and have completed your course work, you will be enrolled in what ammounts to dissertation research. Since there is no formal course associated with this, every term you will need to file a General Petition with the statement: Research in Theoretical Chemistry leading to PhD in Chemistry. Student will submit either a written report or published papers at the end of the semester. This can be in the form of a draft of a paper or manuscript you are working on or thesis chapters. You should also include a proposal of work to be done next year and a time-table for completion. Please write this in LaTeX and send me a PDF version by the end of the last week of each term.

Defining a Research Problem

Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. This quote does illustrate an important point: before jumping right into solving a problem, you need to should step back and invest time and effort to improve your understanding of it. Over your first year as a graduate student you should carefully read as many research papers as possible related to the area in which you want to work. You should also meet regularly (i.e. weekly or more) with your PhD advisor during this time to iterate towards a thesis topic and plan a course of research.
  • Rephrase the Problem. When a Toyota executive asked employees to ways to increase their produtivity, all he got back were blank stares. When he rephrased his request ways to make their jobs easier, he could barely keep up with the amount of suggestions. Words carry strong implicit meaning and, as such, play a major role in how we perceive a problem. If you are having problems rephrasing something, give a group meeting on that topic. The process of speaking often causes one to more freely associate diffrent words and concepts. More often than not, an idea will crystalize in the writing or speaking process.
  • Expose and Challenge Assumptions Every scientific issue-no matter how apparently simple it be may -- comes with a long list of assumptions attached. Many of these assumptions may be inaccurate and could make your problem statement inadequate or even misguided. Moreover, often times the most imporant discoveries are where our assumptions break down. The first step to eliminate bad assumptions is to make them explicit. Write a list and expose as many assumptions as can you especially those that may seem the most obvious. That, in itself, brings more clarity to the problem at hand. Essentially, you need to learn how to think like a philosopher. But go further and test each assumption for validity: think in ways that they might not be valid and their consequences. What you will find may surprise you: that many of those bad assumptions are untouchable and self-imposed with just a bit of scrutiny you are able to safely drop them.
  • Look at the bigger picture Each problem is a small piece of a greater problem. If you feel are overwhelmed with details or looking at a problem too narrowly, look at it from a more general perspective. As part of every proposal to NSF, you have to write a Broader Impact Statement. What is the benefit of your work? What do you hope to learn or discover about how Nature works?
  • Break things down in to small pieces If each problem is part of a greater problem, it also means that each problem is composed of many smaller problems. It turns out that decomposing a problem in many problems smaller each of them more specific than the original can also provide greater insights about the bigger problem especially if you find the bigger problem overwhelming or daunting. Cars and computers are complex integrated machines. However, you can break each down to a series of much simpler machines or devices. Same goes for computer codes. Every computer code is a collection of smaller, simpler subroutines and function calls.
  • Read the literature. Given the explosion of information available on the internet today, it is a simple matter to find information on almost any topic. Chances are some aspects of your problem have been studied by someone at some point. Perhaps you have a better way of solving that step, perhaps not. Solving a research problem does not mean you have to "go it alone." Journal articles and research reports are there to help future researchers solve future problems. You may be stuck for a year and discover that someone else (who was also stuck for a year) has already solved that problem and wrote about his or her solution. Science is a cumulative discipline building upon past discoveries. You also need to gather as many facts and details about the systems you are dealing with. Develop a database of papers you have read and develop a system for cataloging your notes. My recommendation is to use the program " BibDesk" for keeping track of journal articles and papers. Eventually you will need to write your own papers and your thesis and you'll need to properly cite every paper you have read that pertains to your work. There may be other programs available (e.g Endnote), however, I have found BibDesk to the best especially when working with LaTeX documents.