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.
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
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
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
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 "
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.