Category Archives: For undergraduate students (mostly)

Some tips for research scholarship applications

Last term, I sat on a graduate scholarship committee for the first time in a few years. I noticed a few common errors, and at the encouragement of a colleague, I have turned this experience into the blog post you are now reading.

Many scholarship applications will require a brief research proposal. Here are some things you should think about if you have to include a proposal in your application:

  1. The proposal has to be well written. If you’re not naturally a good writer, show your proposal to someone who is. Bad spelling and grammar reflect badly on you. Poorly constructed sentences and paragraphs that obscure the point you are trying to make are even worse. They suggest that you don’t care enough to proofread your work carefully and/or to get someone to proofread it for you. This advice of course extends to other parts of your application.
  2. It should be clear how your work fits in a larger context. Here’s a made-up example: Student X wants to synthesize molecules containing some weird new functional group. That’s great, but unless you explain it to me, I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. Are these molecules theoretically interesting? Do they have potential applications? Do they extend our knowledge of chemistry in a new direction, and if so, what is that direction and why should I care? This comment is, of course, more general than the example above, and would extend to a proposal to prove a theorem, to study distant galaxies, etc.
  3. Almost all scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships are judged by panels of non-experts, so write your proposal for a general scientific audience. In part, this connects to my previous point: It may seem self-evident to you why you would want to study protein Y, and perhaps it is to people in your field, but it may not be obvious to a scientist outside of your field. Beyond that, you need to define non-obvious abbreviations, avoid highly specialized jargon if possible, etc.
  4. The proposal’s scope should align with the level at which you are applying. Don’t propose 20 years of work in an M.Sc. application. Don’t propose something very limited (in time and/or intellectually) in a Ph.D. or postdoc proposal. The latter is a surprisingly common (and fatal) error. We might forgive the over-eager M.Sc. applicant, but we can’t forgive a Ph.D. applicant whose proposal doesn’t look exciting. If you are competing for a scholarship, you are competing with other people who have proposals that have some real intellectual interest. If you are making systematic measurements of some property, unless you tell me otherwise, it might look like work for a technician.How does your work tie in to major theories in your field? What is the potential for it to change how we think about certain issues? Do you need to develop new measurement methods that will be more broadly applicable?

Some Canadian (especially Tri-Council) scholarship applications ask you to comment on your most significant contributions. Other scholarship competitions may ask for something like this with different wording. Such a section is not about why the work is significant to you. It is about the significance of your work to your field. In some cases, especially if you’re just getting started in research, your most significant contribution may be a conference presentation. If it is, nobody cares that you really enjoyed presenting your work to leaders in your field. What we care about is if your work represents a real advance. Interest from leaders in your field may be evidence of that, especially if they followed up with you after your talk. But the emphasis is on what they got out of it, not what you got out of it. If you can, try to tell us how your work requires new thinking about some issue or other in your field. Or maybe tell us how your work opens up new vistas. The same goes for publications. I’m sure it was exciting to get your paper published in the Elbonian Journal of Science, but what I really care about is the science in the paper, and whether you can tell me why it was important. (In fact, I probably care more about whether you are effectively communicating the importance of your work than whether I fully buy your argument. When I sit on these committees, I’m evaluating you. One of the things I want to know is whether you can craft a coherent argument.) Since you probably don’t have any experience writing this kind of text, it is imperative that you get an experienced pair of eyes (e.g. your supervisor’s) on this section of your application.

Many scholarship applications will ask for a summary of most recent completed thesis (or equivalent). When an application has a section like this, we expect you to use most of the space to tell us about your past work. What did you do? How did you do it? Why was this a hard thing to do? What was learned? And yes, why was it important? If you write three lines when we gave you a page, it’s not good. You need to give us some details here. It’s your work. You should be able to was poetic about it.

In fact, as a rule, you should use most of the space allowed for any given part of your application, provided of course the section is relevant. (On occasion, there will be sections that you can’t use. For example, if you’re asked to list publications and you don’t have any, you clearly can’t use this space.) Don’t make stuff up, but not having much to say about yourself or your work is generally considered a negative.

Academia is slowly becoming more progressive. Accordingly, most scholarship applications will have a section in which you can talk about any obstacles life threw in your way, good or bad, that might have affected your performance. I know that some people are afraid of using these sections, but in fact you should if there is something we should know about. We are genuinely trying to take life circumstances into account when we evaluate scholarship applications, among other things. The kinds of things you might want to let us know about include having a disability (that you could document on request), taking time off to start a family, having to look after a sick parent or child, and so on. If anything has held you back from taking a full course load, completing a degree in the “usual” amount of time, or negatively affected your grades over some period of time, let us know. We can’t take it into account if we don’t know about it.

Maybe I can close with a bit of general advice: The best way to learn to write good proposals is to work with someone who has been successful at this skill. Ask your supervisor or other mentors who are more advanced than you to look over what you have produced. Take their advice to heart. Don’t take it personally if they are very critical. In fact, you should especially thank the people who are very critical of your applications. They’re usually the ones who are giving you the most important feedback.

What exactly do you mean by “stable”?

Stability is a highly context-dependent concept, and so it often leads to confusion among students, and sometimes among professional chemists, too.

If I say that a certain molecule is “stable”, I might mean any of a number of things:

  1. It’s possible to make it, and it won’t spontaneously fall apart.
  2. It’s possible to isolate a pure sample of the substance.
  3. It won’t react with other things. This is often qualified, for example when we say that something is “stable in air”.

The trick is to pick up which one is meant from context. A recent example arose on a test question in my Chemistry 2000 class, where I asked, in a question on molecular orbital (MO) theory, if argon hydride, ArH, is a stable molecule. In this case, the “context” was in fact a lack of context: I simply asked about the stability of this molecule, without any mention of holding it (the isolable substance definition) or of bringing it into contact with anything else. Thus, I was relying on the first definition of stability. Unexpectedly, simple pen-and-paper MO theory predicts that ArH has a bond order of ½, and so is predicted to be stable, although clearly not by much. This ought to be quite a surprise to anyone who has studied chemistry since we normally think of noble gases like argon as being quite unreactive (stable in the third sense), and so unlikely to form compounds. And when we do get compounds of noble gases, they are usually compounds with very electronegative elements such as fluorine. Moreover, ArH would violate the octet rule. Students do run across non-octet compounds from time to time, but the octet rule is deeply ingrained from high school. Finally, ArH would be a radical, and students are often taught to think that radicals are “unstable”, in the sense that they are highly reactive.

As it turns out, the simple MO theory we learned in class is sort of right: excited states of argon hydride are stable enough to be studied spectroscopically—in fact the first such study was carried out at Canada’s National Research Council by JWC Johns1—but the ground electronic state is unstable in the first sense: it dissociates into H and Ar atoms. So our chemical instinct is right about this compound, too. Welcome to the nuances of chemistry.

For the sake of argument, suppose that ArH had a stable ground electronic state, as predicted by simple MO theory. It would fail to be stable in the second sense because the meeting of two ArH molecules would result in the energetically favorable reaction 2 ArH → 2 Ar + H2. And of course, ArH would react with a great many substances. In fact, we could think of this compound as a source of hydrogen atom radicals.

Before we move on from ArH, let’s talk about some of the reflexes that would have led us to predict it to be unstable. The fact that a material is normally unreactive doesn’t mean it won’t form a compound with something else under the right conditions. If I want to make ArH, I won’t try to react argon with hydrogen molecules because the atoms in H2 are held together by a strong bond, so it would be energetically unfavourable to swap that bond for an Ar-H bond. I will need a source of hydrogen atoms. If I do expose argon atoms to hydrogen atoms, the very reactive radical hydrogen atoms may well react with the normally unreactive argon, which is in fact what happens. But none of that is directly relevant to the question of the stability of the ArH molecule. If I ask about that, I just want to know if the thing will hold together assuming it has been made.

The octet rule is deeply embedded into the psyches of anyone who has studied chemistry. It is, indeed, an excellent rule of thumb in many, many cases, especially in organic chemistry. But students are soon exposed to non-octet compounds, so clearly the octet rule is not an absolute. And yet we often hear people talk about an octet as being a “stable electronic configuration”. There’s that word again! But what do people mean when they say that? The answer is, again, highly dependent on context. In s- and p-block atoms, an octet fills a shell, and so the next available atomic orbital is quite high in energy, and it will likely be energetically unfavourable to fill it. In molecules, the octet rule just happens to often result in electronic configurations with an excess of bonding over antibonding character, so they are stable in the first sense. And because eight is an even number, the resulting molecules often have all of their electrons paired, so they are less reactive than they might have been if they had an odd number of electrons. But you may recall that oxygen, on which more below, has two unpaired electrons, even though its Lewis structure satisfies the octet rule. We should always remember then that it’s the octet rule, and not the octet law. Arguing that something is especially stable because it has an octet is just not a very good explanation. Now having said that, the octet rule generally holds for compounds from the second period, largely because trying to add more electrons to these small atoms is energetically unfavourable. But even that is a contingent statement since it depends on where those electrons are coming from and whether they have anywhere else to go. Certainly, you can measure an electron affinity for many molecules with octet-rule structures.

As for the argument that radicals are “unstable” (which you will hear from time to time), it’s not true. Many radicals are very reactive. But a great many radicals are stable in the first and often in the second sense, too. This includes many of the nitrogen oxides, notably nitric oxide, which is stable enough to serve as a neurotransmitter, and can be stored in a gas cylinder, but is conversely reactive enough to be used as part of your body’s immune response. Again we see that stability and reactivity do not necessarily coincide, even though the word “stability” is sometimes used in the sense of “reactivity”.

Of course, ArH is an extreme, and NO is not a terribly familiar compound to most of us, even though our bodies make it. So let’s talk about a more mundane molecule. Oxygen has not one but two unpaired electrons. So despite its Lewis diagram, oxygen is a radical. Nevertheless, oxygen is certainly stable in the first and second senses. There are lots of oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, and they don’t just fall apart on their own. (They do fall apart if supplied with enough energy, for example in the form of an ultraviolet photon, but that is another question altogether.) You can store oxygen in a gas cylinder, so it is certainly isolable. But oxygen is highly reactive, in part because of its unpaired electrons, at least towards some substances and in some circumstances. It’s a fairly strong oxidizing agent for example. Many metals, if left standing in air, will become coated very quickly in a layer of their oxide. And if provided with a little heat, oxygen will react vigorously with many materials. We call these reactions of oxygen “fire”.

The very different meanings of “stable” mean that we have to think when we hear this word. Ideally, we would also banish the third meaning mentioned above in favour of more specific language, such as “reactive towards”. Conflating questions of stability and reactivity just makes it harder to think precisely about what we mean when we say that a molecule or substance is stable.

1J. W. C. Johns (1970) A spectrum of neutral argon hydride. J. Mol. Spectrosc. 36, 488–510.

“Hey” as an email greeting


Reproduced with permission from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Like every other teacher, from time to time, I receive an email from a student written in an excessively informal style. Cham’s comic, reproduced above, is pretty close to some of the emails we receive. About a year ago, after receiving yet another such email, I decided to send the following to one of my classes (copied unedited in its entirety):

There’s more to university than just learning formal material, so I hope you won’t mind if, from time to time, I give you some life advice.

Recently, I have received a number of emails from students that start with “hey”, or other equally informal forms of address. Now, I don’t insist that you call me “Professor Roussel” (although you certainly can), but you should watch how you write emails to people who aren’t in your close circle of friends. At this point, you are training to become professionals. You will (hopefully) all end up in responsible positions where you will eventually be interacting both with people supervising you and with people you are supervising. Both your superiors and the people who report to you expect professionals to maintain a certain level of decorum, and people sometimes get very offended when an email starts with “hey”. It’s just not a respectful form of address.

You’re now at a place where we expect a bit more formality. It’s time to start writing emails that look like they were written by a grownup. Take a moment to write a proper greeting when you’re writing one of your instructors. “Dear Marc” is OK, if you’re comfortable with that. Otherwise, “Professor Roussel” will do fine. Most of your emails will be asking your instructors for something: information, help with something, an appointment. It’s best in those cases to put your best foot forward and to be polite. Moreover, this is where you form the habits that will carry you through your first few years of work. You just don’t want to write your boss an email that starts with “hey”.

By the way, this isn’t directed at anyone in particular. I don’t require an apology from anyone. I just want to help you take the next step in your development as young adults.

Some months later, I was approached by a fellow faculty member who told me that a young person she knew had told her about this email, and that she liked it so much that she was planning to show it to some of her students (with my permission, which I was only too happy to give). And then there’s a blog post by Chris Blattman on email etiquette for students that contains somewhat similar comments, as well as the brilliant Ph.D. comic (which was published and added to this blog post long after this blog post was originally written). (Thanks to Paul Hayes for bringing Blattman’s blog post to my attention.) Clearly I’m not the only person who thinks this way.

I wrote the above email to my students thinking that I would get them thinking about appropriate levels of formality for different situations. (Other than the indirect report mentioned above and one other indirect report, I have no idea whether I made any impact. There was one student who commented on their teaching evaluation that they thought this email wasn’t treating them “as adults”, but of course the point of my email was that some of them weren’t writing adult emails.) As I wrote at the time, university isn’t just about learning specific subject matter, and I worry that the current generation of students is badly equipped for the social aspects of the work world. A lot of the rapid communication methods we have now assume a certain level of informality. (You’re not going to have elaborate greetings in a 140-character tweet or, generally, in a text message composed on a phone.) The problem is that this informal style of communication doesn’t translate well to other media, to many social situations, across age groups, or across cultures. When, where and how are students supposed to learn this? It seems to me that electronic etiquette has to be woven into the informal curriculum from a young age, and that it needs to be reinforced all the way through the education system. Right now, we have a generation of teachers (and I include myself in this group) who mostly came to electronic communications after they had learned other means of communication. While, in many contexts, this is viewed as a disadvantage, in this case I think that we older folk are actually better equipped to navigate the multiple levels of formality needed to get through a day, including the correct levels of formality to use in various forms of electronic communications. When I was learning to write letters in school, they first taught us how to write formal letters. Having learned what a formal letter looked like, relaxing some of these rules when communicating with friends or loved ones became a conscious choice, making it unlikely that we would, say, write an overly informal memo to the boss. Going the other way, starting with informal communication styles and then trying to raise the level of formality as required, is, I suspect, much harder.