Caltech’s Chemistry Graduate Program

ct_cellularsignaling_spotlightOh hi there! I see you’re interested in applying to Caltech’s chemistry program. I’m assuming that you stopped by our Graduate Program Website before heading this way, but perhaps just got a bit overwhelmed with all the information university websites seem to throw at you and the various different links you have to click through to get any useful information… It’s okay. I felt the same way. That’s why I’m going to provide a more digestible version, with the addition of my own insight and advice I’ve formulated from my experiences thus far.

Last edited on 10/19/18.

Disclaimer: All graduate programs are different, even within the same school, so the Caltech Chemistry Graduate Program is not representative of all graduate schools. 

Before we start, here are some websites/resources that may be of interest to you if you’re planning on applying to Caltech or are a prospective student.

Ok! Let’s do this!

Feel free to click around on the links below to jump through the various sections:

Coursework | TA Requirements | Choosing an Advisor | Candidacy | Yearly Progress Meetings | PhD Proposition Exam | Thesis Defense



So before we get into what the requirements for a grad student are, I feel it’s necessarily to explain how courses and units are structured at Caltech, because honestly it confused the hell out of me at first. For Caltech,  course numbers are divided into three sections:

  • Numbers below 100 are usually taken by undergraduates.
  • Numbers from 100 – 199 are taken by both undergrad and graduate students.
  • And lastly, classes numbered 200+ are taken by grad students only (with some exceptions).

The school year is on a quarter system which means there are three terms consisting of about 10 weeks each (plus finals week) and a summer term in which grad students do research only. During each term, a full time student typically takes a total of 36 units, with a typical class consisting of 9 units each. These units solely represent the number of hours you should dedicate to a class per week. That is, the 9 units represent the number of hours split between class, lab and outside preparation. When you’ll see it on schedules, the units are denoted by three sets of numbers (e.g. 3-0-6), which denotes the above, respectively.

Good so far? Awesome.


All chemistry graduate students are required to complete five courses. These courses should all be numbered 100+ with a minimum of 9 units each. In order to get credit for your courses, you must receive a B or higher. Caltech Chemistry doesn’t necessarily require you to take a specific set of classes. They simply say that at least one of the courses should be “out-of-field” or not directly related to the field you will do research under (but honestly, it’s all rather subjective…). However, even though the department doesn’t particularly care which classes you take, your faculty advisor or subdivision (Organic, Physical, Chem Bio or Inorganic) may require a you to take certain classes in order to better prepare for your future research.

Typically, courses are typically chosen with the help of your faculty advisor. The exception is your first term in which you learn which classes are typically taken during Chemistry Orientation. My advice is that before you orientation, check out the fall schedule ahead of time and see which classes pique your interest and sign up for those. Most first years take two courses in their first quarter with the remaining three split between the winter and spring quarters. In order to keep your total unit count at 36 units, you add Ch280 which are your research units for the quarter, or Ch279 if you’re choosing go through the rotation system (more on that later). For example, if you take two classes at 9 units each, then you’ll get the remaining 18 units by signing up for Ch280 under your advisor or prospective advisor’s name.

TA Requirements

Caltech does not have an official TA requirement. As of the 2017-18 school year, Caltech Chemistry now requires you to teach at least one 9 unit course, which has to be completed before your fourth year.  As most new students don’t come in with any funding, you’ll essentially fulfill this teaching requirement within the first year. The classes which you TA are typically assigned by the time you attend orientation based on your subfields.

Choosing an Advisor

As of the 2018-19 school year, Caltech Chemistry has now implemented a mandatory rotation system for all incoming students. Students will participate in at least two 4-week long rotations starting in October, though this rotation doesn’t necessarily have to be in two different labs (i.e. a student can elect their second rotation to take place in the same lab as their first). Following these rotations, students will be allowed to join labs beginning on December 1st. If they have not made up their minds by December, they can continue rotation during the winter and spring terms. However, everyone must join a lab before the summer of their first year.

In addition, in the first few weeks of your first year Caltech Chemistry also “requires” all first years to attend an evening seminar series in which chemistry faculty present brief summaries of their research. I put “requires” in quotes because it’s more “highly recommended” than anything else. However, I personally suggest sitting through a couple of these sessions, even if the faculty presenting aren’t in your field of interest because these faculty might eventually become your committee members (see below) in the near future and it’s a good place to get an idea on who you might pick.

Also, as more general advice, feel free to check out my posts on which questions to ask before joining a lab and which criteria you should consider when choosing a research advisor. I would also like to point out that, at Caltech, you do not necessarily have to do research under a chemistry faculty and plenty of chemistry students are part of labs in other departments (like me!).


Note: If you are not aware of what the term candidacy or committee is referring to, please check out my Grad School Jargon post to familiarize yourself which certain terms you’ll hear a lot during your admissions/acceptance process.


At Caltech Chemistry, you’re Candidacy Exam is typically done during or before your 5th term of graduate school. This essentially equates to around March or April of your second year. It consists of a written component (your proposal/propositions) and an oral component which you complete before three faculty members (your committee) which consist of your advisor, an “in-field” chemistry faculty member and an “out of field” faculty.

Proposals and Propositions: 

The written part of your candidacy exam consists of a research report (progress on your current project), a brief description of your future research plans and two chemistry propositions (1 in-field and 1 out-of-field). Your in-field propositions is essentially a research proposal that you could imagine yourself pursuing in your research group that is different from the one you are currently working on. It cannot be the next step of your project or another lab mate’s project. It is an original research idea that happens to coincide with the topics that your lab works with. Your out-of-field proposition is also a research proposal, but not on a topic that would be under your labs research interests. In other words, it’s an original research idea of a topic not directly in your field. All written components of your Candidacy exam should be less than 50 pages total, but this is not a hard and fast rule.

Oral Examination:

During your oral examination, three faculty members (that you will pick when choosing your committee) will choose one or all of your written portions to discuss or critique. The purpose is for you to show that you have a thorough understanding of your project  (or the projects your wrote about) and have read the necessary background literature. It also serves the purpose to make sure that you are capable of coming up with viable research projects and have the skills of a successful researcher and that you have a solid foundation of knowledge to continue your chemistry PhD. The structure of your oral exam is highly dependent on the committee members you’ve chosen and there is no “official” way that this exam can take place. I highly recommend talking to older students to inquire about their experiences. Also, keep in contact with your committee chair (see below) as they are the ones that ultimately run the exam.

Choosing your committee:

You will be able to choose your committee during the beginning of your second year. As stated, it will consist of three members: your advisor, an “in-field” chemistry faculty and an “out-of-field” faculty member. When choosing your committee, you should remember that these faculty will serve as a resource to you until you graduate. They will be able to guide you through all phases of your graduate career and serve as mentors when it comes to future employment/post-doc plans. As stated above, your committee chair will also run your candidacy exam and, eventually, your PhD proposition exam. Therefore, it’s important to not only to regularly communicate with them, but also know their reputation before selecting them in the first place.

Possible Results:

There are three possible outcomes of your Candidacy Exam: (1) Pass, (2) Conditional Pass, or (3) Fail. Most students pass or conditionally pass. A conditional pass simply means that your committee feels that your propositions or report have fallen short somewhere. This can be changed into a pass once these concerns are meant either by rewriting a portion of your reports or scheduling a new exam for a later date. If you fail, you can repeat your exam once at the discretion of your committee members. Once you pass, you are now considered a PhD Candidate and once you finish up any course requirements, the rest of your PhD can be spent focusing entirely on research.

Yearly Progress Meetings

After Candidacy, the rest of your graduate school career will revolve around your research project. In the Chemistry department, a typical graduate degree takes, on average, 5.5 years to complete. From Year 3 and on, there will be yearly progress meetings with your original candidacy committee, plus one additional member. These meetings consist of an oral summary of your research and will discuss your timetable to graduation.

PhD Proposition Exam

Before you complete your fifth year, you will take the final PhD proposition exam. Here, you will present three original propositions to your committee one week prior to this exam. Of these three props, only one can carry over from candidacy (your committee will typically tell you which one is allowed to carry over) and at least one must be considered “out of field.” These are then defended orally through a 15 minute PowerPoint on the proposition of your choice, but again this structure is highly dependent on your committee.

Thesis Defense

And now you’ve made it to the end! The Caltech Chemistry program doesn’t actually have an official defense. Rather, once you’ve written up your thesis and its been approved by your committee, the last thing you have to do is present your research during a public, one-hour oral presentation. Your written thesis should be approved two weeks prior to your thesis talk. Once this is completed, you may have some corrections before the final copy is submitted to the Graduate Office, but otherwise congratulations! You’ve earned a PhD.


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