In 2018, I obtained a Master of Science degree, M.Sc. Inorganic Chemistry from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria. The process of obtaining this degree was the most difficult and excruciating academic adventure, I had ever experienced. A degree that took me exactly thirty months to obtain; sixteen months of rigorous course work and another fourteen months of a grueling research (dissertation) which climaxed with an internal and ultimately an external (oral) defense.
The program has an official duration of 24 months, but as at my 30th month, only four of us had graduated out of a class of about 52 students. This infer that, only a meager 7% of students graduated after 30months in the Department of Chemistry. In addition, I was the only student to have graduated in the Inorganic Chemistry unit.
It is important to note that the aim of this piece is not to de-market the ABU in any way but to rather put things in perspective for future applicants so they can learn from my experiences and avoid some of the mistakes we made in order to have a successful and timely postgraduate studies.
OVERVIEW OF PROGRAM
1. Entrance Exams
Having acquired the PG form for M.Sc. Chemistry, prospective applicants will be required and invited to take an entrance examination for a fee (call it the PG Post UME, if you like!). This exam is typically theory-based and requires one to have requisite knowledge of all areas of chemistry. You would be required to answer 15 theory questions (in my time, 2015) in 60 minutes drawn from all areas of Chemistry viz; Inorganic, Organic, Physical, Polymer, Analytical, Environmental, Practical Chemistry, Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistries! I have to state here without equivocations that the exam questions are set with bias as more questions usually come from the area of specialty of the current PG Coordinator! For example, during my time, the PG coordinator was an Inorganic Chemist and so more questions came from the area. Again, in 2016, the PG Coordinator was a Polymer Chemist and so polymer questions dominated the examination! This particular year had a different format of the examination: objectives and theory questions for two the respective sections all for 60 minutes. Trust me, polymer questions were so many that the candidates lamented and wondered after the examination whether the examiner had assumed all applicants were for polymer chemistry! Last year, Organic Chemistry questions were majority for the same reason with the examination format also akin to that of 2016. For the present year, 2018, a similar situation to that of 2017 is most likely, as the PG coordinator remains unchanged. Prospective PG candidates should expect a handful of questions in the Organic Chemistry domain. I am not in any way advocating for a single dimensional reading but only providing a valuable clue to the reader to help in preparing them towards a fascinating entrance examination in the Department of Chemistry, ABU Zaria. Be sure to do a thorough revision of your undergraduate courses in order for you to give yourself a fair chance at cracking it. Once you are able to pass the entrance examination, your admission for your course of choice becomes a done deal!
Maybe we should look at a few questions (those I can recall) I was exposed to during my viva. Yes, my viva I said!
*Outline the postulates of kinetic theory of gases
* Write an equation to show the relationship between enthalpy, entropy and Gibbs free energy
*Explain why main group compounds are often colourless but their transition metal counterparts are usually coloured.
*Will you consider Zn, Cd and Hg as transition metals? Explain!
*Write the electronic configuration of the elements Cr and Cu.
* State two anomalous behaviours of phosphorus
*Name five analytical tools commonly used in probing the nature of chemical substances
*Give two types of polymerization and differentiate between them
*What is isomerism?
*Draw the structures of all isomers of the molecule C4H10O
Etc. I know what you may be thinking about now; past question papers! Sorry, they do not exist here since it is mandatory for candidates to submit their answer sheets along with question papers.
2. Course Work
The course work is straightforward, you attend lectures you do your assignments take tests and then eventually you write exams at the end of the semester. It is essentially undergraduate all over again. The only difference is that you do a seminar presentation in every course, the seminar is such that you are allotted a topic to research on either as individuals or in groups which are later projected and presented in power point after which there is a question and answer session. Remember, you would do this for every course. The course work is for two semesters, eleven courses in first semester and five in second with two out of the total sixteen courses being strictly seminar courses. As an Inorganic Chemistry M.Sc.1 student, you would be exposed to the following courses with only slight modifications as the programs review has just been completed recently.
First semester courses: Statistics, Chemical Dynamics, Chemical Informatics, ICT and Research Methodology, Metal Ions in Solution I, Chemistry of Main Group Elements, Advanced Inorganic Reaction Mechanism, Advanced Organometallic Chemistry, Applied Organometallic Chemistry, Laboratory Organization and Management and Seminar I.
Second Semester courses: Metal Ions in Solution II, Chemistry of Transition Metals, Coordination Compounds, Molecular Structure and Diffraction Methods and Seminar II.
Michaelis’ advice: Begin to develop an area of research interest while you are doing your course work. The courses you take will serve as a compass to enable you navigate through the turbulent waters of research
3. Dissertation Proposal
After your course, work you become a lone ranger, no more classmates You are now fully on your own with your supervisory committee which comprises of two lecturers (in some cases, three) a major supervisor (chairperson supervisory committee) and a minor supervisor (member supervisory committee). Often times you will be doing most of your work with your major supervisor but you have to ensure you carry your minor supervisor along otherwise, you would delay your graduation. One of the major causes of delay in ABU is when your major supervisor and your minor are not best of friends perhaps due to some departmental political rivalry then the student becomes the scapegoat. This is not commonly experienced in Chemistry anyways!
Before you get a topic to develop a proposal upon, you must have settled for an area of interest let us say development of metal-based antibiotics. You will have to download and study many journal papers in that area. The rule of thumb in the department is that the papers must be fairly recent (state of the art) at most five years old, from where you will be required to identify research gaps, and develop a topic with a view to improving what has been done already. Therefore, you must be adding something new that must have a potential to be validated empirically to show that it is causing an improvement on existing systems and methods. This stage is the most difficult stage in the entire M.Sc. program, if you get it right, you would have a smooth sail otherwise you would regret ever enrolling. Unfortunately, most folks abandon the program here even after doing so well in the course work. Frankly speaking, at some point I felt like quitting, but hey, remember quitters never win.
Michaelis advice: Try to settle for an area you understand easily and you enjoy as I said earlier your course work would give you a pointer. Furthermore download top journals (check Elsevier, research gate google scholar etc.) and try to read and understand as many as you can. Once you find a problem, it means you have a topic and you are good to go. Be more concerned about discovering a gap rather than finding a topic. A topic is just a nomenclature however, it is the gap you find that is the meat of your research.
This is another dicey stage in this grueling journey. It is not enough to find a research gap and topic; you have to ensure it is implementable. You have to be abreast of the tools you would need i.e. reagents, analytical tools, financial implication, etc. Ask for advice from experienced academics if possible. I remember choosing a financially unrealistic research topic (Development of anticancer agents using organometallic precursors). A friend advised me to meet a senior academic, a specialist in the area of cancer, Prof. Atawodi of Biochemistry! The Professor advised that I get another topic for the M.Sc. and rather develop the former for a PhD program in the future, as it was too financially demanding for a master’s pursuit! Trust me; that was the turning point in my master’s program. I remain grateful to the astute Professor! Oh! He was even there at my external defense as the PG School representative!
Michaelis’ advice: Be 100% sure your work is implementable before you even propose at the department
5. Internal Defense
Do you have stage fright? If your answer is yes then you have to find a way to work on yourself. At this stage, you would have to stand and defend your work in the presence of Professors and Doctors who are more knowledgeable than you are. Therefore confidence is key even in error be confident but do not be over confident. You have to portray mastery and own your work. Remember not to read verbatim from your slides.
Michaelis’ advice: Understand your work; know the science and theory behind your work. My supervisor would always tell me; ‘at the beginning of a research work, the supervisor should know more than the student in that area. However, at the end of the work, the student should know more than the supervisor knows and in fact, educate the supervisor on the topic. Only then will a research be said to have taken place’. I just hope this makes some sense to someone!
6. External Defense
This is a sequel to your internal defense as it comes a few months after it. The only difference being the presence of a professor from another university to examine you. If you did well in your internal defense this stage would just be a stroll in the park.
This little crash orientation can be the difference between a successful program and a frustrating one. Michaelis admonishes you to take everything you have read here seriously if you want that M.Sc. or even a PhD form ABU.
In conclusion, I have a little piece of advice for you all. If you are employed and would not have enough time to spare for this program, do not even bother enrolling because you would end up frustrated. If you must be successful, you would need time and yes plenty of it.
Author: Michael IORHEMBA
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