I am the Graduate Coordinator of my department at my state research university. I am currently evaluating several PhD applications for a prestigious internal fellowship. The catch is that, while I am in the math department, I am only evaluating applications from other STEM departments. When it comes to accomplishments in the laboratory sciences, I am often out of my depth, and I usually just admit as much and move on. However, I've just come to something in which I wonder whether academic cultural differences could give me the wrong idea (rather than no idea).

Namely, an undergraduate student in chemistry has written a review article under the direction of a faculty coauthor. The faculty member says of the student:

[S/he] was responsible for assembling the preliminary bibliography and writing the initial summaries of the main papers that we reviewed. [S/he] was primarily responsible for creating the schemes and figures used in the paper. While I did have to heavily edit [his/her] writing, which is to be expected, [s/he] really carried a bulk of the work. Consequently, [s/he] is first author on this paper.

(I did look at the article, but I won't violate confidentiality by describing it...and moreover I am completely incapable of meaningfully evaluating it.)

My question: how valuable/impressive is it for an undergraduate in chemistry to be the first author of a review article like this? By way of comparison, in mathematics there are almost no "review articles." The closest equivalent I know of are long articles published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, which are more like historically oriented mini-courses on a mathematical subfield written by a leading expert in the field. This type of review article strikes more as a helpful library tool for a chemist interested in certain types of reactions and procedures. So it looks more like a moderate piece of service to the profession, and being first author sounds like the student carried out the assigned task more independently than not.

Is that accurate? Or is it a big plus for an undergraduate to have done work like this?

  • Maybe the title should reflect that you are asking about chemistry? In Computer Science, this would be a plus!
    – OBu
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:03
  • I'm from biology, not chemistry, but I wouldn't say a review article in biology carries a lot of value/impressiveness by itself; prestigious review articles are either those written in top journals, by leaders in a field, or that attract high citation counts. Most likely if the review falls into one of these categories that's more about the supervisor than the student. If you were to read the review for content, it could certainly provide some insight into the student's abilities, but as you mention that may be difficult to do outside the field. I would weight original research much higher.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:12

1 Answer 1


There are several factors to consider here when evaluating the "significance" of a review article:

  • The length and scope of the review article: a six-page review of recent literature with 50 references is not as impressive as a 50-page review with hundreds of references.
  • The publication in which the article appears: is the journal a high-level, review-only journal, such as Reviews of Modern Physics or Chemical Reviews, or is it a review article in a traditional journal?
  • Was the review invited or contributed?
  • Is it part of a special issue? (If so, the standards for acceptance are often a bit laxer than in a "regular" issue.)
  • Since it's written as an undergraduate, you might try to compare its citation count to similar review articles written around the same time as a proxy for its significance to ongoing research in the field.
  • Also I would like to add that the description of what the student did is not that impressive. At some point reviewing literature in the same subfield just becomes a mechanical process, almost anybody could do it. Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:48
  • 1
    It's impressive for a relatively inexperienced undergraduate.
    – aeismail
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 23:15

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