Is it too late for SCIENCE?!?
October 5, 2008 6:03 PM   Subscribe

After nearly 15 years in other fields, is it too late to think of a career in science?

I have a humanities undergraduate degree, and a master's in information science, but lately I'm pulled towards neuroscience and the biological bases for human psychology. I was always pretty good at biology and chemistry in high school and college (not so much in advanced mathematics or physics), but a lot of time has passed since then. Would graduate programs still feel that I have enough to contribute to the field, assuming that I'm not grossly under qualified? Do you think the culture shock would be great? (I read over this AskMe, and while there is good advice there, I'm not interested in clinical psych.) Any and all insight is appreciated: good news, interesting news, or bad news. And my email is in my profile if you'd prefer to answer off-list.
posted by malaprohibita to Education (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It is never too late. I am a neuroscientist and in my graduate program, the age ranged from 21 - 50+. If it is your passion, then never deny yourself this based upon your age (which I'm assuming is early thirties?).

Things to consider: No, you are not grossly under qualified. Neuroscience is interdisciplinary, so consider if you would rather be more molecular (genetics, microbio) or more molar (psychology, bio). You can enter neuroscience at any level you choose.

To increase chances of acceptance: State schools that aren't the flagship school. Smaller, less illustrious programs. There is no shame here. You will thrive and learn and enjoy.

What are your career goals? This is crucial. I was a professor after getting my Ph.D. and now am much happier in pharmaceuticals/business. Where do you want to end up?

I encourage you to follow your bliss. Just know that it might not be lucrative.
posted by Punctual at 6:34 PM on October 5, 2008

Career goals would include research and teaching, though business would not be out of the question. Thanks, Punctual!
posted by malaprohibita at 6:42 PM on October 5, 2008

I should mention that I'm in academia now, and I actually kind of like it.
posted by malaprohibita at 6:45 PM on October 5, 2008

(on preview, I realize that my advice is geared toward a career in cell/molecular bench neuroscience. Punctual makes a good point that neuroscience is pretty interdisciplinary, and if you're more interested in more clinical or bioinformatics geared research, my advice may not apply)
Generally, what grad programs are looking for above all is a candidate who is sure they want to stay in science and has the passion and aptitude to finish their PhD. I don't think being older and choosing science as a second career will necessarily be held against you in grad school admissions; in fact, you may be viewed as more mature and more sure of your goals, as long as:

-you take some post-bac courses to refresh your science knowledge. 15 years is a long time. In fact, most grad programs require coursework beyond basic biology and chemistry, and you might be looking at an entire B.S. worth of coursework, depending on how much bio and chem you took in your humanities degree.

-get some wetlab experience. The institution where you do your coursework should be able to get you in contact with PIs who are looking for part-time research assistants (usually volunteer or for credit - once you establish a relationship with the lab they may pay you)

-make contacts with PIs in the departments you're applying to, and show an interest in their research. Having someone vouch for your interest and initiative will really help with the admissions process.

The research experience is the really key point here. It demonstrates that you can do research, provides a reference, and most importantly helps you be sure that this is what you want to do. Not just the mixing of reagents and the doing of the science, but thinking about science and dealing with the inevitable pitfalls and very very delayed gratification. PhDs take a long time and most students, even those who start out really motivated, contemplate quitting.
posted by twoporedomain at 6:47 PM on October 5, 2008

It sounds like you have the perfect background to become a science writer, which IMO is a very important job. The cycle of popular support-->funding-->pure research-->applied research-->popular support relies on good writing tailored to specific audiences at each stage. You can make a good living at it and feel good about what you do. I did anyway, and my work was in the social sciences. The hard sciences pay better =)
posted by headnsouth at 6:55 PM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Science writer... hmmm I really like the thought. I think all the answers so far have great advice, but please don't let that dissuade anyone else from commenting.
posted by malaprohibita at 7:37 PM on October 5, 2008

it's never too late for anything, unless you're dead.
posted by docmccoy at 8:49 PM on October 5, 2008

Speaking as a current postbac student in the process of shifting a policy-oriented bachelor's to a more clinically-oriented MD, the programs are plentiful and open to all stripes. My biggest impediment up to this point (four months in) has been my previously poor performance in mathematics. If you've got a decent math background and don't mind studying a lot, post-bac shouldn't be a difficult thing. One of the bonuses is that when you take classes with a bunch of undergraduates, you're almost guaranteed to ride high above the curve by virtue of caring more.
posted by The White Hat at 9:17 PM on October 5, 2008

Be in no doubt that there is prejudice – institutional and professional – for the "normal", traditional career path in science: graduate students in their 20s who went straight from school to school to grad program. You will get passed over for jobs or opportunities because you're "too old". Hell, I got my PhD at 30 and ran into that problem. (At 32, an academic sat me down and carefully explained that I couldn't possibly be considered for a position because I was "too long in the tooth". Seriously.)

Having said that, I'm a strong believer that people should do what inspires them, and so I encourage you to have a go. It can be done, you just have to be a little canny and prepared to take a few knocks. As Punctual suggested above, the smaller, more peripheral institutes tend to be more accepting of people with non-traditional backgrounds. Be prepared to demonstrate your knowledge and enthusiasm. Use whatever edge you can get, gather whatever experience you can. These things look good on a resume and people do pay attention, especially if you're an older applicant.
posted by outlier at 2:01 AM on October 6, 2008

I don't know what specific science field outlier is in, but I've never heard of anyone in their 30s being told he or she was too old to be in science. Most of the PhD students I know (myself included) completed their degrees in their early- to mid-30s. One student in my current lab is in his early 40s, and I knew a guy at my alma mater who was in his mid- to late-50s, just starting his PhD program.

Yes, some fields expect that you will do your best work by the time you are 25. But that doesn't mean all branches of science are that way. Don't be discouraged.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:08 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know what specific science field outlier is in, but I've never heard of anyone in their 30s being told he or she was too old to be in science. Most of the PhD students I know (myself included) completed their degrees in their early- to mid-30s. One student in my current lab is in his early 40s, and I knew a guy at my alma mater who was in his mid- to late-50s, just starting his PhD program.

Biosciences. And in the UK and Australia (my patch), people typically finish their PhDs at an earlier age than the US. I think Scandinavian and German PhDs also tilt older, while I was once told that if you hadn't made tenure by 35 in France, you should consider another career.

Your point, however, is valid and underlines the stupidity of what was said to me. But let me generalize my statement a bit more: there is prejudice for what is seen as the "normal", traditional career path and suspicion for the non-traditional and exceptional, be it age, background, school or ethnicity. But you just gotta work with it.
posted by outlier at 6:39 AM on October 6, 2008

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