How to get work in science as a layman?
February 18, 2009 9:22 AM   Subscribe

What sorts of science-y work are available for a non-professional?

Here's the story:
I work a day job in IT, which is fine, but a bit unfulfilling. When work is slow, I read science blogs, books, articles, etc. I am fascinated by the scientific endeavour and would very much like to contribute in some way.

My college degree is in Theatre. I have no professional science experience. All I have is enthusiasm and the ability to pick up new skills quickly.

Are there any sorts of scientific opportunities for a non-professional like myself? I am willing to consider volunteer work, as I doubt anyone would be willing to pay me at first, given my lack of experience.

I'll take any and all suggestions, but what I have in mind when i think of science work is something like "lab monkey", or some sort of assistant to a field worker. I live in Chicago.
posted by lholladay to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How about starting in the Marketing department of a science/tech company?

Eg., by doing marketing communications and/or trade shows you could use your existing(?) skills while acquiring knowledge in a specific field.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:27 AM on February 18, 2009

As with many fields, one of the best ways for a complete novice to get experience is to volunteer. While most unpaid volunteers in science fields are undergraduates, some investigators would be open-minded enough to work out a non-traditional arrangement with you. You'd basically find yourself doing hours of grunt work but at least you'd get to be in a lab and see what the actual experience of science is like, and you never know what you'll get to do if you work hard and show that you're competent, hard-working and enthusiastic. I would recommend finding a lab that does not require a lot of technical expertise or skill to be useful to them (let me give a shout out for social psychology here) - rather, somewhere where you'd be a much needed extra pair of hands. Also be prepared for a lot of polite rejections - scientists are busy folks who may see training you as more trouble than it's worth.
posted by shaun uh at 9:33 AM on February 18, 2009

Working in a lab is going to be tricky. I won't say it can't be done, but it takes significant investment of time and energy to get someone up to speed on the techniques that most labs use. Most people aren't going to want to spend that time on someone who isn't getting paid, and so may decide to stop showing up one day.

Some other ideas that may help you scratch your itch:

- Volunteer at a local elementary or high school. Many of them love people that will come in and do hands-on science experiments or help run science labs.

- Run folding@home or another distributed computing project on your home computer.

- If you're any good at writing, start a blog about science. There is tons of fascinating research that never gets picked up by the media, and we're always looking for skilled communicators to help counter the bad rap science sometimes gets in this country. The whole bullshit crusade against evolution is a product of misunderstanding and ignorance.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:35 AM on February 18, 2009

Could you volunteer at a local science museum? The theater might come in helpful. They usually want non-weekend hours out of a person, though.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 9:36 AM on February 18, 2009

I'm a lab monkey, it's not all you think it's cracked up to be, but hey! I like your enthusiasm.

Do you have any college coursework in biology or chemistry? Any high school coursework? There's a lot of potential safety issues involved in those areas, it's doubtful anyone would be willing to hire total beginners.

But here's a possibility: I don't know what you have in your area, but I worked for the agriculture college one summer in my undergrad, they conducted studies on plants. I helped weed, collect data and harvest the specimens, you might like that. They were fine with hiring anyone for that kind of labor.

If you can do number crunching sorts of things, I bet you could sell that angle and help some psychology researchers or anyone. You might not be qualified to get your gloved hands dirty, but there's other avenues you could explore.
posted by lizbunny at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2009

I know about a dozen people who have no science background and they all work in one of the countries top cancer hospitals. They do a variety of things from project management, to IT, to grant writing. Perhaps sticking with your IT profession in a sciencey environment would satisfy you.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:53 AM on February 18, 2009

Do you have any real programming experience in your IT position? When I did my science thing in college, I worked in a bioinformatics lab for a summer where a solid science foundation was necessary, but a few of the students were CS students doing the coding. Perhaps going in on this angle might work?
That's actually my strategy- Graduated with a biochemistry degree, but hated being a lab monkey (yea, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be) and now work in IT. I still love science, and the plan is to work somewhere (hopefully university or hospital) in some kind of IT position. I know other classmates who followed a similar career path and it's worked out.
posted by jmd82 at 10:00 AM on February 18, 2009

If you have any page layout or copyediting experience, try looking for positions at science journals or other positions within scientific presses.
posted by methylsalicylate at 10:36 AM on February 18, 2009

If you want to do exciting things such as database management, I'm sure you could find a sciencey workplace that needs your IT skills.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:07 PM on February 18, 2009

@chrisamiller, Weighted Companion Cube: Thanks for the suggestions about doing volunteer work in an educational setting. That appeals to me in a way I hadn't considered before. Getting people excited about the process of science - or at least a bit more knowledgeable - is important to me.

Doing something with writing may also be a good avenue to explore - I don't know if I have enough original content/opinion to maintain a blog, but I bet working for a science journal would be quite interesting.

Thanks also to everyone for the IT-related suggestions. I don't know how I long want to stay in the field, but maybe a change of location would do me some good, and give me something to blog about.
posted by lholladay at 12:22 PM on February 18, 2009

A broad inventory of your current skill-set would certainly help us make suggestions about how you might break in. Even if you don't have any applicable skills right now though, your willingness to volunteer should help open doors, and once you have some experience, you'll have a chance of at least working as a lab tech. It will also give you a chance to see if you really want to work as a lab tech. I did it, it was enough to put me off my plans of continuing my science education in grad school, but other people I know have had more rewarding experiences.

To understand your way in as a voluneteer it helps to have some background on the profession. A career in science can pay ok, but not enough that its a career most people go into because of the money. Instead, their motivation is generally a mix of a strong curiosity about understanding how things work, working with other people with that same curiosity, and sharing their knowlege with others.

A given individual may lean more strongly in one direction or the other, but you can't have a career in science without at least being competent and minimally willing in sharing knowledge with others. Even there though, there is a sort of continuum between sharing that knowledge with peers via publications, conferences, and collaborations, and sharing it with lay people, or to put it another way, teaching. You'll likely do best with people with an affinity for teaching.

The other piece of background is that a lot of science is labor (and equipment) intensive, and there is rarely enough funding for a scientist to hire all the people and acquire all the equipment may want.

Which all leads me to suggesting that you start reading up on and talking to a bunch of scientists, figure out what most interests you, and then approach them about volunteering. Only do it though if you are willing to make a commitment of, I'd say, at least 8 hours a week for a year, and that you are asking because you think you'd like to go further.

If you are genuinely curious and do a little homework, so to speak, to try to understand what they are doing before approaching people, and you offer to buy them lunch, I'm sure you'll get quite a few people willing to talk to you for ~1 hour about their research. I'd also bet that that group will be biased in favor of people who'd be willing to take you on. After talking to them, you'll probably have an even better idea about who would be good to work with. And I'm sure that a few of them will respond positively if you ask if they could use a volunteer, or they'd be able to point you in the right direction.

A few suggestions on how to wade in. First, from the reading you do, what kind of things interest you? Who are the researchers involved? Are any of them in your area? If not, pull up their web pages, some will list their collaborators (including past grad students and post-docs), are any of their collaborators near you? Even if they don't list their collaborators specifically, they will almost certainly have a CV posted with a list of their recent publications. Are any of their co-authors near you?

Once you've identified people you are interested in, read over whatever they've posted about their research online. Dig into it. Pull some of their publications and try to understand them as best you can. If you focus on review articles you'll get more context. You could also look for any review articles they tend to cite, or learn to use a citation database, and see if someone else's review articles cite any of their articles. An added bonus of this is that navigating citations is an important skill in practicing science.

You might also see if you can visit campus and find their labs and see if they have any posters presentations from recent conferences posted in the hall with info about their recent work.

This process is important both from the perspective of figuring out better what interests you, and in being able to demonstrate your seriousness. Plus, people will probably be flattered that you've dug into their work, and that can't hurt.

A few other tips, you'll probably have better luck with smaller labs and more junior researchers in larger labs than you will with the heads of big labs, chairs, department heads, etc. In a big lab, you might also see if they have a lab manager, or someone who coordinates undergrad lab assistants.

Good luck.
posted by Good Brain at 12:28 PM on February 18, 2009

I'm a biology grad student up in Ontario, and round here you could probably find a professor who'd be willing to give you a place to volunteer. BUT, I think the big catch would be your hours, if you have a day-job, then you're not going to be there when the lab is most active. Sure, grad students are often around at wacky hours, but most professors are not. It's still worth a shot though. Most every university will have a website that will list its faculty and their major research interests and some past publications. Check those out and look for someone doing work that interests you. You'll have a better chance at convincing a prof to give you work if you show enthusiasm, interest, and at least some understanding regarding the work he/she is focused on. Send them emails, they'll probably be ignored, because professors get a ton of email (maybe send a follow-up after a bit of time if you don't get a response), so don't be discouraged. Hopefully you'll find someone in the Chi-town area who'll give you a placing, but if you can't make it at least once or twice a week during regular business hours, I think you might be out of luck.

Good luck!
posted by dnesan at 12:46 PM on February 18, 2009

A summer internship might be another way to get in, if you could commit to a few hours a day for 2 or 3 months. I know it's only February, but start looking now for places that might take interns. The last company I worked at had several interns over the summer, including 2 high school students, so the expectations for technical skills were pretty modest. Of course, every company that takes interns views them as free grunt labor, despite pious claims of giving kids a head start and exposing them to REAL SCIENCE!, but you knew that already.
posted by Quietgal at 12:57 PM on February 18, 2009

Take night courses at a tech school and get an AA in something lab or medical related. Even a certificate program could get you in the door.

If being a lab monkey takes time, being a lab rat is easy! I've participated in a number of medical and psychological research studies as a paid "healthy normal" control subject, and have had a lot of fun. I've learned so much about medicine and medical/psychiatric research it's incredible.

Not to mention all the free health care: I've literally had more blood panels, EKGs and MRIs than I can remember. Other paid procedures: colonoscopy, bronchoscopy (twice), full-body 3D MRI, EEG electrode cap studies, breast sonograms and a density test, DEXA bone scans, different types of oculomotor tests, PET scans, glucose tolerance tests, metabolic tests, cardiac stress tests, overnight sleep brain wave tests, different kinds of Pulmonary Lung Function tests (plethysmograph, spirometer, etc), on and on.

Besides, it's rather satisfying to know I'm making a contribution to science by turning my individual psychology and physiology into a data point. It was so funny-- I told a friend what I was doing, and he indignantly protested "My God! You're skewing everything!!" Which is kind of true, given that calling me "normal" anything is a stretch. heh.

If you live in a big city, check the Craigslist "volunteers" section and you're set. Good luck!
posted by aquafortis at 2:58 PM on February 18, 2009

Seconding the job at a science journal or press. You might try a textbook publisher--in the Bay Area, for example, we have Benjamin Cummings, the science textbook division of Pearson Education. Their editorial assistant position pays next to nothing, and I hear it's pretty competitive, but you don't need to have a science background. They offer internships, too, but I don't remember whether or not they're paid. You might be able to find similar offerings in Chicago.

If you're interested in writing, look into science journalism as well. I'm taking an extension class in it now, and David Perlman, Science Editor at the SF Chronicle, spoke to my class last night about his long and very successful career: how he got into it, why he thinks it's important, why he chooses the topics he writes on, and how he stays on top of recent research and events. On one of his first assignments, he said, he accompanied a multi-specialist team to the Galapagos Islands, and went on to do a lot of traveling and watching research being carried out and asking nosy questions. I have an mp3 of his 90-minute talk, and I'd be happy to send it to you if you're interested...just MeMail me!
posted by kiripin at 11:36 PM on February 18, 2009

I'll second volunteering or working at a science museum. You don't need a major background in science to be very effective. I struck up a conversation with a guy who was a very skilled demonstrator at our local science museum--quite theatrical, in fact. He'd volunteered there in high school, then was hired as a demonstrator after graduating from HS. He had no college education whatsoever (though finally had gotten inspired enough to start at the local community college the next term). But he was great at his job, which he clearly loved.

I'm sure he wasn't making much money, though. With IT skills you can work just about anywhere, including scientific and medical environments--and doing IT stuff also makes a contribution to the field, you know. Modern science and medicine can't do what they do without functional computers. Seriously!
posted by Sublimity at 6:44 AM on February 19, 2009

« Older Severance packages a thing of the past?   |   How to encourage casual collaboration at work... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.