Considering studying genetics
May 21, 2009 10:27 AM   Subscribe

My best friend is considering a career in genetics and would welcome guidance, advice and anecdotes on schools/ jobs.

My friend is finishing up her senior year as a Chemistry major and is very interested in genetics. She's considering a career in this field, but doesn't have any contacts currently in it and would like some advice.

Schools- Can anyone recommend or not recommend any graduate/ doctorate programs. My friend lives in Kentucky but may be willing to move for the right program. Also, is it much better to have a PhD in the field or is a master's just as good when it comes to getting jobs?

Job Prospects- Is anyone working in this field? What are job prospects like (normally and during recession times)? How competitive is it and and how fast is this field growing?

Satisfaction- If anyone is working in genetics now (doing anything), I know my friend would be really interested in your experiences. Do you like your job? What's a typical day like? What's the best/ worst part? What traits does someone in this field need to have to be successful?

If you can provide any insight into these topics, I would appreciate it. Thanks very much in advance.
posted by roxie5 to Education (6 answers total)
"Genetics" is a really, really big place. Is she interested in microbial genetics or eukaryotic? Basic genetic research or applied (medical) research or actually working in medicine? Does she like lab work or people? I would strongly urge your friend to head to career counseling and take some interest inventory tests to see what kind of a workplace she wants, and to make an appointment with someone who teaches Genetics in the Biology department to narrow down her interests. A lot.

Graduate programs are going to vary hugely in quality based on what specific aspects of genetics she's interested in. To look into graduate programs, she really ought to study the primary literature of whatever field she's interested in, figure out who the senior author is on those papers (i.e., where the work was actually done), and then learn about the graduate programs in that department. I honestly kind of doubt that she'll wind up in Kentucky if she approaches her search that way, but that's the really and truly the best way to start to find the right graduate program for yourself in the sciences. A master's degree is the best way to go for a lot of industry jobs, but again, she needs to figure out what kind of job she wants before she can figure out how appropriate graduate work is for her.

One thing your friend might consider is looking for jobs as a lab technician (also known as research associate, sometimes a research scientist, sometimes a team scientist) at a local university or biotech firm. With a Chemistry degree she would be a very competitive applicant for jobs in most Biology/Genetics labs. That would help her figure out if she likes the process of doing this kind of research, and also give her a big leg up in graduate applications.

I am a graduate student working in very basic microbial genetics, looking at the genes and gene regulation involved in a particular suite of microbial functions. A lot of what I do on a day-in-day-out level involves mixing small volumes of clear liquids in tiny tubes, waiting a while, and then putting the product of that mix into bacteria. Wait a day or two for cells to grow, repeat. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I want to go back in time and smack myself upside the head for even considering this career path.
posted by amelioration at 10:42 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

As stated by previous poster, it's a huge field. There is lots of laboratory research -- clinical research settings, animal models, etc. There's genomics and microarray assays for genome-wide studies which again could be human, animal models, evolutionary research, etc etc. There's also medical genetics from more of a human standpoint: genetic counseling and guidance.

First thing to do would be to consider what area your friend wants to do, if it's laboratory research, computer-science oriented (a lot of genomics includes computer moeling), evolutionary research, anthropology research, clinical setting (animals, humans), counseling, etc.
posted by davidnc at 11:24 AM on May 21, 2009

"Genetics" isn't really a field of work or science. This term refers to a very broad set of tools that are used in a wide range of disciplines. I think your friend needs to do some research and clarify what field she is interested in.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:38 AM on May 21, 2009

FWIW, I graduated with a biochemistry degree in worked in a cancer research lab with a number of genetic degree graduates. It was very much a laboratory research setting, and I found it mind-numbingly boring. I loved studying genetics- particularly the cancer aspect- but I found doing it full time was going to drive me insane. Hyperboble a bit, but sitting at a lab bench with minimal human interaction pippetting stuff 8 hours a day for the rest of my life did not appeal to me. Obviously, research work is more varied than just pippetting stuff, but after a while, I found all the work to be incredibly monotonous. I needed a job with more human interaction and more variation during the day, which I have now.

I also worked in a bioinformatics lab for a year, and had much the same experience as my wetlab job. Not incredibly varied, with even less human interaction. It wasn't uncommon to go the day without talking to any of my fellow researchers.

For me, I'm glad to have had lab research jobs as I learned a lot what I need out of future jobs (human interaction, variation). Don't let this scare your friend away- I'm sure there are science jobs that much up with what makes me just so happens I didn't get those gigs, and my feeling was a lot of science research jobs were rather...non-social.

"Genetics" isn't really a field of work or science. This term refers to a very broad set of tools that are used in a wide range of disciplines. I think your friend needs to do some research and clarify what field she is interested in.

Except that whole Genetics BS degree, which would expose your friend to a decent variety of genetic-related fields.
posted by jmd82 at 11:54 AM on May 21, 2009

I'm guessing by "genetics" your friend means "molecular biology."

As someone who completed a PhD in the area, my advice is essentially that of my grad school advisor: it's fun, but do not regard it as a vocational degree (i.e., one that will lead to a job). I ended up switching careers. Chemistry strikes me as much more vocational than molecular biology.

Grad schools are attractive because they provide a decent stipend to live on and, hey, at the end you have a PhD! But the students wind up being cheap labor in getting grant money and are trained to be professors. Guess what? At the end you find tons of PhDs looking for the same handful of jobs in academia, or postdoccing indefinitely. It's a pyramid scheme.

That said, a friend of mine scored a postdoc at Harvard and looks like he's getting some grants funded. But he works 60+ hours a week and claims to have had some good luck as well (which counts for a lot in science, believe me).
posted by exogenous at 11:56 AM on May 21, 2009

There's at least one or two lists floating around of Top Graduate Programs in Genetics.

I suggest she narrow down what applications of genetics interest her. Neurogenetics? Plant genetics? Epigenetics? Studying genetic material itself? Human genetics? Molecular biology as a whole? RNA?

Neurogenetics, plant genetics, epigenetics, and human genetics are the big fields right now - neuroscience as a whole is big right now (my field; my main interest is in cognitive neurogenetics), plant genetics is big in terms of GMOs and modifying crops to produce certain strains, epigenetics is the other big shiny new awesome field, and human genetics is relevant to clinical applications. There's a lot you can do in genetics, but it depends on what you're doing. I'm doing the professor thing. You can work for a university, and you can also work for a biotech company, a food manufacturer, a hospital - there's a lot you can do with a degree in genetics.
posted by kldickson at 2:44 PM on May 21, 2009

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