Science for book nerds?
September 22, 2009 11:33 PM   Subscribe

Where/how does someone in their mid-20's with a typical liberal arts education (yay literature! boo math!) start working towards a career in the sciences?

In the 2 years since I graduated from college (classical studies ftw), both personal experiences and numerous anecdotal quotes from quite successful scientists have led me to believe that a liberal arts education can go a long way in the sciences, and that all those years of developing critical thinking skills would be highly valuable in a lab/research setting.

Having respected the sciences only from a great (great) distance throughout my high school and college career, I find it hard to imagine starting a career in this field now, but a recent job has given me a new perspective. If I did want to start down this path, where would I begin?

Another four years of college isn't an option, so what would I need to do for grad programs to even consider me? A couple years of science courses for no credit? Are there programs out there that are looking for liberal arts students interested in the sciences? Would science journalism be a more reasonable goal?

Any suggestions/perspectives would be much appreciated.
posted by domakesaypat to Education (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not hooked on a lab or research setting then one route would be through a specialist life sciences consulting or research company. They will still look for life sciences qualifications by preference, but some may not or some may overlook this if you make your case well.

From there, the next steps would be likely be another similar organisation or a move into a pharma or biotech company.

A lot of science journalism still requires you to know your oats, although in my experience many journalists lack the hard numerical skills so in that aspect, at least, the bar is lower. Read something like Nature and see if it rings your bell.

For what it's worth, I don't have a life sciences background and manage a team of life sciences market analysts working for pharma / biotech companies. There are a lot of topics that don't require you to have an in-depth knowledge of pharmacology or anatomy or suchlike to be to do a decent job.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:42 PM on September 22, 2009

See if you can make it through an article on dimensional analysis, which is the absolute minimum of mathematics and quantitative thinking key to doing bread and butter science. Try your hand at some Fermi problems.

Jumping into research is near impossible in the physical sciences. There's a good reason graduate degrees take several years and are notoriously difficult. It's not just a question of raw intelligence. Relevant modern techniques are highly specialized and require advanced equipment. Theory, on the other hand, requires a great deal of mathematical (and perhaps computational) analysis. It just takes time and tenacity.

Science journalism sounds ideal, but the world is full of terrible science journalists. Doing it well requires specific experience as a scientist as well as a broad understanding of nature, research methods, pedagogy, and the ability to shun hype and not lie. It's apparently very challenging, especially that last bit.

I was taught this by a very wise senior graduate student (who eventually did finish his Ph.D.... long after I did): "There's no reason at all you should be doing this [science] if you don't love it. If you wake up thinking about it, and sometimes can't go to sleep because of it, then it's perfect for you. Otherwise, it's just hassle."
posted by fatllama at 12:04 AM on September 23, 2009

Best answer: I don't think you need to understand dimensional analysis to work in the sciences, but only if you're okay with staying within the life sciences (yay biology! boo math!).

What you might want to start with is a little self-education. There are some great intro to science books for the layman like The Canon and A Short History of Nearly Everything. What in those books capture your imagination? Go on MIT OpenCourseware and take a look at some intro courses in those subjects.

If you decide that science is something you really want to pursue, look into post-bachelor's degree programs for people who want to apply to med school but have none of the science pre-requisites. Generally, they will offer intro courses to organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, and biology. This will provide a solid base for you if you later decide that you want to attempt a graduate program.
posted by snoogles at 12:15 AM on September 23, 2009

Have you considered doing a MSc degree? For example, the University of Chicago has a good MSc program for non-CS (Computer Science) majors. There are likely to be other MSc programs for other sciences.
posted by jchaw at 12:24 AM on September 23, 2009

By the way, if you are into science journalism, I recommend going to Stanford or Berkeley. They have good programs, good people, and the bay area is a great place to get into the thick of things.

For instance John Markoff of the NYTimes lectures at both Stanford and Berkeley, lives in the bay area, and often covers science topics happening in the bay area.
posted by jchaw at 12:27 AM on September 23, 2009

Another four years of college isn't an option, so what would I need to do for grad programs to even consider me?

I don't understand the branch of mathematics that transforms two years of deficiency courses plus a graduate degree into less than four years.
posted by pwnguin at 12:33 AM on September 23, 2009

What would I need to do for grad programs to even consider me?

Well, a grad program in science is typically a Whole Lotta Lab. Would you like that?

Try it out by taking an intensive lab class. Quantitative Analysis (for chemistry) and Biotechnology (for molecular bio) or Intro to Microbiology (for microbio), for example, are all lower division lab-heavy classes with few pre-reqs where budding scientists learn lab techniques. You want to find out whether you like fiddling with the machines and doing very precise tasks with your hands, before you invest too much in pursuing the opportunity to do that (along with some critical thinking) for four years.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:36 AM on September 23, 2009

Data Point: Carl Zimmer, one of the most popular science writers out there, has a history degree. But he's a fantastic writer who has a deep understanding of biology.

The nice thing about the blog sphere is anyone can try being a journalist if they wan to. Read a bunch of stuff on Scienceblogs and try to start your own blog and see if anyone likes it.

But you will definitely have to be good at math to get into the sciences with a normal "science" job. And I don't think "Lab Tech" is a career most people aspire too. You would basically just doing experiments that other people think up. Imagine working in a hospital doing blood and urine tests every day, for example.

I think you would really need to go back to school. Some of your credits might transfer and you might be able to add a science degree at your old school in a few years. You will definitely need a lot of math to do real science. At least calculus and statistics, depending on what you want to do.

Also, consider the social sciences, like psychology or anthropology. I don't know what the job market is like in those fields, though. You shouldn't have much trouble getting a job in the real sciences, I would imagine.
posted by delmoi at 12:51 AM on September 23, 2009

And hey, one thing you ought to try is reading Molecular Biology of the Cell. It's a textbook. You can actually just buy a lot of these textbooks off and read them yourself. I'm not a biologist, but I felt like I was able to understand pretty much everything I read, and there isn't that much math in the main text, although you need it to do the problems.

And of course there are other sciences besides biology and chemistry, which are what most people think of when people with lab coats and Erlenmeyer flasks.

If I were in your position, I would go get a bunch of first-year textbooks in various scientific subjects. Like this book on chemistry or this book on physics (I haven't read either one, but they seem like basic texts college texts). You could also ask for recommendations on ask metafilter, which is where I got the idea to read the biology book.

Books like this are expensive, so you can see if you can find cheaper used versions and sell them when you're done. College textbooks are a racket.

If you can actually do the problems in these books, that's a good indication you might be cut out for a science carrier. And it will be a lot cheaper then going back to school right away.
posted by delmoi at 1:02 AM on September 23, 2009

I don't recommend it. I was very interested in the humanities out of high school, did engineering as an undergraduate, found it all to be tedious unless you have a clear focus beyond the degree if you'd like to survive (you have to realize 99% of the people around you are there for the money, professors know it and act accordingly), then went to science (p. chem) for graduate school.

You have to have a topic or general area of interest you wouldn't mind devoting your whole entire life to, because otherwise nobody will give a crap about anything you do (even then, they still don't give a crap about what you do); but I guess this is so with any path in life, but even more so in science. It's hellish in one way to begin with, satisfying in another way long down the road.

I'd recommend something else, perhaps with computers, software products and customer service oriented stuff, or science museum work, etc. Seems like more fun. Also, no way in hell would my I push children (mine or others) in the direction I've gone, that should tell you something, they're all better off just reading the textbooks anyway.

This's the advice of a stranger on the internet, though.
posted by peppito at 1:30 AM on September 23, 2009

I went from a liberal arts degree to an MS by way of AmeriCorps experience and a year of post-bacc classes. Now I'm almost done with my PhD. My advice for you is pretty similar to my advice for anyone preparing for grad school: prove you can do the coursework and prove you are passionate about the subdiscipline of science you want to spend the rest of your life in. As others have said, you can prove you can do the coursework by taking pre-reqs and doing well. What those courses are depends on what you're interested in.

To prove your passion, you've got to get into a lab (or the appropriate analogue) and do something. Once you're a post-bacc student, it's pretty easy to just volunteer in a lab at that school doing work you think is interesting. Volunteer work will lead to a paid job which could lead to some independent study research. Depending on the discipline you're interested in, AmeriCorps, volunteer work for a non-profit, or internships in government or industry might be valid places to develop your passion.

And if you haven't yet identified which area of science you're passionate about, do that first.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:05 AM on September 23, 2009

You are lacking two things: coursework and labwork. Honestly, if you are thinking "graduate school," the latter is most important. Since you have no experience, you're most apt to get into a lab by volunteering. Do a bunch of reading, find a lab is not tiny (i.e. is apt to have space and funding), and say you want to work for them. Take a lab class first, if you can, so that they do not have to waste time showing you how to pipette or measure things in graduated cylinders or whatever. You can look for paying lab tech jobs, but many of those will be taken by people who graduated with science degrees who are looking for more experience before grad school, and it will be hard to get one without any lab experience or science experience whatsoever.

You'll also be lacking courses. Yes, you'll need more math. Calculus, for sure. Depending on your field, other math (diff eq, stats, linear algebra, etc.) might be more or less important, if not necessarily required. OCW and self-study is good, but you would really benefit from real courses, and more than a few of them. Science PhDs include a year or two of courses at the beginning, but those generally assume you have a background in math and science already. You don't necessarily need another degree, but actually taking (rather than just auditing) the courses means you will have a transcript to show grad schools when you apply. If you do manage to get a lab tech job at an academic institution, many of those offer discounts or reimbursements on their courses, which would be a good deal for you.

Getting a master's may or may not really be plausible. In some fields (biochem, for example), the degree is awarded as a consolation prize for people giving up on their PhDs, and there are not that many decent terminal master's programs. You do not necessarily need that extra degree.

And I don't think "Lab Tech" is a career most people aspire too. You would basically just doing experiments that other people think up. Imagine working in a hospital doing blood and urine tests every day, for example.

That's partially too harsh, and partially simply incorrect. Yes, you can get lab tech ("research tech"/"research assistant"/etc.) jobs where you do no thinking. However, you have to actively seek them out, and then actively avoid thinking about further experiments while you're there. No grad student or postdoc likes to be a babysitter, and many/most lab techs are hoping for a science-related career, often a research career, and so they want to take the initiative anyway, to learn new techniques, to think of experiments, to potentially get published. Furthermore, there are science jobs that involve working in a lab without running your own lab. You may run an NMR facility, for example, or work in industry, or simply stick around in academia as a senior lab tech (or a lab tech with an upgraded title like "research associate.") These people and their jobs do exist, and the jobs are much, much more involved than running blood and urine tests every day.
posted by ubersturm at 6:35 AM on September 23, 2009

'The Sciences' is quite a broad term and you're really going to have to narrow down exactly what you want to do. It's really hard to give good advice when the careers you're talking about range from a mathematician sitting at a desk, to an Arctic researcher taking ice cores, to a psychologist interviewing subjects.

Also, as far as Science journalism goes, as someone in 'the sciences' I would not recommend it. As the journalists often don't have the strong grasp of statistics, proper experimental methodology, and what is currently happening in a particular field, they cannot properly report the scientific findings. Ultimately this hurts science. leading to the public having a very skewed view of what science is. The certainly are exceptions, such as Carl Zimmer, but they are rare.

That said, I do know someone currently doing a graduate degree with a philosophy undergrad. He spent all his life in the field naturalist's club in town, and is one of the best naturalists I know. Through this club he knew a professor who does bird ecology research. Because of their prior relationship the professor was willing to take him on as a grad student, but only because of his demonstrable, vast, self talk knowledge. I realize this isn't a likely path for you to take, but I think is shows how hard this switch you are attempting is, without an actual science degree.

Good luck.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:51 AM on September 23, 2009

I'm sorry. Unless you're willing to devote the better part of a decade to this, at crappy pay no less, becoming a researcher just isn't in your cards. It took me nine years (uni, grad, post-doc) to get myself to a level where I could get a research job, and that's pretty typical. There are prodigies and exceptions, but they're exceedingly rare in science, unlike other fields. The barriers to entry are high indeed.

That said, there's lots of science-related work that you could do without that long apprenticeship. Journalism has been mentioned. There are support roles too, admin and coordination mostly. More interesting to you might be policy work, which is largely governmental, but there's a significant amount in the non-profit sector too: NGOs and think tanks. Policy and regulatory work involves making decisions about situations using science and technical information, while not directly being involved in generating it. You would be informed by science, using that information to affect society, making decisions, sometimes quite contentious and important ones.

If that sounds good to you, there are some basic tools you need to have. You need to like (or at least be not bored by) attention to detail. Science in inherently reductionist, and requires that even in the decision makers and the journalists who use it (It's lack is one of the worst failings of science journalism). The key tool isn't so much pure math (though understanding calculus and differential equations will stand you in good stead), but it's cousin statistics. You should, in any science-related career, know what an analysis of variance means, why model choice is important and how to interpret p-values.

Being able to write and communicate should be one of your strengths. That's a valuable skill and worth exploiting. People who can write clearly about technical issues are very dear. If that's a niche you can fill, you could build a very nice career with that skill set.

It remains an unfortunate truth that credibility for even a policy-type job will probably require a BSc at minimum. It is possible to get one in two to three years if you have credits to transfer and you take an accelerated program. Any decent degree will require in-person attendance, mostly for the practical lab work. I've never seen a distance-learning science degree that was worth a toss. I'd say you're looking at a 2-, more realistically 3-year transition period.
posted by bonehead at 7:45 AM on September 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all, every answer has been incredibly helpful!

I guess the scientists I've met through work have all been part of a self-selected group, since they're all volunteering as editors for an open-access journal, and are well in to their careers at this point - this naturally led to a pretty rosy picture of what a life in science is like (they give you your own lab after you get a phd, right?). I've spoken to a few of them about this, and was surprised when some of them said, 'Well, are you thirty yet? No? Then you've got a head start on me', but clearly it isn't that simple.

In my opinion, any AskMeFi post which results in the poster heading over to Abebooks and blowing money on textbooks is a very successful post indeed. Thanks for all your help!
posted by domakesaypat at 9:16 AM on September 23, 2009

Best answer: Hey, I had what was essentially your trajectory and asked a similar question in 2007. Graduated with a BA before realizing I wanted to be a doctor. I hadn't taken a science course since high school and I loathed math.

I ended up enrolling in a 1-year post-baccalaureate premedical program, a variant of which you may want to consider if you're interested in kickstarting your career in the sciences. In twelve months I completed 38 credits of inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, biology, and physiology. Right now I'm applying to medical school, so it's going to be another few months before I can give you a definitive answer on whether or not this track works.

My general experience has been that yes, a background in the humanities can have good benefits in science, especially when it comes to analytical thinking, synthesis, and multidisciplinary work. On the other hand, you're also at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to quantitative (and sometimes general study) skills. The two hardest things for me were learning to appreciate and understand math and learning how to study. My BA did not require me to sit down and analyze reaction mechanisms for eight hours a week; my post-bac did.

Long story short, I'd definitely say that it's worth it. You gain a new appreciation and understanding for the world around you and become a much more well-rounded person. Once you get the post-bac and some labwork under your belt, you'll find yourself in a better positon to enter into an MS or PhD program. MeMail me if you'd like to know anything else about post-bac programs. I'd be happy to answer any questions.
posted by The White Hat at 2:03 PM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I guess the scientists I've met through work have all been part of a self-selected group, since they're all volunteering as editors for an open-access journal, and are well in to their careers at this point - this naturally led to a pretty rosy picture of what a life in science is like (they give you your own lab after you get a phd, right?).

You're working at a Public Journal? Cripes, you didn't mention that.

Stay with that, especially if they're paying you. Take some 1st year physics, chemistry, biology, geology, or etc. evening classes at your local university (most offer them) and see if you can do better than a C in any of them, go with the one that you do best in and find an emphasis. If nothing works out, stay with the journal job(s) - it's probably where you'd end up anyway or close to it, even after 6-8 years in science.

Or do the M.D. thing the guy above this comment mentioned, it's really one of the most versatile degree out there, if you can get in to the extremely tiny pool of people they accept.
posted by peppito at 2:44 PM on September 23, 2009

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