How can I go about this career change into science?
February 19, 2010 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Used to be a science geek, left it behind long ago, really wish I hadn't. Want to change careers. Need advice.

Here's the basics: I was totally invested in math/science years back in high school. I loved it, and planned on going either medical/academic/engineering as a career path. However, I was also extremely ADD. Shocked by the realization in my first semester of college that I'd have to actually work hard to go into science (I had coasted by on general smarts before then), I had a bit of a breakdown and turned completely away from science. Got a relatively useless undergrad degree, then went to law school a year later because I didn't know what else to do with myself.

After law school, I found myself unable to find a good legal job. Mainly worked doing document review, and eventually some project management for document review. I was never happy in my work.

Years later: I'm 34, tons of school debt left from law school, unfulfilled and unhappy. I recently had aptitude testing done, hoping for some help with direction. The results were unsurprising to me: jobs that would make me happiest and utilize my talents are jobs in scientific research, medicine, engineering, and (adult) teaching (in those areas). This, combined with my long-overdue treatment for ADD (almost 20 years overdue...), has made me really want to go back into one of these fields.

The Question: is there a viable path for me? Obviously I'd have to narrow the focus down to something specific (I have some ideas, but I need to think on it more). But let's say I'm interested in getting a PhD (or even just a Master's) in biochemistry or microbiology. I do not have the undergrad requirements to get into a postgrad program now (not enough science and math), AND I'm currently unemployed with no desire to go back to practicing law, which was killing me inside (for the record, I also would really like to avoid any service or sales industry jobs). So, what's my first step? What's my second? Are there entry-level jobs or jobs that only require a minimal amount of training that I can start on in the meantime?
posted by Gaz Errant to Work & Money (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You should definitely check out this askme, if you haven't already. (She is now in grad school, doing biology!)
posted by rtha at 3:52 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I worked in a med school lab straight out of high school. I'd suggest you think about what sort of work you're interested in doing and then contacting researchers. Good luck!
posted by lukemeister at 3:54 PM on February 19, 2010

rtha, Thanks! I'd forgotten about that awesome thread.
posted by lukemeister at 3:55 PM on February 19, 2010

Response by poster: rtha, thanks for that link! Didn't find that askme when I searched before posting.
posted by Gaz Errant at 4:05 PM on February 19, 2010

What about a university lab tech job? I imagine that many are tedious, but you might get lucky. I know two people who worked on the telescopes on Mauna Kea, which is pretty sexy (and one of whom, interestingly, is now a lawyer). Tedious or not, it might be a way to ease back into the academy, and it'd also give you a chance to get to know the faculty, which might help in getting tuition waivers when the time comes. Another nice thing: most universities (those that I've had experience with, anyhow) have a single place where they post job openings. Start trolling those websites and you might find something.
posted by lex mercatoria at 5:19 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into what kind of jobs there are in the patent offices? With your law background and a strong aptitude for science and engineering there should be things you can do. It might not be sciencey enough for you, but will likely pay better than going back to school and starting from scratch.
posted by shelleycat at 7:01 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

You have a law background/degree but are more interested in science.

Have you considered learning enough science to do law about science, rather than abandoning law and only doing science? Most people doing IP law start in science (mostly with a MSc) then get a law degree.

34 isn't traditional but it's by no means a barrier to entering a graduate program in the sciences. The trick here, is to apply to specific principle investigators (PIs) - a potential supervisor - rather than specific programs.

Right now, science funding sucks and less potential PIs have money to support a grad student, university department funding has been downsized to either less students or less per student, and regional/federal funding has been cut/moratorium-ed so you have to be a better candidate (and with a better PI) in order to get the funding than before.

But if a PI says that they can afford to fund you, actually getting into the program is a mere formality. Funding is key. If somehow you managed to get outside funding - you essentially get to choose which lab you get to join.

Do you want to stay in your current city, or do you have a burning interest in a particular topic? It sounds like you're generally interested in "Science!" ... rather than have an idea about a particular research question.

It's going to help to NARROW that down. Figure out what you're interested in - whether it's ecology of cane toads in Australia to how triple-copy numbers of DSCam contributes to Downs Syndrom, in relation to the triple copy numbers of everything else on chromosome 21 to how evolving telecommunications technology is contributing to copyright infringement.

Once you've got that figured out, google nearby (if you want/need to stay in the area) universities with searchwords that you're interested in. Universities have faculty webpages (depending on U and the faculty member in question, useful to just plain horrid) and maybe try to hit up people doing stuff that is interesting to you and present yourself, your situation, and your skillset to them and see if they'd be willing/able to take you in.

In the biological sciences, PubMed is the clearinghouse and search central for publications. If there is something specific that you're interested in researching, search for it in pubmed in order to see who's publishing studies about that subject. Cold call those labs to see if they would be willing to take you in as a grad student.

Good luck!
posted by porpoise at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2010

Many of the engineers at my company started out as technicians at my company, a much lower education hurdle to achieve. From there you may be able to take advantage of education reimbursement programs that a company has.
posted by garlic at 6:35 AM on February 20, 2010

I am going to suggest a career that can build on your skill sets and will probably pay more than most entry level jobs (and certainly more than a lab tech): writing continuing law education material. I am also going to nth the suggestion above for patent law – a friend of mine does this as a job because it allows him to use his science background, but for you if they let you do an area in science it may keep that part of you happy.

Also, once you narrow down your area of interest, I would highly suggest that you volunteer in a lab (or a part time paid position), even if only a few hours a week. This experience may help you further define what you want out of more science education because you will use the research techniques, be introduced to the science literature, and have an opportunity to interact with grad students and the PI to find more interesting material. If you decide that you want to volunteer or work part time in a lab, here are suggestions from one of my earlier posts as to how to find a position to work or volunteer in a lab. Random thought, maybe you could build on your law expertise and add science to it. What about forensics, for example?

Please don’t think that I’m jerk for raising another question: are you sure that you want this, new degree, too? The other degrees did not equal happiness and now you want a PhD? I’m saying this a person who has a life-long love with science and got a PhD – the research itself does not equal the content. You already have an advanced degree that may help you get into other places, so undergrad classes plus 5 or more years that it takes to get a PhD seems tough.
posted by Wolfster at 11:20 AM on February 20, 2010

Response by poster: For those of you suggesting patent law as a possibility, I appreciate the sentiment, but generally patent law positions require you to ALREADY have the science/technical degree, not just an interest in science or tech areas. So that's not really an option for me right now.

And Wolfster, I'm pretty sure that I want this new degree - the other degrees did not equal happiness because they put me on a direction I could not find fulfilling considering my mindset. If you can think of a way I can work in science/engineering/medicine and actually advance (I'm not talking about being a lab tech the rest of my life), then I'm all ears.
posted by Gaz Errant at 1:09 PM on February 20, 2010

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