Changing fields and schooling? Which comes first?
December 1, 2010 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I want to pursue microbiology but I'm not a science major. I'm 25 now and I just took my GRE in Nov. I'm working on my personal statement for grad school. I've had very little experience in labs...would it make more sense to get working experience first before school?

I'm 25 years old. I spent the past 3 years working legal jobs which were just to make money because I didn't know my next step.

Now I am sure that I want to pursue a career as microbiologist. I didn't pursue biology in undergrad due to familial pressures to prepare myself for law. My undergrad degree is for International Relations. I would need to go to grad school knowing practically next to nothing (relative to science undergrads) about the field which I want to work in. I've had a 3 month fellowship as a lab tech in a cancer research lab and have only taken one class in cell biology this past summer. I took the GRE Nov 20 and did fine, if a little lacking in the quant. score.

My question is...what's the best way to break into the field? Do I try to get more experience as a lab tech at a big company before going back to school or do I suck it up now and make sure my apps are in before Jan 1 2011? It would mean full time schooling for the next 2 years, or more, considering I need to get myself caught up on prereqs.

Has anyone been in my shoes? Advice? Dissuasion?
posted by apfel to Work & Money (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
No, they understand non-traditional applicants. What they don't want is lab techs from the family practitioner down the street. The divide between non-science and science is not as wide as between non-academic and academic.

In any decent Micro program, you'll learn more actual lab technique in the first semester than a year of smearing blood on slides for a lab company. If you can't get in, consider doing a post-bacc program at the school, take Medical Micro and some Bacteriology. Then try again, you'll cruise in.
posted by joedanger at 1:03 PM on December 1, 2010

Why are you sure that you want to be a microbiologist? What is it about the organisms, the work, the phenomena that draws you? Between working in a cancer research lab and taking a class in cell biology, it doesn't sound like you have a strong basis for this surety.

Having recently finished a Ph.D. in Microbiology, I have to tell you that until you get serious lab experience, you are in not competitive for any halfway decent graduate program right now. Graduate committees will wonder why on earth you're applying when you have no idea what it is like to actually DO science, and won't waste their funding on you. They look for significant direction in personal statements -- not just "I want to be a microbiologist because bugs are cool," but "I'm fascinated by multicellular behaviors and really want to look at how they contribute to X phenomena, which is clearly a major gap in the study of multicellular behavior -- and hey, your department has faculty members A B and C who would be fantastic advisors on this project." You don't sound like you're there yet.

I think the best thing for you to do is to find a university microbiology research lab to start working in, as a technician. This may be difficult, given your lack of experience, and the pay will be terrible (maybe around $28K-$32K). Take a year or two to learn what it means to actually do science on a daily basis, and to learn what's going on in the field of microbiology. Use fee remission to take classes to get up to speed in the field. Getting your name on a paper or two will do a lot to counteract your IR degree, which is absolutely going to count against you. Figure out what specific subtopics appeal to you. Then apply to graduate schools in a specific and targeted manner, having identified programs that have faculty members that are actively publishing work in the same subarea that you find interesting.

I don't mean to sound discouraging, at all. If you truly have a passion for this, I encourage you to follow that. But you're not ready to start graduate school right now, and the only ones who would accept you are not going to be worthwhile programs.
posted by amelioration at 1:05 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I realized how harsh my comment sounds, but it really is coming from experience. I graduated from college with a Biology degree. Unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, I spent a couple of years running a coffee shop. About a year and a bit into that, I realized how much I missed doing science, and I applied to graduate school (with a very fuzzy personal statement, since I had no real idea of what I wanted to study). And I was SHOT DOWN. So I got a job in a research lab, got my name on papers, figured out what I really wanted to work on, identified schools strong in that subfield, and reapplied. And that second time, I got all acceptances.
posted by amelioration at 1:09 PM on December 1, 2010

Response by poster: These answers couldn't be more different.

Amelioration: This is the kind of advice I'd like to see but perhaps I was a little vague in my question. My problem is precisely that I have not been schooled in biology, my knowledge comes from the reading I've done on my own. It isn't completely novice, but my fears are exactly what you've outlined here. Would any recent grad be able to give such specific answers or would the fact that this grad would have lab experience already make up for real world experience?

It's hard to 'discover' a passion in a field that is so insular.

Joedanger: What do you do in your field? I've heard of non-majors being accepted into science programs but I haven't actually spoken to anyone like that to find out how exactly they got in.

This is a major issue because I don't want to waste time and/or money. My job is dead end and I live with two increasingly disappointed parents. It's affecting my health mentally and physically. I'd like to have a career instead of just 'jobs'.
posted by apfel at 1:30 PM on December 1, 2010

I'm going to be cautiously encouraging, but, if you want to pursue this, you've got a longer journey ahead of you than applying for January 1 2011.

My background: My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics; I took no science courses in college and no biology courses in high school. Also, my undergraduate career was a mess and my GPA was less than 3.0, the minimum for all the PhD programs I applied to. I'm now a (gulp!) 4th-year in a top-10(ish) Biology PhD program.

You do not have a science background. You do not have a degree in the STEM fields. You do not have (much) lab experience. It's not clear what your coursework background is, but you may be deficient in that, too.

You can GET any or all of these, if you really want to do this. In addition, accumulating the background necessary to apply may help steer you towards related careers which may or may not suit you better.

You will absolutely, positively need 1) more research experience and 2) demonstrated background knowledge. IFF you can convince people -- with documentary evidence, not just "potential" -- that you can do research, that you understand what research entails, and that you have the necessary background knowledge to keep up, then the more non-trad aspects of your application become less important. But you *are* going to have to convince a committee of people that an International Relations major who'd been working in Law is a good bet for a $quarter-million++ investment.

Personally, I completed the necessary undergraduate science coursework in a post-bacc premed program, THEN I built my research credibility through an open-enrollment Masters Degree, and THEN I was successful in my PhD applications at the level I was aiming for. (I also killed the Biology GRE, which I was told helped.)

Since you have some lab experience already, you may be a better candidate for getting employment in a research environment, which is a great way to build up that research experience.

I would suggest seeing if you can contact either your former research supervisor, your cell bio prof, or other mentors who have a sense of your strengths and may be able to guide you.

I would suggest that applications for this application round would be hasty.

The bottom line is, that admissions are getting more competitive. This year's first-years scare the bejayzus out of me. You are not, currently, as competitive as YOU could be; therefore, you will not get into the best programs that YOU can get into (if any at all.) There is, however, no reason you cannot BECOME as competitive as you can be.
posted by endless_forms at 1:34 PM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

1. Most 'science' grad programs will not care about what your undergrad degree was in, but they will want to see that you have the undergraduate science classes that are prerequisites for their graduate curriculum. It looks like you might need more microbiology/biology/chemistry classes (but not necessarily a degree in this area) to be competitive for admission. Here you should identify the sorts of grad programs you want to go to, look at their graduate curriculum, and figure out what undergraduate classes are prerequisites for these. I'm guessing that organic chemistry and genetics are classes that you may not have had and may need as a graduate student in microbiology, but this is not my sub-field of science.

2. The best possible thing you can do to get into grad school is publish in microbiology journals. The best way to do this is to work in an academic microbiology lab. The next best thing is working for a biotech or phramacuetical company. Working in a 'hospital' type lab doing the gruntwork of medical diagnosis will probably not help you. Those are service labs, not research labs. You want to be doing research.
posted by u2604ab at 1:36 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's the lab experience. Specifically, research experience. Not the experience that comes from taking lab classes -- that won't do it. I don't know anyone from my program who hadn't done significant undergraduate research, and I don't know of any of my former students who have gone on to graduate school without it.

I really disagree with joedanger about the experience you get as a first year grad student compared to what you'll get by working as a lab tech at a university (not just a quality control kind of job like he describes). You need to have decent mastery of basic molecular biology and biochemical techniques before you get to grad school. First year rotation projects are typically things like "make a mutation in this gene," which you simply aren't going to be able to do if you don't already have PCR mastered. Graduate school teaches you how to ask good questions, but it doesn't really teach you how to do the techniques required to answer them (you do that yourself if you need to learn something new). It will be disheartening to go in underprepared. First year coursework will depend on advanced undergraduate courses. As I said, I was a Biology major, but I focused on plant population genetics as an undergrad. I had, essentially, half of a micro course. When I had to take a grad level molecular genetics course, I had to work my ass off to barely keep up. It honestly wasn't until I taught the class myself, years later, that I truly "got" it.

I understand your frustration, absolutely, and your desire to have a career instead of just 'jobs.' But you need to do some serious work in being able to explain why, exactly, you want that career to be in science. Can you tell me, here, in this low-stakes environment?
posted by amelioration at 1:40 PM on December 1, 2010

Having read your update, I have two points:

1. I also suggest getting the heck out of your parents' house. I have a good relationship with my parents, but they were very skeptical of my plans, and dealing with that skepticism on a daily basis would have made the entire process much harder. (Now they're proud. . . )

2. I'm not sure what you mean about specific answers and "real world" experience. From an academic perspective, lab experience *is* the real world experience they want.
posted by endless_forms at 1:42 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most important thing when applying to grad school, in my experience, is good references. A 3 month followship as your only science experience is pretty thin, but if your supervisor at that position can give you a good endorsement it will maybe help convince a potential supervisor to take a flyer on you.

I think your lack of undergrad bio coursework is going to be your biggest problem. It's one thing to convince a prof that you've got what it takes to work in their lab. But do you have what it takes to complete the graduate coursework? If it's going to take you a bunch of tries to get your courses done, it will take away from your time doing research, and profs hate anything that takes time away from doing research.

You don't say in your question whether you've talked to any profs at schools you're thinking of applying to. If you haven't, this should be your #1 priority (it can be hard to get a hold of them. You must keep trying). They will give you honest advice on what it will take to get a position in their lab, and they'll tell you if you don't have a shot in hell.

Finally, if I were in your shoes, I wouldn't be applying to grad school right now. I would be trying to find work as a junior research assistant (or whatever) at your nearest bio department, and start catching up on coursework on the side. Then in a year or two, you'll have the lab experience and the coursework to get into a good program. And if this really is the career you want, a bit of a delay won't be the end of the world.
posted by auto-correct at 1:43 PM on December 1, 2010

I am finishing my PhD in Ecology from one of the best schools to do such a thing after getting an undergraduate degree in a mostly unrelated thing. How I got here:

-Strong interest and volunteering as an undergrad
-A really high GPA in my (mostly unrelated) bachelor's degree
-AmeriCorps experience related to my area of interest that helped figure out exactly what I wanted to study and taught me a lot about working in the field (not as relevant for micro, obviously, but not unlike getting a job in a lab for a year)
-A year taking pre-reqs which included acing organic chemistry and some upper level bio classes
-Awesome GREs
-A fully funded master's degree with an amazing advisor who recognized all of the above as qualifications (and still was probably taking a chance by admitting me)

I graduated from college in 1999 and will (presumably) have my PhD this spring. You are not signing on for a short or easy road, but it is definitely doable.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:55 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are things you are going to need to know that you probably don't know. Back filling those gaps in your undergraduate experience would be highly useful. Working as a lab tech at most universities will allow you to do that for greatly reduced tuition.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:53 PM on December 1, 2010

I am not in bio, so grain of salt-- but it sounds to me like your application right now would have zero chance (unless you're leaving out some details). You are probably a terrific interesting person, but if you don't have core undergraduate science courses completed, programs will look at your application and think "this applicant is not ready for our first year graduate courses", and they will give their (precious) spot to someone who has had those core undergraduate courses.

Graduate admissions (for most heavy academic fields) is very very different from undergraduate admissions - they are mainly interested in people who already know their stuff and have the best chance of making it through the program. They don't care about life experiences outside the field, they don't care about "building a well rounded class" except as a late-round tie-breaker among people who are already rock-solid on the basics.

Good letters and lab experience are great to boost an already-adequate application.
But it sounds like yours is not adequate yet. Adequate means documented competency -- having transcripts that show you have taken and done well in at least most of the core undergraduate science courses they require. (Again, maybe there is something you're leaving out here. And this is no criticism of you personally at all! It is just that the admissions process seeks people who are already well qualified, in most cases they do not want people who "could get up to speed".)

Figure out what the core courses are that they need you to have taken. (Look on their websites to see about prereqs or admissions requirements. Email their departments' directors of admissions and ask what the expectations are for undergrad science courses. You could even email the bio department at your undergraduate alma mater and ask them what they advise students who are bound for grad school in this field.)
Find a way to take those courses.

Don't be discouraged - I have a friend who changed careers at your age, from a humanities major. Went back to undergrad for a post-baccalaureate science degree so she could go to vet school. She loved it, worked hard and never looked back.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:22 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some great advice here, particular from amelioration.

If you haven't worked in a science lab, then you don't really have a good grasp of what it's like to be a researcher. Learning about science and doing science are two very different things. Get some experience first, not just because it's a prerequisite for successful admission, but because you can't really know if you want to be a researcher until you've tried it. It's not for everyone.

It's hard to 'discover' a passion in a field that is so insular.

This is a red flag for me. If you don't have a specific interest or passion in the field, then you're not reading nearly enough about it.
posted by dephlogisticated at 6:41 PM on December 1, 2010

Yeah, I'm working on a PhD in ecology. To stand a realistic chance at a school worth attending, you need to have significant research experience (at least a year, two would be better) in the subfield you wish to pursue.
posted by zug at 6:43 PM on December 1, 2010

I agree with the above. It's not unrealistic to pursue this, but (I'm sorry) you may not be nearly as sure as you think you are right now, and you've got a lot more ground work to lay than you think you do.

I would strongly recommend 1-2 years of work as a lab tech in a lab at an academic center with a microbiology researcher (with the goal of getting some authorship on publications), and completion of some form of post-bach training in science.
posted by drpynchon at 10:38 PM on December 1, 2010

Microbiology is a big jump from international relations, especially if there is a limited science background. One bio class and 3 months of lab tech time is usually not going to be seen as equivalent to a solid, formal training in the sciences. I agree with drpynchon that some post-BA science courses (namely, chemistry and biology) and lab work would be helpful.

This next part doesn't directly answer your question, but have you looked into other science fields that have a (slightly) lower bar to admission? Epidemiology, some ecology and environmental health/science, and conservation biology all spring to mind as grad level programs that may not necessarily have the expectation that all matriculating students have had two years of chem and bio, and often include lab methods courses and the like.

(Anecdata: I graduated at age 26 with a high GPA for a BA in anthropology from a meh school. I had a few science classes (Inorganic chem, cell bio, intro to microbio, 1-2 others I'm forgetting) and a year of research assistantship in a molecular medical genetics lab. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science, but was dissuaded from fields like microbiology and genetics due to the high bar for admission, and not wanting to do post-BA studies. I am now a funded dual-Master's student at a good school in epidemiology and ecology, and my advisor is currently poking me with sharpened sticks to pursue a PhD in one or the other of those fields.

In other words, some careers/degrees in science are more easily attainable for those who don't want to basically take a 2nd Bachelor's to catch up on the missing background info.)
posted by palindromic at 7:00 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think you really want a PhD. I think you want to feel like your life is going somewhere and you want to feel like you're going somewhere, which is totally normal and okay.

Can you take classes at the local community college in career-oriented things until you figure out what you really want to do? You aren't in the best position to make a PhD commitment because you're depressed about what you're doing and depressed about what you think your parents (who you live with) think of you. And, at 25, it's only been 3 or 4 years since you left school.

Keep working, keep saving up, and take more classes and research careers that don't require a PhD in Microbiology. You're in the same spot that tons and tons of other people are in, even the people who have PhDs.
posted by anniecat at 1:48 PM on December 2, 2010

but they were very skeptical of my plans, and dealing with that skepticism on a daily basis would have made the entire process much harder. (Now they're proud. . . )

Seriously, this is so true. I remember how when I was doing a master's at a prestigious school and I thought I was hot stuff, my parents were making long distance calls to me every week and sending emails with panic in their voices (because nearly everyone with our background in India has a master's degree or PhD and a number of the women of my mom's very educated generation basically became housewives and never put their degrees to use, so I think they thought my doing the master's was a way of signalling that I was ready to get an arranged marriage) telling me how important it was that I get married immediately. It killed me that they were being anxious about my future when I thought I was doing well and I couldn't help but think they were being crazy and old fashioned. Of course, I had a bunch of career disappointments, and I never became the Intl Dev superstar I envisioned at 20, so I feel embarrassed in retrospect for not being more anxious and thinking they were backwards. My point is: Parents are theoretically supposed to be supportive, but they can overempathize and then you end up feeling worse about it and feeling worse about yourself when you don't reach all the high/unrealistic goals you set for yourself.

Moving out may be the only way for you to take time and assess yourself and make realistic decisions. Because if they expected you to go from college to Harvard Law to BigLaw, they are pretty much stuck in some EasyStreet FantasyLand where they probably think you're being stubborn and you're worried they think you're a loser and you worry that without a PhD that maybe you are a loser. But a PhD won't redeem you from feeling bad. Careers take time to build and patience, and confidence. A PhD doesn't translate into a career on its own. You have to figure out how you want to use that PhD in the real world.
posted by anniecat at 2:01 PM on December 2, 2010

Response by poster: I didn't expect so many responses. Thank you everyone who posted. To those of you who say that your advice "seems harsh" or "sorry, but", it's not. It's just want I need to hear. Some serious, experienced advice.

The problem is that no one in my family has any higher degree than Bachelors. My dad went to a technical school and has worked as a carpenter his life and to top it off doesn't understand admissions/school system here in the US (we are from the old Yugoslavia).

To anniecat who said:

"they are pretty much stuck in some EasyStreet FantasyLand where they probably think you're being stubborn and you're worried they think you're a loser and you worry that without a PhD that maybe you are a loser. "

That's exactly it. They make me feel too old to be going back to school but still want me to do it. Growing up I had wanted to do a few things but those were all severely shot down as being unrealistic, stupid, or too low paying.

I guess I should explain that I want to go into microbiology because it is a field with more a greater diversity of applications in both industry and academic, than say a field that is pretty much restricted to academic research. I don't want to just get a 2nd bachelors because it's incredibly expensive and I really don't want to heap on more debt. But why Micro? Well, I have been fascinated by quorum sensing in bacteria, and generally pathogenicity...but I understand (even before I wrote this question) that that isn't a basis for specialized schooling.

I thought that getting a MA or MS is the next step and that I'd learn a lot of the skills I'd need and fill in my lacking background knowledge during the program. A family friend with PhD in Biomedical Engineering has been encouraging me to apply, but I really don't feel ready.

I've been searching for work as a lab tech, hopefully my few skills in cell culturing and the assays I know to do will be enough to get my foot in the door so I can pick up more skills. I'm doubting everything now though, I'd like to work in biology but not sure what.

Thank you everyone, it's good to hear advice from people who've done what I want to do.
posted by apfel at 5:49 AM on December 3, 2010

If you want to talk over your options with someone who understands the field, maybe try to get in touch with someone from the bio department of your undergrad. I'm sure they would be happy to email/talk with you a bit about what your next steps should be.

Just tell them you are a recent alum (I know it may feel like a long time since you were in school but it will seem recent to them!) and you've discovered a late passion for the particular issues in micro that you mentioned here. Tell them you have a few specific questions you're wondering if they could help with:
-ask if your plan to get up to speed and then apply for PhD programs is a good plan or if they would recommend something different
-ask what courses they would advise a student to take to go to grad school in this area,
-ask them if a "terminal masters" (that is, a master's that does not lead automatically into a PhD) would be helpful or if you should pick up the undergrad courses one by one somewhere,
-ask what schools' programs they would suggest looking at for the eventual PhD (just so you can start narrowing to maybe 5 places)
-ask if they have other advice.
Then graciously thank them for their time.

They will almost certainly be happy to help.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:03 PM on December 3, 2010

Getting What You Came For is a useful book about grad school; you might see if your local library has a copy you can look through as you think about your next steps.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:05 PM on December 3, 2010

And about terminal master's programs -- find out what the funding situation is like. For PhD programs, you would be paid to attend (you might work in a lab or teach courses to earn your pay, but you will not be paying the tuition). For terminal master's, you might be paying tuition -- which would probably be more expensive than picking up say 6 core science courses one at a time at your local public university. Check the costs of these options.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:08 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks LobsterMitten, def will check out that book. And yes, I have put feelers out to various students in programs to see what they say...
posted by apfel at 3:41 PM on December 4, 2010

Sorry, should have followed up. I'm at the end of a Masters' in Bioinformatics. I work for a British company that's opening a branch here in the US. I also advise a passel of undergraduates and post-bacc students.
posted by joedanger at 1:19 PM on December 8, 2010

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