Wake up call
May 16, 2005 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever heard of somebody going back to do an undergrad degree in science after doing an unrelated degree in something completely unrelated to science? And being successful or satisfied with their choice?

4 year business degree, hated it. Thought about journalism, teaching, but knew I wouldn't be satisfied because it lacked the structure and/or intellectual stimulation I wanted. Currently on my desk is an acceptance to law school, an acceptance to a program that would qualify me to be a government economist, and the opportunity to pursue a Chartered Accountant designation. But what I reeeally want to do is scientific research somehow related to medicine. I will be 27 this summer and am seriously considering going back to school and starting all over, trying to get a phd or get into med school. Is this retarded? Am I crazy? Has this ever been done? And no, this isn't a spur of the moment knee jerk reaction, its the end of a long process of self-examination and informational interviews with people in all of the above-mentioned professions. Thanks!
posted by Idiot Mittens to Work & Money (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
i made the decision you are weighing around a year ago, in favor of returning to school.

I have a degree in film/video/sound, but after three years in my chosen field (with a terrific job) I realized that I would not be happy running a recording studio my whole life. Another great love (and what I actually was admitted to college for in the first place, before a major change) is engineering.

I checked out my options, and the best one involved two years of night schoool at a JC, followed by standard application to the schools of my choice. Whether they take me or not is up to them, of course, as those like us who are undergoing a complete field-change must apply along with the fresh high-school grads.

The main thing to remember is that you're in for a hell of a lot of school, especially if you're headed to the sciences. One year into my night school, though, and I am top of most of my classes, feeling quite secure in the knowledge that real-life experience puts me head and shoulders above new 18-year-old freshmen.

Yes, it can be done. But you will only be accepted at schools who feel you are on a one-way track to your new career goal, and most likely will demand proof that you will apply yourself and succeed spectacularly. They have to have a reason, in most cases, to turn down a freshman for admission to make room for an aging flip-flopper. Prove to them that you rock--but above all else prove to yourself that you will first.
posted by plexiwatt at 2:51 PM on May 16, 2005

A friend of mine, at aboout your age, went back to school to get a (second) Bachelor's degree in Geology. (I think his first BA was in History).

He has recently completed a Master's in Geology, and is applying to PhD programs.

And he loves it, as far as I know.

Mostly, it seems to take dedication, and a willingness to spend the next X years living off student loans...
posted by dersins at 2:51 PM on May 16, 2005

I don't know if it'll work out for you but I'm in the same situation. I graduated with a BA in Philosophy from a small liberal arts school 7 years ago, and just started at a large state school to get a BA (or BS...) in Biology. Half time right now and in the summer, starting full time in the fall. Going to probably be a three year journey to the degree at which point I'll be 33. After that, an MS looks like the next goal which will make me 35 or 36 before on to a PhD or deciding it's time to stop.

I don't know if it'll go according to plan or if I'll be happy with my decision in three years but right now, I'm psyched about it. For me, the two degrees are not that different, it was the biology that lead to philosophy that always interested me. I'm not interested in getting a masters in philosophy, but this almost seems just as credible to me.

If you need a word of encouragement, and you have the money to do it. Go do it!
posted by pwb503 at 2:52 PM on May 16, 2005

It's not crazy if it's what you want to do (it's only crazy if you want to make lots of money). I suggest chemistry because it covers everything (chemistry is the study of matter) and they pay you to go to grad school (about $20K and free tuition, depends on the school). You will need to be able to pass some chemistry entrance exams (varies by school) so you may have to take some undergrad classes. I have seen biology, zoology, math and physics undergrad majors go directly into chemistry. Lots of medical research in chemistry departments, I am a physical chemist but am currently studying the prion protein (mad cow disease) and previously worked on hemoglobin. Labs around me are studying Alzheimer, etc. Send me an email, I may be able to put you in touch with some looking for a grad student.
posted by 445supermag at 3:01 PM on May 16, 2005

Yup, been there. Half a quarter short of a BA in German Lit at Penn State, I left the program in 1980.

In 1996, I started at Georgia Tech and 4 years later at the age of 42, I had a BS with honors in Computer Science.

By then as well, I had had a heart attack and a 4x bypass during my junior year, and in 2004 yet another heart surgery that left me disabled.

Moral of the story: Do it now! Tomorrow may be too late. ;-P
posted by mischief at 3:06 PM on May 16, 2005

My sister did it. Graduated with a BA in Econ/Political Science, and a few years later started a post-bac program in the hard sciences that got her into Med School after considerable reflection on her goals and aspirations for herself. She did it at right around your age, too. I know somebody else who had advanced engineering degrees and worked for NASA for a while, who went back to school to become a cardiac surgeon (which he is now doing). So, no, it isn't crazy and yes, it can be done. If anything it seems Med Schools kind of like people coming in from other disciplines (as long as you have the science requirements taken care of), and who are a bit more matured than the straight-out-of-college-I'm-gonna-be-a-Doctor-dammit types.

There doesn't seem to be any point in getting another undergrad degree, though. If an MD isn't what you're interested in, you can speak to people at universities who have post-bac programs for just the kind of situation you're in, they can tell you what you need to do to qualify for entry into Master's degree program in the science of your choice. If you had been accepted into those other programs, you're probably no slouch as a student and they would see that right away. Good luck to you.

And...FWIW...my sister's getting her MD in 4 days, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel, for sure.
posted by contessa at 3:12 PM on May 16, 2005

If your age is causing you to hesitate forget that thought. I went back to get my JD at 34 and I have an uncle who went back for his MD at 37. At 27 you could go after your MD and still have a 30+ year career. If you don't see a happy career future from where you are sitting now I think you would be a fool not to go for it. Best of luck.
posted by Carbolic at 3:15 PM on May 16, 2005

I will be 27 this summer and am seriously considering going back to school and starting all over, trying to get a phd or get into med school. Is this retarded? Am I crazy? Has this ever been done?

This has definitely been done. It's being done more and more these days. I went back to grad school around your age; a good friend of mine just started law school at 31; my sister never finished her english degree, and at about 25-6 went back to get a BA, but this time in biochemistry (which she will be done with next spring at 28; she's considering med school though I think it's no longer high on the list). It's really not that unusual at this point in history for people to either have taken time off or have decided to pursue secondary careers. Most important is that you actually do something you want to do, so, go for it.

I think the hard part is seriously working out what it is you want and committing to it. Having all these options is precisely why so many people start down multiple paths. Why did you apply to the law school and the econ program? Why did you finish the business degree instead of switching in the middle? If you can really determine that you were previously bowing to external pressure or something, and this is what you've always really wanted, then I would say absolutely do it.

If, though, you have just changed your mind a lot, and felt drawn to this and then to that, I would put a lot of effort into methodically working out your strengths and particular interests in order to find the best match. For instance, one can love general science but not really enjoy spending endless hours in a lab marking one box or the other to track the patterns of chemicals in a petri dish, or whatever. So make sure you're aware of what exactly you're getting yourself into, and that you really find the everyday details of the occupation intriguing, not just the grand overarching concepts etc.
posted by mdn at 3:34 PM on May 16, 2005

Hey, cool! I did this exact thing, only with no undergrad degree under my belt -- just terrible, terrible high school grades. I started at 28, and I am just now entering a transfer program for Physical Therapy. Before I went back to school I was working in nonprofit arts administration and proofreading.

I couldn't be happier with my decision. Soon (3 more years...) I will be able to support myself in a fascinating profession, and I'll have a DPT. I was accepted into a program that gets about 500 applicants for a class of 20. I love school.

I agree with Carbolic. Do not let age factor into your decision at all. I am much happier now at 31 entering grad school than I was at 28 working for an ad agency. I expect that I will be even happier in 3 years when I graduate.

One more thing, a fact that I have learned well and would like to skywrite everywhere -- Never, ever let fear of math keep you from doing ANYTHING. Especially if you're female. I used to be absolutely petrified of math, until I realized that fear was all that was standing between me and an interesting career.

On preview: what mdn said is a good point. Before I decided on PT, I thought I wanted to go into some kind of research bio thing. Until I got a 5-week internship working for an entymologist, and learned that I really dislike lab work. And field work. And counting tiny bugs. I am extremely glad that I discovered that early.
posted by jennyjenny at 3:38 PM on May 16, 2005

A colleague of mine in graduate school (Biophysics) had a similar biography to yours, in that he had an undergraduate degree in business, worked for a few years hating it, returned to school for a bachelor's degree in chemistry, and did his PhD in Biophysics.

He's starting out this fall as a professor at Cornell Medical School. e-mail me and I'll pass on his contact information; He's a talker.
posted by u2604ab at 4:21 PM on May 16, 2005

Remember the movie Good Will Hunting? The other prof (played by Stellan Skasgard) had a grad student or post-doc named Tom working for him, and Tom was envious of the attention that Matt Damon's character was getting.

Tom was played by a fellow by the name of Jon Mighton, who recently came and did a talk at my company. It turns out that he was an actor / playwright for most of his 20s, and then something clicked shortly after he turned 30 and he went back to study mathematics. He is now a professor of Mathematics at some prestigious Ontario university (I forget which one), and he also runs a fantastic math tutoring program for kids in elementary school.

Very inspirational story, far better than any fictional movie. More about him here.
posted by randomstriker at 4:25 PM on May 16, 2005

I know lots of people without a science undergrad degree who do medical school. It can be done, so if that's what you want to do - go for it!

/I'm going to get flamed by all the docs around here, but medicine doesn't have a particularly strong science component - you'll be happier pursuing an MD/PhD. otoh, it's not unheard of for someone with a BA to go into graduate science programs.
//has a BA (albeit with 2 of 3 majors in the sciences), doing MSc, doing the PhD in January
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:29 PM on May 16, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments. I took zero science courses in undergrad, apart from an astronomy. I've talked to the undergrad chair at my old university and he assured me it would take a full 4 years to get an undergrad degree in biochem (which is what I would probably go for, and which builds on previous years' courses). I could definately get some part time work in there so I don't anticipate graduating with any debt. But man......four years? And then 3-7 years of grad work after that? I could be 38 before I even start a postdoc. And there's a lot of things I want to do outside of work (travel, maybe a family eventually) that would be much less likely to happen if I took this path. I'm leaning toward a compromise, but I have high standards for myself and won't be satisfied with a half-assed career. But it's great to know I'm not alone, and will take some strength from your comments if this is the path I take.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 4:43 PM on May 16, 2005

I could be 38 before I even start a postdoc.

Conversely, you could be 68 with what you have now. How does that sound? heheh
posted by mischief at 4:49 PM on May 16, 2005

I'm doing it -- I hope.

I did a couple of years at an elite Canadian university and hated it. Hated it, hated it. Spent most of my time in the student newspaper; became the editor, drifted into freelancing and then full-time gigs at local newspapers and then the CBC.

A couple of years ago, I took a look around and decided I had probably gone as far as I could go in journalism and didn't want to spend the next thirty-plus years flying a desk in a newsroom -- even if I loved, loved, loved the work, had some great coworkers and saw/did some amazing things.

More importantly, I came to a couple of personal/professional decisions that pushed me towards the sciences, biology specifically. I'm now looking forward to my last year at a decent Ontario university, working with a great prof for my honours and hoping (with all digits crossed) some medical school is going to be daft enough to let this geezer in.

Before I encourage you to go for it, I should say that I've got a number of advantages, maybe preeminent above them a wonderful, supportive and very gainfully employed fiancee who is prepared to sacrifice for the coming years in order to let me pursue this. And the rest of my family and friends have been the same, although some from my journalism days still think the whole thing is a bit... odd.

I say good luck and follow your passion, as cheeezy as that may sound. Although there are days when I miss the newsroom, there are more when I'm very, very happy with and fascinated by the world of genes, viruses and all. One day in the library, learning, is better than a week on the desk, working.
posted by docgonzo at 4:54 PM on May 16, 2005

(I just noticed you've not disclosed an email on your profile; if you want any more info about what I've done, email me.)
posted by docgonzo at 4:55 PM on May 16, 2005

...four years? And then 3-7 years of grad work after that? I could be 38 before I even start a postdoc.
Well, you shouldn't need to take english 101, etc. You will need calculus, general chemistry 1 and 2, organic chemistry 1 and 2, instrumental analysis, physical chemistry (some biochemists take a watered down version) and biochemistry (and I strongly suggest, inorganic chemistry, lots of metals in biochemistry). So 3 years if you take physical and bio concurrently. But because you don't need a lot filler courses you can do research. The first year of grad school is basically wasted, you could be a couple years ahead. I have had several undergrads with only general chemistry do some great (publishable) research in the lab.
Plus, I'd check around, you may not need a degree in biochemistry to start grad school, just your current degree and some chemistry courses. I know a zoology major who only had general chemistry for her degree, took organic the summer before grad school and had no problems. If you are smart and are willing to work hard the timeline can be greatly condensed.
Also, regarding travel, family and such, we had two kids born while I was in grad school (a fellow student, an 80 hour work week organic grad student no less, is on child #4 since the start of grad school) and I was able to stay home with them a few hours each morning while my wife worked a half day. Something I couldn't have done with a regular job.
posted by 445supermag at 5:41 PM on May 16, 2005

it would take a full 4 years to get an undergrad degree in biochem (which is what I would probably go for, and which builds on previous years' courses)

There's no need to do that -- look into post-bac courses targeted toward people looking to get admitted into med school. It would be 2 years of nothing but science, science, science. Usually it is a highly competetive atmosphere. However if you can do reasonably well, all that's left is to sell yourself to the program of your choosing. Here's a handy searchy-thing.
posted by contessa at 5:43 PM on May 16, 2005

I got my bachelors in philosophy then a PhD in biochemistry, without doing a science bachelors. I also don't think there's a strong need for you to get another undergrad degree before grad school, as long as you can show you've got the ability to do well in at least the basic sciences (1st year bio, chem, and physics) and get good GRE scores. A full degree really seems like overkill.

What could also help you a lot is finding a mentor PI whose research interests you and then working as a volunteer in their lab. If you show him/her your ability and drive, someone like that can help you tremendously. A good word from an established faculty member could do as much towards getting you straight into grad school as could getting A's instead of B's in all those classes.
posted by shoos at 6:33 PM on May 16, 2005

Best answer: what I reeeally want to do is scientific research somehow related to medicine ... I am considering trying to get a phd or get into med school.

Good news: You absolutely do not want to aim to get an MD degree; want you want is a BS/MS/(probably)PhD path. You don't want to aim for an MD because (a) as noted above, the primary aim of an MD is to teach you to do cure patients, not do research; (b) even a joint MD/PhD program will take several years more than a pure PhD; (c) getting into an MD (or joint MD/PhD) program is much more difficult than into an MS or PhD program; (d) biology and biochemistry and neurophysiology and a variety of other sciences can lead directly into medical research, particularly more basic research. (Why would you need to be an MD to be doing research on, say, cancer tumors?)

As for how long it will take to get where you (think you) want to be - if you're doing what you want to along the way (studying, learning, researching), exactly what is the problem (except less income)?

But DO talk to others who are doing what you think want to do. For example, a graduate student advisor in (say) a Biology department would almost certainly give your name and email address to a couple of graduate students (and you can ask for older ones, more your age), who would then (I'm sure) be happy to contact you, and (say) for the price of a coffee and pastry, chat for an hour or two about what they like and don't like about being a grad student, where they think they're likely to end up, what to watch out for, etc. (You have a business degree - consider this to be market research.) People love to talk about themselves - all you need is a semi-plausible reason to call (which you have - you're considering a career change).

Good luck!! If more people in the world did what they wanted to do in life, there would be a great deal more happiness. (The trick, of course, is figuring out what you want to do.)
posted by WestCoaster at 7:38 PM on May 16, 2005

Wow. I've been wanting to ask almost the exact same question. Hope you don't mind if I add on a bit...Is it possible to have a career working with animals if you aren't very good at science? What animal-related career path would be best for someone who nearly died trying to get through high school chemistry?
posted by crapulent at 7:51 PM on May 16, 2005

When I was little, my mother, who had never been to college, said she wish she could be a lawyer. I said, "Mommy, why don't you go to school to become one?" She said, "Honey, that would take 8 years, and in 8 years I'll be 42!" I said, "Well, how old are you going to be in 8 years if you don't go to school?"

She never went, is now 55, and miserable.
posted by Sorcia at 9:16 PM on May 16, 2005

I've always admired France Cordova for making a similar change. She graduated an English major, went to Mexico with her archeologist boyfriend, wrote a Mexican cookbook, got interested (through archeology) in astronomy, went back to get an astronomy degree and ended up chief scientist at NASA. She's also one of the main reasons we all have such easy access to those fantastic Hubble photos. Thanks, France.
posted by cali at 1:22 AM on May 17, 2005

Crapulent, depending on how old you are/how much you've matured, don't rely tooooo heavily on your school performances. I dropped chem before the last year of high school because I thought it was too hard. I went into Nursing following school and then went and did a biochem/immuno degree 10 years later, where I thought I would DIE and fail; the unknown physics and chem being sooo seemingly far over my head. But there's always lots of resources at these institutions and other students from whom you can get help. I developed a great love for all things scientific and got good grades.
I don't know N.American education systems much at all but here in Oz we have technical colleges with easier programs than at University, where you can get credentials in things like animal husbandry of one sort or another -- to basically be an assistant to a vet -- which could be used in many different areas. That you love animals stands you in good staid -- you'll have a natural affinity for enjoying studying the related science -- because it will be much more practically orientated. Check out your options!

Idiot Mittens, the only thing I'll add to the potpourri above is that once you enrol in a program, you're not locked in. You can change to part-time or swap majors or courses and even schools given the right circumstances. Science is the hardest thing I've ever done but it was incredibly rewarding. It doesn't tie you to lab work necessarily. Once you gain a degree, then you can start plotting whether to continue in academia or go into sales or hospital labs or writing -- these things tend to work themselves out as you go. No matter how much prereading and planning you might do, the force of circumstances comes along to navigate you in certain directions, as with life. Go for it!
posted by peacay at 2:58 AM on May 17, 2005

I did pretty much exactly what contessa's sister did. I had no real science as an undergrad at all. I worked for a few years, then went back and did a postbac to get my med school prereqs. Had no trouble at all getting into pretty first-rate schools.

That said, I wouldn't go into medicine if I were in your shoes. It's a pretty long row to hoe, even compared to a PhD, so I wouldn't go the MD route unless you're really, really committed to patient care. You can do just as high-level research with an MD as a PhD, but it's a lot of extra bullshit to put up with and the education itself will not be as focused or hardcore science-y as doing a PhD.

I would really encourage you to enroll in a science class or two to see how you like it before you settle on a life plan. You might even need to take a year or two before you find out whether it suits you, since if you haven't had any science at all, you'll have to start with the intro courses, which I found really dreadfully dull.

Good luck!
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:28 AM on May 17, 2005

Post-bac pre-med programs are ruinously expensive and, in any event, pretty questionable as an avenue to admission to a decent (funded!) Ph.D. program in the sciences. They are designed to line of precisely with the minimum admission requirements for medical school (basically, it's the same package of courses taken by your undergraduate friends who mysteriously won admission to medical school with literature or economics majors.)

Concurrent enrollment in an undergraduate science program is probably the route for you. You may still end up paying a pretty penny, in part because public schools often surcharge credits for people who already have a B.A., but it will be nothing like what a post-bac would cost you.

I doubt that any graduate admissions committee would care much (if at all) whether you actually matriculated, to say the least of actually earned a second degree, so long as you took the right courses and earned the right grades.
posted by MattD at 10:57 AM on May 17, 2005

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