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July 11, 2011 5:35 PM   Subscribe

CareerFilter: Scientist branching out--what should I do with my life? Special snowflake within!

So, the time has come for me to find a job. As a new graduate of college, I'm feeling a little like Dustin Hoffman in the graduate--when people ask me what I want to do, I glaze over.

I'm trained as a lab research scientist, and that's been my primary interest over the last few years. However, I'm not quite ready for grad school quite yet. To that end, I've been exploring the various ways in which I can use the knowledge and intellectual mentoring that I've gotten from school, particularly those outside the lab bench. So, I present myself to the hive mind: how can the world use me?

A few things about me/stuff I like:


- ENTP--to the point where when I read the description of an ENTP, I felt like Bill Murray in that scene from Groundhog Day where Andie MacDowell describes her perfect man and he goes "me me me me"

- Just graduated with BS in Biology from high-ranked private college

- Decent (B-average) grades

- Strong background in laboratory research (mol. bio, genetics), starting in high school--2 summers at Tier I cancer research center. College: nearly 4 years working in a lab, great relationship with two profs (have worked on some joint projects), co-first author on publication in PNAS senior year.

- Highest honors for senior research thesis.

- Solid writing skills--from lean lab report writing to long literature research papers to creative nonfiction.

- Very good presentation skills--one-on-one, small format (lab meeting style), medium format (seminar style)

- Though it feels uncomfortably like hubris to say this myself…I've got pretty good people skills, conversation is easy for me, and I can get along with pretty much anybody for as long as I have to, and most of them for longer than that.

- I'm a tinkerer, always have been. As a little kid, I liked taking things apart and seeing how they work. The lab gives me some of that same satisfaction. Make a little change here or there, improve a protocol, optimize a procedure, streamline, add efficiency, etc. Cooking gives hits some of the same buttons for me, making little changes, seeing the result, etc.

- Senior year was a standout academic/personal discovery year for me. I never enjoyed lecture classes (large or small), and always found it difficult to excel in that learning context. However, senior year I was able to take two amazing seminars that I got a lot out of, both in the context of the information taught and the experience of learning in that context.

One was effectively a journal club focusing on DNA structure and function (pick seminal paper from the history of DNA research, explain to the class, field questions). The other was a course on evolution and disease, wherein we were to choose an illness, look at its evolutionary history, and synthesize and present an evolutionary explanation for the presence of the modern malady. This one can be thought of as a bunch of people doing independent study and having weekly discussions about their respective progress.

- I like to explain things. Lab meetings, class project presentations, lab research presentations, my senior thesis defense--these sorts of things are actually fun for me. I've never formally taught a class, but being in my lab for so long, by the time I graduated I was one of the most senior people working there. I got a lot of opportunity to do some informal teaching, helping out everyone from younger undergrad interns to postdocs in the common protocols and procedures used in our lab.

- People tell me that I seem to think about near everything in a 'scientific' way. I'm not sure whether that's the right word for it, but I see what they're getting at. I like to think in a logical systematic way. Build a mental model, change a piece of it, see how the system changes. Lather, rinse repeat.

- A few words about math: Although I found the ideas of calculus elegant, I never liked learning it or doing it. That being said, the math I learned always seemed pretty far ahead of the math I had opportunity to apply. I never had much opportunity to use even calculus in a way that made me go "oh cool, that's what that's for."

So, with that excretion of descriptive information complete, I'm all yours, hive mind. Aside from the sort of standard path of RA positions at pharmas, academic labs, etc, I'm wondering how I can apply my skills and my brain out in the world. I'm casting the net wide...
posted by weaponsgradecarp to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Throwing things out there:
- journalism (investigative science, could do freelance, could start some sort of website/hub)
- with further education/experience, can be a political or media science advisor of some sort
- teaching (take time off to teach middle-school science somewhere)
- do a little research on what's hot, and create a biomed and/or informatics start-up
- join said start-up (possibly after gaining more engineering/software experience if needed)
- look at the coolest jobs you can think of (in general) and see what skills/education they require, rather than working from yourself as start-point (maybe you'd have more energy for grad school/more training in a different field?)
- there's a bunch of possibilities for non-profits, stuff like doing med/disease research around the world; there's even a website that coordinates those opportunities, but unfortunately you'll have to google around/ask 'cause I totally forgot
- if you go to school again, make sure it's the sort of grad school where the environment suits you (seminars, group-work, cool professors, fun research) rather than being just a step for your career

(...if you want to try out calculus, I hear they use that in physics research, haha.)
posted by reenka at 6:21 PM on July 11, 2011

reenka gives a lot of good answers. The standard thing for you to do would be to work as a tech in a bio lab. But then you might as well go to grad school right away.

One thing you don't say is what you want out of life. How much money do you want to make? What kind of lifestyle do you envision having? You say what you're good at, but what would you like to do all day?

I once worked doing intellectual property/patent consulting for a small startup company. That was interesting, something totally different than what I had done before, and still used a lot of my research skills (looking up references, reading lots of papers). Had I decided to bail out of the research field, I could have parlayed that into a job with a law firm that would have paid me to become a patent lawyer.
posted by deanc at 6:51 PM on July 11, 2011

When you say "not ready for grad school quite yet" does that mean you're thinking of it sometime in the near future? As a means towards an academic research career? If that is the case, I wouldn't go straying too far from the lab bench. As unglamorous as it may sound, you may be able to find a simply kick-ass technician gig that allows you to use all the skills listed above, and hone then even finer, while leaving your non-working life more free to put yourself together as a functioning adult member of society. This, in the eventuality, will make transitioning to grad school far easier. The most successful, well-adjusted grad students I've known are ones who spent 2-5 years post-bac teching and putting their mental house in order before going for the Ph.D. I assure you, it is not just like going to grad school right away.

If, however, you want to go elsewhere in your career path, then pick the other skill (writing, communication, IP, whatever) that you need to develop to become a professional science (writer, educator, public 'splainin stuff person, patent lawyer, editor). Your next job should then focus on cultivating that skill, so that you can best integrate the two disciplines in the future. As reenka said, - look at the coolest jobs you can think of (in general) and see what skills/education they require, rather than working from yourself as start-point ...
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:01 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit, but deanc, good questions.

To answer them:

It basically comes down to this--I've been doing lab and school for so long I'm pretty open as far as what sort of day-to-day I do. Crazy as this may sound, I dont really know what other jobs are like!

As far as money and lifestyle...I intend to be frugal (though on a sliding scale) no matter what initally--got a little bit of student loans to pay off, want to put away some savings, etc. So the difference between 35k/yr and 50k/yr for instance is really a tiny bit of lifestyle difference, and a lot of what I put away difference.

A family friend (during the course of one of the countless 'what's your life plan' conversations I've had recently) put it pretty simply: "find a job that's interesting and pays enough to keep you happy outside work." That second part I'm sure will get bigger over time--as these things have a habit of doing...

As for the grad school thing: I'm just a little burned out in the brain as far as straight up classroom learning goes. I don't mind long hours, but I want to be able to go home and leave as much of my work at work as I can.
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 7:03 PM on July 11, 2011

Flippant advice: If you really want to go back to grad school, don't take a job that pays more than 35k a year, or else you'll never be happy going back to a stipend.

Better advice: What it really comes down to is that the most common, easiest way to transition from undergrad to grad school is via a RAship. That's not to say that you have to keep doing the same thing-- these are great times to make sure that what you THINK you want to go to grad school for is ACTUALLY what you want to go to grad school for.

(I, for example, was an engineering undergrad who worked in computational neuroscience/neuroengineering labs as an undergrad. After graduating, I took a RAship in a psychiatry/schizophrenia lab to see what the patient-contact side of research was all about. I decided it wasn't for me and went back to healthy-population human-subject research. Now I'm plotting my next move, which will hopefully be towards research and engineering in industry, but I'm glad I didn't do that straight out of undergrad, because I'd always wonder about a life in academia. Like I said, it's hard to leave an industry-level paycheck.)

I sympathize with you for wanting to get a feel for what non-academia jobs are like, but believe it or not, I think that's really a poor way to judge whether or not you want to stay in academia. The best way is to get an RA position and just to see if that's where you want to spend the next five or seven years (Ph.D and postdoc, respectively) or the rest of your life. Not much changes; it's still all about reputation and publishing, except that grant money enters more and more into the equation the further you get.
posted by supercres at 7:33 PM on July 11, 2011

To address you last point: I LOVE the work-life balance of being an RA. Hell, it enabled me to actually start dating again, and before too long, get married. A lot of my coworkers pine for college, but all I can think is, "You really liked that? The constant stress of always having an assignment or exam hanging over your head?"

Now, even though I have a demanding PI for a boss, I know that I can leave work in the evening (admittedly, around 7) and on the weekend without having to think about that stuff until the next work day. I feel like that's a better deal than you'd get in either grad school OR industry.

Your mileage, and PI, may vary.
posted by supercres at 7:38 PM on July 11, 2011

It basically comes down to this--I've been doing lab and school for so long I'm pretty open as far as what sort of day-to-day I do. Crazy as this may sound, I dont really know what other jobs are like!

You really need to talk to your friends and see what they're doing after graduation. Go way out there-- consider management consulting or finance. Instead of looking at lab tech jobs, think about clinical trials coordinator jobs. What about teaching biology to high school students? A lot of private high schools will hire you right out of college. Ask some other bio researchers what they wish they would have known when they finished college.

I disagree with those who suggest taking a lab tech job-- you already know how to do bench research and you already have a PNAS paper. A year you're spending as a lab tech is basically a year doing the same thing you'd be doing in graduate school but not getting any closer to finishing your Ph.D.

"How can the world use me?" is really the wrong question, I think. A better question is, "what kind of stuff can I do for myself during this time?"
posted by deanc at 8:02 PM on July 11, 2011

Check your MeFi mail, but also, you and anyone else in this boat should check out this presentation currently hosted on Stanford's website. Pieces of it (graphics!) are quite silly, but there is some excellent mapping work on the wide range jobs are available to life science grads, and the type of work (9-5 it, writing heavy, big bucks, CEO track, business focused) and degrees associated with each. I wish someone had given me a 101 on the industry like this while I was still an undergrad.
posted by deludingmyself at 5:30 PM on July 14, 2011

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