You are not my academic/career advisor, but let's pretend for a moment.
March 29, 2012 10:26 PM   Subscribe

From Music to IT to Neuroscience: Is this insane? (super long tedious details inside)

DISCLAIMER: I'm a total dilettante. I'm interested in everything and have never really settled on one single passion (though music and writing are about as close as it gets). Also I'm an unrepentant dreamer who sometimes needs grounding.

I'm turning 30 this year. I've been in a business analyst position at a medium size (400-600 employees) development shop working almost exclusively with Airlines. More specifically I work on payment processing. Before this job I worked as an IT training manager at a regional bank.

I do not have a degree, though I have lots of miscellaneous credits. Let me explain:

Ten years ago when I started college I went to a state school on a violin scholarship as a performance major. It didn't work out, and I switched to composition. Then I went on a 2-year mormon mission to Canada, and when I got back I realized I didn't need a piece of paper to play music and I didn't have the obsession to try and make it as a film/TV composer.

When I got back I immediately started working and took night classes at a local community college. Having no parental support to pay for school, and being loathe to get student loans, I only took classes once in a while, eventually letting my schooling lapse completely as I focused on my burgeoning IT career.

Now I have a good job with lots of pros (good pay, good benefits, great coworkers) and only a few cons (I'm not super passionate about writing software requirements, there seems to be no opportunity for advancement at my current company). I'm the only person in the office who doesn't have a degree (I keep up just fine, thank you, and the lack of advancement has nothing to with the lack of degree, everybody has been in the same position for the past 10 years).

I have no reason to get a degree in my current field, but I feel like I should at least get something. I've just signed up at my local community college and am going to take some classes this summer. I think at the very least I think I'm going to get an Associates in technical writing, just because I can do that pretty quickly. Then I'll probably transfer to a state University to work on my undergrad.

Here's the question: At the moment I'm really interested in neuroscience. Is this crazy? I'm fascinated with the brain, and I feel like I owe it to myself as a general act of self-improvement to become better at scientific method.

My wife supports me. We have really cheap rent through a family connection. But at my age, turning 30 married with two young children, would it be utter folly to make such an oblique change? I'm not terribly good with math, I KNOW that part would be extremely challenging and could break me, but I'm not deterred by that per se, more about what such a change would do to my future and more importantly my family's future.

I would probably want to either teach or work in a lab. Science writing is also very appealing. Do I need to go all Ph.D for this? Would B.S. be enough, or do I need at least M.S.? Is this something I'll spend the next 5-8 years only to realize I've made a terrible mistake because neuroscience is a horrible field in which to support a family?
posted by Doleful Creature to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea about your actual question because I was only popping in here to say that I see HUGE relationships between music, technology, and the brain. I actually thought that's what your question was about!

Yes, I can see a natural progression in your interests. I know nothing about academia, but all of my scientist friends do have their doctorates.
posted by jbenben at 10:52 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm all for following one's passion, and I share your interests, but you also express a need for security with young children. It sounds like what you have now is a situation that is financially excellent for a person who is obviously very smart, but lacks academic credentials. IT is one of those realms that has a history of (sometimes) rewarding skills in the uncredentialled that is atypical in the professions. The same cannot be said for teaching careers. If you want to have a job teaching and working at neuroscience lab, you're going to have to get your associate's, your bachelor's, your master's and you Ph.D degrees. If you're lucky, in ten years you could have a real income again. . . You'll also almost certainly have to move for graduate school, and lose your cheap housing. Whether these are sacrifices that make sense is something you and your spouse will have to decide. I raised a small child as a graduate student with no additional income source. We lived below the federal poverty line. Some people are cool with that, and some find it unacceptable when you have the option of living comfortably.

If you want to write popular science articles, you can do that now, without fancy degrees: just start a blog. You are unlikely to make any money on it, but you can engage in your passion. If you want to make real money at scientific writing, on the other hand, you'll probably need to work for a corporation, and have at least a bachelor's degree, and I'll hazard a guess that you won't make near what you do now. So: you have to contemplate the passion-vs-security dilemma that so many people face. The "right answer" is up to you.
posted by DrMew at 11:55 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I moved from the arts (sculpture) into the sciences (visual neuroscience) for my PhD. Or rather, the PhD I never finished (my building collapsed, I dropped out).

In terms of pure learning, the first two years of my PhD program were exceptionally valuable. I know more about human vision than most people, and I can evaluate claims about vision, critically understand research papers, and design experiments. However I could have easily gotten those things from books.

Having done this, I strongly advise you to stay the hell out of a PhD program in neuroscience, or in anything, really. The introductory materials are amazing. Buy those and read them. If you want to get closer to the science, volunteer or get employed as a research assistant. Labs always need software help and more hands to run experiments. You'll learn a LOT, probably more than through coursework, and you'll have none of the commitment or the hell of a five-to-seven year commitment to a thing with no obvious payoff.

Dropping out was the hardest and best thing I've ever done for myself, don't put yourself in that position out of a general sense of self-improvement. Email me if you want to talk more.
posted by fake at 1:55 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's not clear to me why you think you're at a decision point. You should get that AA, certainly; that's an excellent way to build your credentials, learn some new things (particularly if your instructors are good), and get into the routine of classes, reading, homework, and preparing for and taking exams. But that hardly commits you to a particular bachelor's degree.

* You can take other courses at your community college, whether part of your degree program there or not, whether or not related to neuroscience, to see what interests you.
* You can satisfy (some of) your curiosity about neuroscience by taking online courses, free
* You can talk to community college career counselors about possibilities. Or to instructors.
* At a state university, you can always switch majors if you decide that a career related to neuroscience isn't for you, for whatever reason. The critical things are (a) to get admitted; (b) to get good enough grades to not be kicked out; and (c) to find the time and money to continue taking classes. (And, yes, (d), to keep evaluating whether the track you're on is the one you want to stay on.)

In short, it seems that you now can figure out, fairly well, what to do in the next year or two, and after that - well, you'll get a lot of new, relevant information in the next year or two, and that will help you figure out the next year or two. And as you go along, you'll be building skills and resume credentials, learning about yourself and what the world offers, employment-wise, for things you're interested in, and deciding against some options while seeing new ones open up.
posted by WestCoaster at 1:59 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hey, I don't think it's particularly insane. A lot of people start uni when they're a bit older. I did my BS in psychology (closely related to neuroscience) and at least 5% of the class was over 30 in a similar situation.

That said, neuroscience is a very academic-oriented field. How many degrees you'll need depends on what level of autonomy you want in the lab.

You can actually get a job with a BS (a lot of my neuroscience friends who just graduated did this) as a research assistant (RA) at a university of medical research institute. You would be working under the supervision of a professor and possibly a post-doc. It would still be a cool job, though, as you would be running experiments, and would do all the hands-on stuff that the professors are too busy to do.

If you get masters, you can have a bit more autonomy (like a lab manager, kind of thing). However, if you want to actually design the study, write up the papers, and go to conferences, and teach, you would need to do a PhD.

However, before you do anything, I would say learn a lot more about the field first. You may find out your passions are more nuanced than you think. A lot of neuroscience can actually be really dry, in my view, so make sure you really love it. I like Fake's idea of trying to be an RA now, especially if you have programming skills.

Also, don't worry about math -- unless you're doing a math centered part of neuroscience (like computational neuroscience), there's not too much math.

On a completely non-neuroscience note, I'm also wondering why get a degree in technical writing. Like school can be fun in it's own right, but it's a lot of work too. And there's the cost/opportunity cost. I would think about exactly what I wanted out of it before jumping in (not to say you're not doing this right now!)
posted by strekker at 2:21 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How bad is your math? There might not be much math in the actual neuroscience, but there's usually some calculus in the coursework to get a B.S.

Rather than getting the quickest Associates and transferring, I recommend taking your time at community college and getting as many requirements out of the way as possible... Especially the classes which could be applied to any science degree. That definitely includes all of your math (start on it early, so you can take your time cherry-picking good professors), the first two years of your science courses, and any extra gen ed the state university requires. 1) Courses at community college are a fraction of the cost of courses at a state university. 2) Your state university likely has an articulation agreement with your community college--as long as you stick to courses which are listed, they're treated as exactly the same class.
posted by anaelith at 3:29 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Answering part of this question because I have an undergrad bio degree, neuro PhD, worked in labs at at various points, and taught neuro at the college level for a few years. Now I earn my $ as a medical writer so there is some overlap as to what you want to do and I will use that perspective to answer your question, although there is some variability in terms of the uni that you attend and the exact course requirement,etc. I've seen many routes to the same point so I will also address it from that angle because if you go the PhD route now you have a decade or more of schooling if you include a postdoc.

The one thing that I am going to mention is that if you haven't started the intro level courses yet, or even worked in a lab yet, it is impossible to know that you will even like or want to do half these things.

But let's pretend that you are considering some grad school and that you want to maximize your skills to learn as much neuro as possible.

• Skip the technical writing degree (I know many science and medical writers...who were hired because of their background in the sciences, not with any writing degrees); instead, focus on the basic science courses that you need (assuming that you will look into where you want to transfer, but intro bio, all the other basic sciences would be a great start, plus calculus so you can get rid of that requirement forever.

• Math fears. Don't worry about this, this is very math light.For example, you often need a calculus class for a biology degree, but that's it. None of the science I did was remotely calculus based. You will likely need a stats degree as an undergrad and grad student if you go that route, but to be honest, it is basic math (not beyond basic algebra.If you have a very hard time with math/or any of the basic sciences along the way, take the psych courses in this area.

• Get into a lab as soon as possible(it may be now or it may be as soon as you start at the university). This is a really important step because 1) you want to find out if you enjoy this 2) you can learn a lot in these environments, even if you leave the lab or don't like it and 3) if you really decide to go to grad school, you should have this experience for recommendations and hopefully have your name on a paper or poster presentation. More here as to how to get a volunteer position and hopefully paid eventually.

• If you do want to go to grad school (PhD) for neuro, to be honest, it is usually paid for and you get a living stipend on top of that (please understand it is not much money, let alone for a family, but grad students with families do this ).But just saying that there is some money to do this.

Now about the shortest path to these points.

Full time employment in research. You don't need beyond a BA or BS to do this. Do look around a bit though when you are in the lab. The pay is usually not great at that level (although it is in certain places, but I don't know if you want to move to those places).You will also be limited as to what you can do (hands on work vs designing experiments). This may or may not matter to you, but it may at a later point. If you ever decide that you love research and want to slowly learn more, many of these types of jobs offer free tuition (a course or a few courses/year), so you could slowly get your masters degree for free.

Teaching. To be honest, PhD is probably the best thing to do. There are caveats to that, too (you don't get to decide where you want to live...there needs to be an opening at a college or university).It is competitive but if you truly want to teach then there are ways that you can position yourself as a grad student to do this (memail me/I had interviews/job offers immediately after finishing the PhD).You can teach at a CC level with just a Masters but I don't know the job market for this and will let someone else tackle it.

Teaching plus research. Then you probably should do not only a PhD but a postdoc or two.These positions are also very competitive and will depend on what you study and focus on at some point.

Writing (medical/science). If you get a strong foundation in science, you can find a job and it is easier than you think (see tentacle's answer-it's true, you just need to do well on the writing test and have a strong foundation in science). Because I will always be a scientist first, get a masters at least. The undergrad will seem like a lot now but..there are writing jobs you may not be able to get without this although it depends on the type of writing that you want to do.

Do info interviews along the way to find out what pple earn at these various jobs and positions. It is hard to answer your "enough to support a family" because it depends on where you live and your life style. Feel free to memail me I can't go into everything.
posted by Wolfster at 5:00 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is crazy! It sounds like you've got a degree complex, and want to prove something to yourself; but you've got a good job in a field that doesn't care about degrees. Maybe you need to keep you eyes open for IT work in an industry that's more interesting to you rather than starting over with a dream of what work in an interesting field would be like. Your kids are little, this is the wrong time to start an academic career if you want to be available to them. Nothing's stopping you from learning about neuroscience. But starting an intense academic track now puts you at 40 with a 27-year-old's prospects and two teenagers. Don't tell yourself you can unmake the decisions you've made; take where you are now and make it better, keep moving forward. Sorry to be a wet blanket, but if you feel undereducated and insecure around people with more education, you're not likely to be happy in academia.
posted by ulotrichous at 5:53 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of great advice here, from someone who has had five (or six, depending on how you count) different careers. Wolfster has nailed it regarding what you can do to get to a research / academic teaching / tech writing position, IMHO.

I was a teacher, lab manager (cancer), product manager (I tasked the science writers to do stuff), salesperson, and now a marketing person.

You have a supportive family and it will be busy for you to get an AA/BS simultaneously, and some difficult choices about how to get it done. But you can move right into doing lab work without a degree, starting at the proverbial 'bottom' (doing cell culture, transfections, cloning) and learning the ropes, all the while you can do some IT-related stuff in the context of biology research. Many research centers associated with universities (and some in out of the way areas too), you'd be surprised at local hospital centers now opening up translational research. You won't be likely making a lot of $ but as you mention your expenses are not very high. Perhaps you can find an IT position where you do a small percentage of your work in the lab? IT is certainly needed everywhere, life science / neuroscience research environments included.

And in the age of big data, especially in genomics, computational biologists are in strong demand. Something to consider - teaching yourself Perl, R-Bioconductor, and you may already be familiar with other requirements in this field. In that context, the hard requirement for formal degrees is less important (as noted above), and your current experience could be leveraged into a melding of both IT and neuroscience.

Memail me for additional details if you're interested. I interact with computational biologists probably weekly if not more frequently in the course of my daily work.
posted by scooterdog at 7:03 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, this is all really great advice and exactly the kind of input I was looking for. Thank you all so much, you've given me a lot to think about. I won't mark the question resolved just yet, in case anyone else wants to chime in.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:54 AM on March 30, 2012

Best answer: You'd have to be extremely lucky to get a job in a research lab or academic department doing neuroscience even with a BS. It sounds to me like getting a BS in your spare time might be a good idea for eventual career advancement even in your current job (if you decide to switch companies). But even a MS in neuroscience is unlikely to get you a high-paying job. And having just finished a PhD program, trying to get a doctorate with two young children is going to be extremely difficult.

If you're interested in the field, your best bet is to read and learn some processing tools, like people have said so far. Computational biology is a huge field and learning statistics and programming will help you in any computer-related field.
posted by demiurge at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2012

Best answer: Seconding scooterdog. There are many, many, many opportunities for people with programming skills to make serious contributions to the sciences. Your tech skills will get you in the door, your thirst for learning will offer you great job satisfaction and opportunities for career development.
posted by Sublimity at 9:15 AM on March 30, 2012

Best answer: You might take a critical look at your financial situation. If you and your wife have been socking away all the extra cash you didn't spend on rent into retirement and college savings accounts for the kids and you feel comfortable with where those accounts are at, then it puts you in a more secure position to leave a high paying job than if those accounts don't exist or are barely funded.

I think there are a reasonable number of entry level research jobs around major universities and when scooterdog says that you can start at the bottom, it's totally true, but entry level lab salaries often start at <>
Nth all the suggestions to angle into a computational bio or programming type position as that is both in demand, and compensated better than starting from scratch w/ pure neuroscience.
posted by tangaroo at 9:52 AM on March 30, 2012

Best answer: crap should have previewed

...start at less than 30k and phD stipends are in the same range. But no one expects anyone to stay in those positions, most people move on to grad/med school or industry. You might want to experiment with living for a few months at that income level to see what that might be like.
posted by tangaroo at 9:55 AM on March 30, 2012

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