Need help mapping out an education/career path. Please advise.
September 11, 2016 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Hi everyone. Like the title suggests, I need some help figuring out an education/career plan for myself before I return to school next year (details inside).

For some background:

I've completed an undergraduate degree already - albeit with difficulty due to personal and mental health issues. My earlier plan had been to go to medical school but in addition to it not being a feasible goal because of my less than excellent grades and mental health, after some serious soul-searching (and some really great advice by the Meta community), I came to the decision that it was not for me.

I've been working full-time for the past year and my contract is up at the end of 2016. Now that I have some money saved up, my plan is to go to back to school and take 1-2 more years of undergraduate classes to boost my GPA and, if all goes well, enroll in a masters program after that. I know this isn't going to be easy, I've had major academic setbacks in the past due to my anxiety/depression and still have a lot of personal issues that I'm dealing with...but I do believe that therapy (which I'm continuing to receive) and learning from the mistakes I made during my bachelors degree have given me the tools to better deal with obstacles. I'm also turning 30 in a couple of days and unlike my 20s - I don't want this decade to be defined by my mental health struggles.

So here's where I need your help. Since taking medical school off the table, I've been trying to narrow down my interests and figure out what the best career option would be for me. I definitely plan to stay in the health arena, but I'm having difficulty coming up with a plan because I have several interests and after hours and hours and hours of research - I feel even more confused and can't come to a decision. I thought I would list out what I believe are my top 5 interests and get your input as to what careers you think would be most ideally suited for these? Here they are:

1. Psychology
(Areas of interest: clinical/counseling, Neuroscience – plasticity, ADD, anxiety/depression)

2. Epidemiology
(Areas of interest: Social determinants and disease patterns)

3. Public Health
(Areas of interest: Mental heath promotion, social determinants)

4. Urban Planning
(With a focus on public health, green neighborhoods)

5. Biology
(Areas of interest: Cell biology, Neuroplasticity, Nutrition)

I know there's some overlap, but I am hoping that I can find a career option that would enable me to incorporate as much of these themes as possible in the work in some capacity. That might be a bit far-fetched but I am hoping there is something out there. Working with people (as opposed to a lab-based job) in a health-care context with moderate levels of scientific understanding is the main goal. I feel like the sooner I can come to a decision, the sooner I can map out the steps I need to get there.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. If anyone is working in a field aligned with some of these areas, I would love to hear about your experiences as well.

Thanks guys!
posted by KTN to Education (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Another possibility: talk to folks in the areas of interest and take a grad class or two in some of those areas (as a non-degree seeking student). And then go straight for grad school rather than messing around with more undergrad classes. A year of two of undergrad without a degree at the end doesn't sound like your best use of time considering that masters programs are typically two years.

I'd also encourage you to talk to programs of interest. As someone who is a bit older, these programs may be as interested in your relevant experience as your undergrad GPA. I'd hate for you to take a bunch of undergrad classes only to learn you could have gone straight to grad school.

It'd also be good to talk to folks in those programs to get an idea of the job market for their graduates.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:00 AM on September 12, 2016

If you already have a bachelors, I would advise against returning to undergraduate studies unless there is a specific course you absolutely require as a prerequisite for a specific graduate program. Since you already completed the pre-medical coursework, it's unlikely you'll need anything else for whatever you decide, unless it's an odds 'n ends type thing like an additional course in stats.

I like that you have thought a lot about the topics that interest you -- I would encourage you to now work backwards from the activities that interest you and see where they might meet in the middle in the form of a career. For example, do you enjoy conducting research? Bench, computational, translational, clinical? If the answer is yes, an MPH or even a PhD in a relevant field might make the most sense. If the answer is no, you might not even want to return to graduate school; many people work in these fields with nothing more than a bachelors, genuine interest, and on the job training.

You'll note I asked do you enjoy conducting research, not do you want to conduct research. The idea of doing research is compelling to many; to a large subset of those people, the practice of research is tedious and soul crushing. Research assistant/coordinator jobs are available to people with your level of training and are a very good way to figure out if you enjoy the work while strengthening your CV in a way that a few more years of coursework will not.

Ultimately my advice is to think about what you want to do in your career and not so much about what you want to do in your training. Even a PhD + postdoc is unlikely to take more than a decade, while your career will last much longer. Training shouldn't be miserable, but it is very explicitly a means to an end, so don't get so caught up thinking about the means and not the end. When you have a clear idea of what you want your career to look like, it will be much easier to figure out the training path that will take you there.
posted by telegraph at 5:50 AM on September 12, 2016

I 100% agree with telegraph. I think you should do 3 things: 1) really think about what kind of work you would like to be doing in 10 years after all the training is finished, and 2) really think about what kind of degree you need, and 3) talk to people who do those jobs for real to get an idea of what the average person's actual life is like, not just the rock stars who are leading the field.

For example, option 5 (biology) seems like it goes against most of the things you've explicitly said you're interested in. That particular career track seems like it's much more lab based and would require a PhD to really do much that's interesting. And I agree with telegraph--lots of people (including me) love the idea of doing research, but actually doing research can be extremely tedious and involves a lot more grantwriting than I actually want to do.

Similarly, with 3) I know urban planning and working on issues of green space seems really great, but the one urban planner I actually know spends most of her time working on zoning issues and building permits for the city. She likes it, and she does get to talk to citizens about their concerns, but it's like, moving sidewalk installation in a particular neighborhood up on the DOT priority list, not designing parks. (This is not to denigrate the importance of sidewalks, it's just not directly impacting people's health). When I was trying to pick a specialty in medical school, the best advice I got was to talk to people about what the bread and butter of that specialty is. I had been leaning toward neurology because the world-class quaternary research hospital where I was doing my clinical rotations had patients with all kinds of exotic and fascinating problems, but I realized that a lifetime of migraine and epilepsy was not going to be interesting to me for 30 years.

Do you want a direct clinical care kind of job, a data-gathering and analysis kind of job, or a teaching kind of job? (There will be some overlap in all of these--I certainly do a lot of teaching in my day to day work as a doctor--but there will be a preponderance one way or another). That's one way to approach the different kinds of work in the fields you've laid out.

Once you've decided on an approach, I think you should really consider whether you actually need additional undergraduate work to get your terminal degree or whether you should just go ahead and apply for your graduate degree. You may find that you need a couple of prerequisites but I doubt that you'll need the equivalent of full time school for 2 years. I would actually just encourage you to try to find volunteer or real work (job or internship) in the field that you're interested in. I read a lot of applications and the ones that tend to be most compelling, especially in older folks, are the ones where people can say "I did this thing for two years and it was interesting and I learned XYZ skills but I also realized that what I really wanted to do was ABC."
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:55 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wow, hey, your life sounds kind of identical to mine- have a bachelor's degree that was achieved under much duress, had dreams of going to medical school, and back doing pre-reqs for my MA degree now.
My advice to you- reverse engineer your career pathway based on a mixture of your interests and your lifestyle needs/desires. This sounds really basic, but do you enjoy interacting with people, or being more solitary? Are you a born leader, or more happy to take instruction? Do you want to be indoors all day in a lab, or working in the field gathering data? Do you like to sit all day, or prefer a mixture of walking and sitting? Would you like to be looking through a microscrope most of the time, or talking to people? Develop long-term patient relationships, or shorter term, moment to moment relationships?

I'm hoping to pursue a dual MA degree in public health and physician's assistant. I personally am not going to paint myself into a corner with specialty until I am in grad school because I forsee that grad school may shape my interests and I'll take it step by step once I am there.
Good luck! Might post more later if I think of stuff.
posted by erattacorrige at 10:00 AM on September 12, 2016

I know in your previous question I recommended strongly against doing a PhD - however, a PhD in Epidemiology is much more of a professional degree than a theoretical/academic one. Major hospitals keep PhD Epidemiologists on staff.

A Masters of Public Health is also quite viable.

In either case, I wouldn't worry too much about your undergraduate GPA; if you haven't, taking the full GRE may be useful. If you score very highly, that'll compensate for your GPA from earlier in your life.

Also, instead of applying to Schools/Programs, apply to specific PIs (principle investigators) who could then champion you into the program. Grades weren't an issue with me, but I got into both my MSc and PhD programs by getting a PI to take me on - and getting into the program was just a formality.

Going this route also lowers - but doesn't completely mitigate - the risk of getting saddled with a horrible PI.
posted by porpoise at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you need to boost your GPA, you can take upper-level undergraduate degree courses as a visiting student (or "special" student) at many GTA universities. Most will need evidence of having passed equivalent prerequisites, and some may be blocked off for majors; speak to an advisor for assistance (and, check what's required for whichever grad or professional program you do end up wanting to pursue). Ryerson offers many degree courses through their school of continuing ed (or did a while ago).

2nd an MPH. With most programs, you'd have to choose a specialization - policy, biostats, epidemiology, global health, health services research, etc. (My understanding is that if you don't have a clinical profession - nursing, etc - epidemiology & especially biostats will yield the best returns in terms of opportunities and $$, if you're suited to that kind of work. Lots of number crunching.) Also - I think only a couple of Canadian programs have CEPH accreditation, which I think matters for some jobs in the US and overseas. Check out the gradcafe and premed101 forums for discussion on this (& approaches to boosting your GPA/profile in the Canadian context).

If an MPH sounds appealing and you're not clear on what you'd like to do, I think it'd be good to get some volunteer or paid experience (which will help your application anyway).

(Also might help to do some vocational interest and aptitude assessments, and informational interviews, if you're very torn between labby vs. broad-scope vs. more clinical stuff. Not sure many jobs would let you do all three. Clinical psychology, maybe, but even then, it'd be over 20 years, and clinical psych programs are more competitive than med school :/)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:13 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

3 things --

1) People with depression are often drawn to advanced degrees. It's something about getting more education to feel less inadequate. This is a big enough problem that a LOT of people in grad school are pretty seriously depressed.

2) Most human beings are not great at school, and it sounds like you might be one of them. That's OK. Tons of people graduate college with a 2.8 GPA, never do grad school, and have happy, fulfilling careers regardless. I sometimes hire people and it is rare for their college GPA to even come up a single time after they graduate.

3) You might do really well working for a government agency that provides social services (like housing, medical benefits, or veterans assistance). These jobs don't pay well to start, but you can do VERY well after 5 years, and they have job security and the sense of helping others.
posted by miyabo at 9:04 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

« Older Best MBA option for mid-life career transition? Or...   |   Recipe for Slovenian Mountain Tea (planinski čaj) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.