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Science Careers -Your Education Pathways

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  biochemistry, immunology, engineering, pharmacology, anthropology, college admissions, majors, applications, choosing, computers, marine biology  

Tracking toward a career in science.


How much do I need to know about my career choice NOW?


        High School.
                        AP Courses.
                        Early Admit Programs.  
                        Making Choices.
                        What Next?
                        Visiting Campuses.
                In general, what are the different colleges like?
                        Community College / Junior College.
                        Small College.
                        Money Issues.
                        Large College / University.
                        Technical Specialty Schools.
        Your Years in College.
                        Freshman Year.
                        Second / Sophomore Year.
                        Third Year - Specialization.
                        Fourth Year - What's Next?  
                                Entrance Exams 
                                Faculty Recommendations 
                                What Do You Want to Do, Exactly?
                                Faculty Importance
                        Graduate School
                                Teaching Assistantships
                                Major Professors / Principal Investigators
                                Your Own Research
                                Graduate Committees
                                Writing Your Thesis
                        After a Masters Degree
                               Going for a Ph.D.
             After a Ph.D.  (And preparation during the Ph.D. period)
                                Early Preparation - Networking and "Dry Runs."
                                Sitting in on the Hiring Process.
                Academic Careers.
                Research Careers.






     You're thinking that a career in the sciences is for you.  Maybe you love science, or you're good at it, or both, maybe you realize that an advanced degree in science will be in great demand (if you stay flexible about some career details, it will be).  But how do you get there from where you are?  This is a guide for folks at any spot along the pathway, from high school through graduate school, to help you understand some of the opportunities and decisions in front of you.  It's kind of, "I wish someone had told me about this when I started" advice, gleaned from the experience of many people who've made it through (or tried to).

     For instance, if you're already in college and you're getting overwhelmed or frustrated by the science program you're in, you should know that there is a lot of overlap in requirements for various science programs in college. Most have "general ed" requirements that are NOT science - English composition, History, etc., which you'll need for virtually any major. In the sciences, it is common for Biology programs to require Chemistry & Physics, for Chemistry to require Physics and Biology, and for almost everything to require math, so even if at some point as an undergraduate you decide you need to switch majors to another science, that will almost never entail a "start all over" pathway. So don't worry that you have to have everything planned out in high school - if later on you go from one science to another, the transition will be easy, and there are lots of ways to go from a science program to a non-science program, since that's often what happens to people who decide they'd better switch before they flunk out. You don't really need to settle on an actual career choice early - if you know that you are interested in science and that some sort of science career is for you, you'll have lots of time to decide beyond that...

     This page is broken down by the steps and programs available - use the "jump links" at the top or just work your way through.






It's probably a good idea to get as much science in high school as you can, but it may be wrong to assume that your high school experience is a good indication of what a particular science is like, or even that it indicates what the college version of that science is like. That also means that a bad experience may not mean that you wouldn't like that area of science. In most cases, an introductory science course in college (for science majors) will be much more intensive than the high school course, but the high school course should (we hope) be good preparation (just keep in mind that just because you had an easy time in high school, you won't necessarily find it so easy on the next level). Keep in mind there are a lot of good high school science teachers, but the majority of them have very shallow educations in the actual science they are teaching - as few as three courses, barely beyond what a midyear college sophomore would have. Be ready to find out, as often happens in college, that much of what you have been taught is wrong. People without adequate grounding tend to sometimes interpret matters badly - if you want an example, find someone who really knows a subject (not necessarily science) to show you what's wrong with a newspaper article or tv show put together by someone who only "sort of" knew the topic - there will be lots of misstatements or misinterpretations.  And as you'll find as you progress through the sciences, what you think you remember may have little relationship to what you were actually taught.  Even great professors sometimes have a, "Ahhh, I've been teaching that wrong!" moment occasionally.

    Don't just work in your science courses, either - if you are not a strong student in other subjects, those will show up again in college as general ed requirements - the more you prepare in high school, the easier they'll be later.

    AP Courses. The good news is, you can sometimes get college credit from a high school AP course  and skip some first-semester college courses (although a lot of colleges will NOT accept AP as a substitute for their courses, especially is you intend to major in the AP subject). The bad news is, this can mess up your first semester schedule and you may not learn what the second semester (and beyond) professors are going to expect you to have learned from your first semester. It may be better to do AP in non-science areas and get done with the general-education requirements you'll need anyway.  Another situation to consider:  if you wind up in a small school with your advanced-placement in a science course, you may lose an important support group:  the other freshmen.  In small schools, each year's class may band together as a cohort, and you'll be ahead of the freshman but not really a part of the sophomore group.

    Early Admit Programs - Some colleges will let high school students enter  and take regular college courses for credit. This will be much more true to the "college experience" than an AP course, is more likely to transfer to whatever college you go to, and will get you even farther ahead of the game. Again, it may be worthwhile to devote this time to general education (non-science) requirements, especially if they are your weakness - later, as a fulltime science student, you won't have to sweat as many of those courses as your classmates.  See also the "support group" consideration mentioned in the section just above.

    Choices - Other aspects of your high school life may impact your ability to get into a good college. Clubs and sports, as you probably know, can be useful, and if you have specific schools that you want to attend, a little homework on the sorts of sports, organizations, etc., they have may help make you more attractive to them. Is a school looking to increase its diversity? Is it trying to establish or maintain a rowing team, a fencing team, a lacrosse team? Has it stressed community involvement for its students? You may be amazed what the current "hot trend" may be on a particular campus, and with a little advanced warning, you can tailor yourself for them and look like a better prospect.

    What next? If you really have no idea what your next step should be, check out the next section for details on the various college experiences.

    Visiting campuses - So you have some colleges in mind and want some idea of what they are like. A visit is great, particularly if you can get there while classes are meeting. Go with a class schedule and, if possible, sit in on a couple of the classes you might take as a freshman. Talk to students if at all possible - they are the best sources to tell you what a particular school is really like. Don't forget that any single person (unless you know them) may be an unreliable source - think what a single person, chosen at random from your high school, might have to say about their experience there.

    There are some other things you may want to find out. If there is a particular program you want to get into - for example, a physical therapy program that would start in your 3rd year - try to find out how difficult it will be to actually get into. If only 25% of applicants are accepted, then even a 4.0 (straight A's) might not be enough by itself to get you in. If you are looking into starting at one school and transferring to another, you definitely want to look into transfer success and possibly articulation agreements (when a second school agrees that, if a student has satisfactorily completed a certain group of courses at the first school, all of those courses will transfer in and the student will be "caught" up with all of their peers at the second school;   sometimes it involves automatic acceptance as well), or even linked programs - for instance, some schools let students onto a fast track, so that what would ordinarily be a senior year acts as a first year of medical, veterinary, or some other specialized graduate school.

    Applying - Go with your strengths. If you test well, look for schools that weigh SAT scores heavily - if you test poorly, shy away from those places. Sorry to say, you will eventually have to get good at such tests, but not necessarily right then.  If you haven't decided on a particular science specialty, "pick" one that will help the most - many sciences attract few applicants, but colleges want those programs to remain healthy, so a potential physics major with a weaker application may get in ahead of an intended pre-med biology major with stronger credentials. If a college wants a writing sample, get proofreading on yours if necessary, and maybe some content advice from whomever is willing to give it - sometimes a college's admissions counselors will tell you, in general terms, what they're looking for in a good application.  Sometimes just the fact that you're trying to do it right will affect your chances favorably (but don't get annoying!).

    Aid - A huge portion of college students are subsidized for the costs - there are many grant programs, some for very particular groups that you might be in.  Of course, many students take out student loans.  Be very careful about the level of debt you enter into - it feels like free money, but it is anything but.  A big debt burden may completely undermine your ability to have the type of career you want - you'll turn down the "right" job because it won't pay enough for you to pay back those loans.




In general, what are the different colleges like?


Community College / Junior College.


    People usually choose to go to these kinds of colleges when they are close to home, but cost may be a factor as well.  There are several advantages to a community or junior college. They tend to be cheaper than other types of college, both because tuition is lower and because most students opt to live at home, so other costs are lower. If you need to work to pay for college, there will tend to be more continuity for jobs and maybe more job-friendly schedules available near such schools.

    Students whose high school averages might not get them into a larger college can go to a community college, do well, and transfer to a larger school. If you seek to get into a more prestigious college, it may be easier to transfer in than to get in directly from high school.  Many community colleges have numerous articulation agreements with 4-year schools, which basically says  a)  a graduate in good standing from a particular community college program may be automatically admitted to the program at the 4-year school, with b)  all of their relevant courses transferred in, and they will have full junior standing.  That can take some of the eventual worry and complications out of the transfer process!  These agreements should be listed in the information available from a community college.

    Science programs may not be so overwhelming at this level - a large university may have 500 or more students in first-semester biology, and you can easily get lost in the crowd, but this will rarely be true at a 2-year school. Classes will be taught by professors whose actual focus is teaching, which may not be true at a university, where professors may actually see teaching as a "necessary evil" to support their research, and where many first-year sections and labs may be taught by graduate teaching assistants with little or no experience or training in teaching. For the most part, the first 2 years of coursework is much the same everywhere, and it's the marks themselves, not where those 2 years were spent, that will be the basis for going beyond a Bachelor's degree.  And keep in mind that when you have a Bachelor's degree from MIT or Harvard, no one will care where you spent your first 2 years, but your college debt will be significantly lower.  However, you may need to be very careful in choosing your classes, because not everything you take may transfer;  one possible avenue is to get a catalog from your target school and compare course descriptions from the two schools.  Usually, if a transfer institution fails to accept course credit, the first response is to show them that the courses in the two schools are comparable - if the catalog descriptions largely match, it should be difficult for them to refuse credit.  You can also check to see which courses most easily transfer.  Many introductory courses are safe, if the credit hours are the same:  introductory majors science courses, with labs, are usually 4 credit hours, for instance.  If you take a 3-hour course, or it lacks a laboratory section, you might wind up having "wasted" that course.  Electives or unusual courses, especially courses that are commonly considered junior-level 300-and-above, will present the most trouble later on - keeping to basic courses will generally serve you better.

    On the down side, many people do not want to stay at home beyond high school, and there is a certain peer pressure for good students to go on to a "real" college. Some community college programs may not be as rigorous as perhaps they should be, and you may not get the preparation you need. Many schools at this level may be dealing with more limited budgets, which may lessen some of the experiences available. You may want to look into transfer success rates, or the rates at which graduates go on to successfully complete Bachelor's degrees, or for schools with particular articulation agreements (a second school agrees that, if a student has satisfactorily completed a certain group of courses at the first school, all of those courses will transfer in and the student will be "caught" up with all of their peers at the second school) with schools you wish to enter. Opportunities beyond the classroom experience may be limited compared to a 4-year school as well, which can be good or bad news depending upon whether your extracurricular activities help or hinder your progress.

   Aid - Look into the National Competitiveness and SMART grants program.  The first year is dependent on what sort of high school program you were in, then they link to the college programs you're in.  They are reportedly a pain to apply for, but the program has been underused and been told to get money into students' hands or get cut, so the money should be there if you qualify and jump through the right hoops.




Small College. 


If you go to a small school, you will probably spend all 4 undergraduate years there. The breadth of available programs will be more limited than at large schools, and some of the science programs may not be respected enough when you try to get into a few graduate programs, but be aware that graduate committees, staffed as they are with administrative secretaries that have more important things to do and tenured professors looking to expend the least effort possible, a great Grade Point Average (GPA) from a so-so school will often put you ahead of a good GPA from a larger university. Some of the advantages and disadvantages of community colleges exist for these schools as well - early classes are probably less huge, and there may be more attention paid to the students. A small residence college can provide a lot of great intangibles, though, in that since the population is smaller, you'll probably develop a broader group of friends (larger schools may lead you to groups based purely on housing and academic specialty) and share a more comparable experience with alumni.

    Prices can vary wildly - public schools can be a fairly inexpensive option, sometimes with a prestige trade-off, and with private college you really want to decide early if the expense is worth it.

    Money. This is a good place to mention that finances matter in your decision at this point (a large proportion of college students will take out some sort of loans), and decisions well down the road may be strongly influenced by how much money you'll owe and how quickly you'll need to get to paying it off. How much money will you have borrowed by the time you're ready to start making money, and how much will you need to make to pay off your debt and still live in a way you'll find acceptable? It may be a good idea to look into the financial side of various science careers and decide if your options are going to be as broad as you'd like.  However, as will be discussed later, you may not need to pay for anything beyond your bachelors degree.

   Aid - Look into the National Competitiveness and SMART grants program.  The first year is dependent on what sort of high school program you were in, then they link to the college programs you're in.  They are reportedly a pain to apply for, but the program has been underused and been told to get money into students' hands or get cut, so the money should be there if you qualify and jump through the right hoops.




 Large College / University.


A large school can be a bit of a surreal experience for students used to 30 being a large class size. Many freshman courses will be at least a hundred strong, maybe MUCH bigger, and the class will be split up into many sections for labs, commonly taught by teaching assistants (TA's). In the "harder" sciences, such as physics and chemistry, a large proportion of the TA's will not speak English as their first language, and communication may be a problem. It's easy to get lost in these circumstances - you may even have trouble just figuring out how you are doing in a course. You may spend 4 years at a university and never even talk to 80% of your schoolmates.

    A VERY IMPORTANT POINT for potential BIOLOGY MAJORS:  try to avoid schools with a large contingent of pre-med students.  Programs in those schools will be focused on failing out as many students as possible before they overfill upper level courses.  A huge number of courses will focus on near-useless minutiae, and no one will care for the material or the students.  Also, because graduate school admission committees are staffed by tenured faculty trying to do the bare minimum possible, it will be hard to sustain a GPA in those programs that will get you a look for graduate school

    However, no other type of school will provide the variety of options available at a university, both in and out of the classroom. Often, especially at universities with a bit of a science "rep," most of the science undergraduate programs will be more than adequate, and many will provide opportunities for research. Often, the choices of upper-level courses will be quite broad.

    One possibility are programs that "link" undergraduate with graduate track, where you can "jump" as a junior or senior into an advanced program - some schools with subsidiary medical or veterinary schools offer this to a select few, usually based on freshman or freshman & sophomore performance.

   Aid - Look into the National Competitiveness and SMART grants program.  The first year is dependent on what sort of high school program you were in, then they link to the college programs you're in.  They are reportedly a pain to apply for, but the program has been underused and been told to get money into students' hands or get cut, so the money should be there if you qualify and jump through the right hoops.




    Technical Specialties.  If you have very specific goals, a school with a very specific preparation might suit you. These include Ag(riculture) and Tech(nical) Colleges, Pharmacy Schools (although many of these are upper-level transfer institutions), Forestry Schools, and others. The career preparation may be better, and the placement will often be better than similar programs at more generalized institutions, but the flexibility to change your mind and the breadth of education you can expect may both be much less.



Your Years in College:


Freshman Year :


If you go away to school, you can pretty much plan on living on-campus the first year - many schools require it. There are certainly good things about this - you don't need to worry too much about such day-to-day considerations as going to the grocery store or having the rent due every month, and you'll be immersed in the college culture, surrounded by other clueless freshman but also upperclassmen with some idea of how the system works. Your college years often will be where many of your longest-lasting relationships are formed, including friendships, romantic connections (the opportunity level will probably never be higher!), and even mentoring relationships.

    You may have some choices of where to live. Usually freshman year is too early to connect with fraternities or sororities (that may happen during this year for the next, though), but there may be housing options at your institution. In some cases, people with declared intents or majors already can be placed in housing set aside for certain disciplines - some large schools may have a pre-med area, or an engineering dorm, etc. There may be some places you'll want to avoid - some areas of campus may have reputations as party dorms, and if you seriously want your education to lead to something substantial, there is a definite limit to how far down that path you can afford to go.  It's a rare student who can party all night and pass a physics exam the next morning.

    During your first year you may have an opportunity to develop habits - or not - that will serve you - or not - for a long academic career and job career after that. Most students procrastinate - why do it today when you can do it later? - but that certainly may not be in their best interests, and it certainly adds to the stress level on several fronts. Building good work habits, finding out how to pace yourself - for instance, you may find that it suits you to leave writing a paper to the last minute if you do a leisurely but conscientious job on gathering the necessary research, or you may need to collect your information quickly and go through several draft versions of the paper, or something in between - is an extremely important part of the education process, but not one that everyone actually learns. Be warned that at most colleges, "prime time" for lecture sections is in the middle of the day, from 10 AM to 1 PM, and lab sections are often spread as far beyond that as possible - 8 AM lab sections are common, especially freshman year, and 7 AM are not unheard of. If you want to succeed, you may have to train yourself to get up and moving when there are no family members yelling at you.

    Studies have found that two very common beliefs can easily undermine new freshmen in rigorous programs.  The first is a version of imposter syndrome -  the student believes that they are not as prepared, or talented, or understanding as much as the other students, and that they have to hide this at all costs.  The studies indicate that this feeling is strong in a majority or university college freshmen.  The second belief is that the student doesn't really understand the assignments, which freezes them - instead of going and asking, or at least trying to do the assignments, they put them off and usually never do them.  They don't grasp that an assignment that isn't done quite right at least gets a mark, and probably makes the next one better.

    There will be plenty of potential distractions and opportunities to pick up a variety of bad habits. Smoking is common, but a particularly bad idea for people aimed at science careers - if you succeed, you'll certainly be working in a smoke-free workplace where at least some of your superiors will think less of you for indulging a habit that so much scientific evidence condemns. Its a common ironic image to show the doctor smoking, but in reality it can impact a career. There will be ample opportunities to do a wide variety of activities when you could be working on class-related assignments, and it will take discipline to resist. And it bears repeating:  partying flunks out at least as many science people as difficulty of classes.

    And expect your classes to be difficult. Most scientists will admit that the class materials take a quantum leap between high school and college, and even familiar material may have several new levels and slants to it. Be prepared for contradictions - science people often disagree with each other on even basic information, and at the very least the stuff you learned in high school was probably oversimplified and out of date. On the surface, just in terms of class time it may seem that college will be lighter than high school - this is why some people take 18 or more credit hours their first semester - but the intensity is much greater, requiring a lot of out-of-class time investment, and the level at which you are personally responsible to sink or save yourself may be much more than you've ever experienced. You may be learning from Teaching Assistants who have no training in actual teaching and who may know the material only slightly better than you, and who may know English a lot worse than you. At large schools, you may be a number in the crowd, a face and name your professor will never become familiar with, and they're expecting the majority of you to fail.  Failure is such a fact of life that if most of you did pass, there wouldn't be enough room for all of you in the next year's sections. In some programs, course may be designed as "weeding-out" experiences - most of the class will fail, and that's how it is supposed to work.  How to avoid failing is partly with you and your approach to the work in general, and partly an on-the-fly adaptation to the particular course and personnel you're faced with. In some particularly competitive programs, you may also need to watch out for other students trying to get ahead at your expense.

    You may find a bit of an underground related to ways to cheat, and some of them may be very successful, but the potential effects of being caught should be at the very forefront of your considerations here. You may wind up with a minor punishment, but often the extent of the consequences are at least partially at the discretion of the faculty member you've defrauded. One professor may decide to fail your assignment, while another may bring you up on charges to a disciplinary committee, where suspension or expulsion is possible, as well as notes made that may travel with your college transcripts to anywhere you try to go later. It's the rare assignment where people cheat and no one ever gets caught, but the whole thing is a matter of odds - if you play them and wind up losing, it can be a life-changing event. There is, of course, the idea that circumventing the assignments will short-change your actual education, but in the actual moments that people seriously consider cheating that doesn't seem to be a high priority. Keep in mind, though, that in academic specialties, there are many ways to "sniff out" cheating that would not be apparent to someone without the proper science background (including you), so by definition the students are at a serious disadvantage.

    You may be in an economic situation that requires employment - work-study or an actual job. There are varied considerations here - some people like a mindless job to offset the academics, while some prefer trying to get some field experience as early as possible. If you have had jobs in the past, it will help you to make the decision here (if you have options). You'll need to arrange hours and perhaps transportation, remember. The more hours you need to work, the fewer class hours you should probably take, but that relates to stress response and sleep needs and will vary with the individual.  The common wisdom is that it is much harder to do well if you have to work also, but there is also the motivation factor that working on a menial level provides.

    College life presents a wide variety of possible outside interests that may not have been available to you before - clubs and sports and arts and such. You need to decide for yourself how much you want to partake, and how much you might look back and regret passing by later. Some options may increase your value at future institutions and/or may look good on a resume, and some may factor into a particularly competitive field. Some may provide side interests that will last your lifetime.

    There are other ways that you can take responsibility, if not control, of your education. Most schools have support networks, official and otherwise, that you can take advantage of. At virtually any school you will be assigned an advisor to help you chart your path, but their success depends upon how well they understand your needs. If advisors can be chosen, look for one with connections to your intended field. This will be more and more important as you pass each semester, but often the system will move you from general advising to major-specific once you have declared a major, so you may not have to do much here. Remember, though, that advisors are as varied as people in any field, and at some schools advising is a faculty assignment that they do only as a chore - some may not be very good at it, and some may not be trying very hard. Go out and research classes and options on your own, form opinions, and plot out, at least roughly, your next semester's classes before you have to see your advisor. For your first couple of years, your options will probably be few, but if you have a particular path plotted, picking courses should be part of that.

    There are several ways that online resources can help you to choose courses or sections, if you're careful and actually have options.  Some courses have extensive online sites - you can see the requirements, sometimes even look over exams, to decide if it's a course for you.  There are online "professor rating" sites, and these can be useful so long as you keep in mind who generally submits to them.  Happy students rarely put anything up, and unhappy students may be unreliable or totally unlike you - they may hate some aspect of the professor's approach that you actually prefer. 

    At larger schools with graduate programs, graduate student Teaching Assistants may be excellent choices as unofficial counselors - they've mostly been where you are, and not very long ago. As with anything, some will be better than others - try the TA's who seem the most relaxed - having undergraduates asking for advice can be stressful, and the tighter-wound graduate students may be a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility. If you can connect well with a graduate student, they can be a great source of information on the courses and professors which will be the best for you, or the most fun, or the most educational (or the easiest, which sometimes will be your primary consideration), and as you advance you'll have someone to ask about the grad-school admission process who just went through it. Don't discount the more-approachable professors as this kind of resource, either.

    Many schools have varying levels of official course-related support programs for undergraduates - course-specific tutors, discussion & study groups, general support for math and writing assignments, etc. Don't let embarrassment at your weaknesses keep you from seeking help, or you'll never strengthen those areas. This can be especially important for some people to help them through their non-science required courses. Libraries can be excellent sources of help, too. Librarians know that they are in a service industry (professors are, too, but don't always seem to know it) and are usually quite happy to help.




Second / Sophomore Year.


Although they can vary widely among schools, most college programs have General Education Requirements, which are a number of courses outside the major that the school and/or the state have decided are a necessity of a well-rounded advanced education. These usually include English Composition courses at the very least, but often include History, Philosophy, Physical Education and even Diversity Tolerance courses. You will be expected to successfully complete these courses before you can earn a degree, and they will usually count toward your Grade Point Average (GPA) the same as any other course (the exceptions will be courses designed to be Pass / Fail graded). This is why it can be useful to have Advanced Placement courses in these areas coming out of high school. Depending upon your own academic strengths and weaknesses, these may be easy, because everyone needs them and most schools don't want a lot of people failing to graduate because of them, or they might be the biggest challenges of your undergraduate career. You do not want to avoid the tough required non-science courses too long - you dont' want one being the make-or-break for graduation in your senior year - so, if you haven't already taken many of them as a freshman, get started as a sophomore on them.

    The English courses may seem a bother, but dont underestimate the effectiveness of good communication skills in a science career. You will probably be expected to write grants, reviews, theses for sure, and even textbooks, and you will certainly need to put resumes and cover letters together that will determine whether you do or don't get an interview. If there are public speaking or education "performance" courses available, you might want to take one as an elective - the science person who can spend a whole career without having to get up in front of a crowd of people is rare.   Even graphic design can be useful - a lot of science is done as poster presentations at conferences.

    Watch out! If you are in a very competitive major, such as many of the health-related fields, one or more of the science courses you're required to take may be incredibly difficult - it's unofficial, but these courses are used to prune the tree of potential students in those majors before they are too far along. In pre-med, for instance, the most common "weeding out" course is organic chemistry, offered usually to sophomores. Its a student version of the Roach Motel - many go in, few come out. If you are a student who has never needed help before, this may be your first experience with struggling.  Adapt!

    This may be the best year for looking a bit beyond your career plans, into what else might be out there in related areas. Double-check your career path now that you've gotten part of the way along and have the beginnings of an idea into what you might really do, and decide if you want to open some "options to fall back on." Are there jobs in the "vicinity" of your "goal jobs" that would be acceptable and attainable, especially if you started "slanting" your training now? This probably is a good time, anyway, to reassess your goals now that you've gained a better view of the field ahead - are you on track, and does it look like you'll be able to get there?  If you were aimed at something like medical or veterinary school, but your GPA is not outstanding, it's time to consider other paths.

    There is a reason why lots of students start as freshmen with a "major" (you probably won't have to officially declare a major until the end of your sophomore year) but wind up changing that at least once during the course of their undergraduate years.  In fact, there are lots of reasons.

    One possibility is to shift into the education area of your chosen field - this could be appropriate for high-school science teaching, which has disturbingly minimal requirements, or college-level teaching, which requires advanced training but may not require extremely good marks. Education degrees can also be used to work in museums and other public-contact areas, including government advisement positions and consulting.

    All this amounts to is that now is the time to be asking, "What do I really want to do?" Do some research - see if there are any current specialization trends in your science, some sub area that is more likely to have jobs or research funding money in the years ahead. You may find that your direction options will be "love versus money" choices - do something you'll really like for relatively little income, or something that you may not find all that fulfilling for lots of money. If you haven't yet, it might be time to start making contact with people in various professions who started with a science degree in your field - look at anything that you think might suit you as a career. Most professionals won't mind talking about their jobs and their backgrounds, as long as it's convenient for them. You probably should try to make appointments, although with some firms just walking in and asking for someone to talk to may work as well. Accumulate a list - laboratories, engineering firms, government offices, health offices or stores (such as a pharmacy) of various sorts - all of these are potential job locations, as well as possible sources of summer jobs. You don't have to really choose at this point, but this can narrow your target somewhat. If you find a position that really intrigues you, maybe you can ask to "shadow" someone in that job for a short time - spend a couple of days as a "fly on the wall" to get an idea of what the job is really like. Usually, up through your sophomore year you've probably been taking the same courses as everyone else in your field, but now you should get more choice in more specialized courses - with some initiative and information, you can design a more specialized degree for yourself than the school is really offering (you might be able to do the course work for a quantum physics degree at a school that doesn't officially offer one, for example). You may as well get a feel for what's out there while you make these decisions. This leads us to...




Third Year - Specialization. 


    If you haven't been doing as well as you thought you would be, an advisor might suggest that you take a B.A. in your science field instead of a B.S. Be careful - a B.A. is often not taken seriously by the people who are hiring for many jobs. Later on, youll find similar problems with an M.A. versus an M.S., but moreso.

    This may also be your main opportunity to add "extras" - courses that will enhance your ability to get into later programs or into certain types of jobs. Are you headed into an area that is largely interdisciplinary? If so, you will be very well served by taking courses in the other discipline. If you are just figuring that you'll get into grad school and decide then, any extra training in computers or statistics will probably help tremendously.

    This may be the best time to start doing laboratory research - look for undergraduate opportunities. These may not be available at smaller schools. Research experience can really help your graduate school applications. It will also start to give you a better idea of what sort of graduate school experience you're going to want - more of this is discussed later. This may also be a good time to select an area for yourself and start to make connections beyond your current school. Who is doing research that interests you? Send them some questions and indicate your interest - when the time comes, if you've made a good impression, these professors can pretty much assure your acceptance into their program.  Additionally, most of the post-graduate applications you'll submit require at least three written recommendations, and recommendations from professors and researchers are best.

    A little-known option is to study abroad - there are several science exchange programs that will allow you a semester or two in a foreign university, possible in a research lab. These run almost like high school exchange programs, generally placing students with host families. Few people know about these - it may take an internet search to find what's currently available - but they might really make you stand out in those later applications.



Fourth Year - Whats Next? 


You're on your way toward your Bachelor's degree. If you stop there, the jobs available are limited in most disciplines - lab technician, documentarian, and the like.

    Additional schooling at this point will take you in two directions - highly specialized fields that may connect closely to the work you've done up until now, such as optometry, dentistry, or industrial training, or school that is at best a tangent, such as law school. If you can handle it, lawyers trained in the sciences are highly valued - think how many areas of the law intersect the sciences, everything from medical malpractice to patent law to product liability. It may be easier to get into a law school with a science degree (and good test scores) than a more "typical" pre-law degree.  Be aware that most law schools specialize in particular areas of law.

    The other place that you can go is to "regular" graduate school, in pursuit of a Master's Degree and/or a Doctor of Philosophy Degree (Ph.D.). The Master's can be a Master of Science (M.S.), which should require research and a thesis, and a Master of Arts (M.A.), which often is just coursework. The M.A. has less potential value than the M.S., because a great deal of what you can do beyond this level will involve work that only an M.S. really prepares you for. Some graduate schools offer a combined program where the Masters is given as a step toward the Ph.D. - these may be more like undergraduate programs, however, which can be a good thing or a bad thing - it depends upon your preferences.  They usually get you through more quickly, too.  Occasionally, you may find a program that goes straight through to the Ph.D., with only the less-successful students getting a M.S. as a sort of "downgrade;"  these will be pretty fast-track.  And in some disciplines, a Masters is not necessary - you can enter programs and go straight to the Ph.D.  In those cases, youd need to make certain which degree program youre applying for entrance to.

    How do you decide where you want to go? It is extremely important to do your research, as important as choosing your undergraduate institution - more, really. Following are a few of the considerations.

Those Pesky Exams, Continued.

    You may think that youre beyond the SATs or ACTs now that youre almost out of college, but there are more, very similar tests between here and the next step.  There are standardized tests for people headed to medical school (the MCATs), law school (LSATs), and regular old graduate school (the Graduate Record Exams, or GREs), among others.  Some will be very much like SATs, testing general knowledge at a (somewhat) higher level than the SATs did, but there are also tests in the various subjects, such as the different sciences.  You may be thinking that these types of tests would be a poor measure of someones ability to do graduate research, and you are exactly right - its a fairly stupid protocol that just makes it easier of lazy graduate committees to sort through applications without actually doing any work, but it is a fact of life that poor scores will in a scary number of cases block your course to the next level.  The general-knowledge tests can be tough, and prep work, even prep courses, can be very useful;  often, the prep books and coursework are tougher than the actual exams, but they still help. I dont know how much a bad score on the special-area exams will hurt you, but a good score will obviously be more useful.  If you do not test well in these sorts or exams, then the information below may be of greater importance to you...


Recommendations for your Applications.

    This may be the time to gather (or at least request) recommendations from your own faculty.  These may be the most important part of your application, which will be reviewed by departmental faculty.  Recommendations from people closely tied to the field you decide to specialize in will be the most useful.  For graduate school, faculty recommendations actually have more weight than outside persons - if you have a choice between your Congressperson and your senior professor, go with the professor, especially if they have some standing in their field.  Graduate school applications get processed through departments, not general admissions offices, so tailor your eventual application to what science professors / scientists would see as valuable...

     When requesting a recommendation, know what format the particular school has (there may not be one, or they may be very particular) and have it written down for the person youre asking.  It may be very useful to also give the person youre asking a short list (topped with a hearty note of thanks for doing this) of what youve done that relates to them:  classes with marks earned, research projects, anything noteworthy that will solidify their memory of you and give them something impressive to write about.  Remember, this may be the single most important part of your application, so doing a separate list for each recommender is not too much to expect.




What Do You Want to Do, Exactly? 


    Here's where we hope that you've been paying attention, because from here on it isn't going to be a generalized education anymore - you can go on and get an advanced degree in a "science," but your actual work will be more focused than that.  What aspects of your science have you been most inspired by?  Which professor has seemed to be doing the most interesting type of research?  It's time to narrow your scope to a sub-discipline within your science, and it's better sooner than later, because graduate schools tend to be a bunch of individuals spread across a variety of specialties.  Say that you've decided to focus on quantum physics, or DNA analysis, or materials design - certain graduate schools will be very strong in those areas, and may even offer advanced degrees with a particular sub-discipline named.  It is not impossible to just pick "a good school" and hope to get in and coast, but you will eventually be steered into an area of some sort regardless of your personal inertia - better to pick something yourself.  If you can't find something you think that you'll like, do some homework and look for where the money is - are there any particular areas that are getting more funding, or in which there's a shortage of specialists that will lead to higher salaries and a greater likelihood of finding a job?  There are several factors that go into finding a specialty, and you should look at them all and try to strike a balance.  Say you really want to go into marine biology - it's a common desire.  There are not a lot of particularly good jobs in the field, and there's a glut of people looking for them, so you should really want to work in that field before you continue in that direction.  Among the grad schools that offer marine biology degrees, there are bound to be differences in focus and reputation - which program is most likely to lead to a job?  

   Once you've decided on a sub-discipline, there are many ways to track down the graduate schools that offer those programs.  Check your library or do a web search.

    Location. How locked are you to a certain geographical region? If you limit yourself, in some disciplines you will really limit your choices, and making follow-ups and connections there to increase your chance of getting in becomes much more critical.

    Assistantships.  Here's some good news - most graduate programs in the sciences will not cost you anything - they will put you to work, however.  You'll probably be asked to be either a teaching assistant (TA) or a research assistant (RA, although that's also commonly used to describe dormitory resident advisors, too)Assistantships commonly include waivers of tuition and sometimes fees, and sometimes even include things like room, board, medical, and books, with living stipends - if you expect money to be a problem, the breadth of support afforded assistants should be a major factor in your picking a place to go.  Your goals - researcher or faculty? - should also factor in, because the availability of the different assistantships will vary from school to school.  Teaching assistants commonly teach laboratory sections, discussion sections, and sometimes freshman-level lecture courses (especially non-majors courses).  In upper-level courses, TA's may write and/or correct exams, do advising, and teach the occasional lecture.  It is quite common to place TA's into classrooms with no or little training and minimal preparation time, sometimes into courses that they have never taken - if you already have a fear of speaking before groups (reportedly the most common fear!), there are additional stressors to expect as a TA.  On the other hand, you will never learn material better than when you need to teach it (and field questions about it).  Schools vary in the amount of autonomy afforded TA's - you may be closely supervised by a faculty member or given a textbook and curriculum synopsis and set loose on your own, or anything in between.  This is, however, a policy that you can probably find out about when looking for graduate schools.  Research Assistants are assigned to the labs of faculty members - often but not always in your chosen field - where they do essentially grunt work at or slightly above the level of a lab technician.  It can be a great way to learn various techniques and become familiar with the workings of an academic lab.  Chances are that, whether you are officially an RA or not, you'll be working in somebodys lab.
    Some schools may offer opportunities to act as paid consultants as well.  This may not be available to new grad students, however, but eventually...   You might also want to look into the placement success of a school, if that information is available.  Some schools have better connections to industry or a better reputation with higher-level graduate schools (I was once told that, after Duke University, there are really no graduate schools in the South that have great reputations for positions outside of the South - I don't know if thats true, but it affected where I applied to do Ph.D. work!).

    Okay, you've decided on a field specialty and started to narrow your search down to the schools that offer that specialty.  What else do you want to look at?

    Faculty will be much more important to you as a graduate student than they were when you were an undergraduate.  You will in all likelihood wind up working very closely with one or more of them, as a TA, RA, or just one of "their" graduate students.  We'll come back to these specific faculty members in a bit.   Overall, though, you have to decide whether the faculty group has enough breadth - are they too focused on one or a few subdisciplines, or is there a lot of variety?  A broad faculty may provide you with some flexibility to change your mind on specialties without leaving the graduate institution - a concentrated faculty may make you into a true expert in that field.  

    It can sometimes be useful if a school has one or a few "names" in their faculty - people with a well-known reputation for excellence in their field.  Even if you only wind up working with such professors occasionally, their recommendations later may be valuable in moving to a new institution or into a job.  People are impressed by fame even in the science communities - an applicant physicist with a recommendation from Stephen Hawking just has a bit of an advantage, dont they?  Don't be too blind, though - a faculty group that can really train you well will be much more useful in the long run than a name than might pry a door a bit wider.

    You will do yourself a huge favor if you are really doing your "homework" now.  Once you settle on a sub-specialty area, start doing a lot of reading in the journals of that area.  If it's really going to sustain you as a career, the articles should be interesting, and what you're looking for at this point is researchers involved in specific lines of research that really interest you.  Graduate school will be your training ground, and you have an opportunity to choose the person who will train you if you take advantage of it.
    Once you have names, try to contact those researchers directly.  Tell them of your interest in what they're doing, and how you're thinking of applying to their school so that you might work with them.  Unless you've picked an overloaded lab with an extremely competitive admissions profile (which do exist), this may be the critical step to getting you where you want to go.  I have seen people whose on-paper qualifications were pretty poor get where they wanted to go because a faculty member there specifically pulled for them.  It's not a trick (unless you are lying) - an important and too-rare commodity in graduate school research is interest and enthusiasm, and why wouldn't a professor want someone who was already familiar with and enthusiastic about their work?
    If you can manage it, it is probably a good idea to visit your top choices, just as it was for undergraduate entrance.  In this case, however, you should set up meetings with the researchers you are interested in working with.  Show up with an interest and knowledge of their work and they may move mountains to get you into their labs.  This also gives you an opportunity to scope out potential personality conflicts - if all goes well, you'll be working very closely with this person, and it would be nice if they did not drive you crazy somehow (or vice versa, but it could be hard to tell if you're bothering them), as well as a chance to talk to the other folks who work there.
     Another item to consider - you should be at this new place for at least 3 years, possibly much longer.  Be aware of whether the person you'll be working with is likely to be there too.  Untenured non-"name" faculty, or folks with very iffy funding streams, may have to leave before you're done, and you may have to start your own research completely over - it's not an uncommon grad school horror story.
     A word of warning - in many cases, a potential mentor with whom you connect and for whom you would be a great fit will still defer to those numbers, your GPA and your GRE scores.  It's frustrating, but science types are often mesmerized by numbers, like small dogs with balls, and although you would believe that someone running a lab would KNOW that numbers, especially mass-market standardized tests, are a pretty dumb thing to defer judgment to, they still will do it.  Maybe it's peer pressure from other committee members who should also know better.




Graduate School.

See also here.


    Remember how confusing your first day of high school or college was?  That feeling doesn't go away in graduate school, especially if you have traveled to a new place.  In some ways, grad school can be worse - there's a huge range in how much support incoming students get, sometimes even at the same institution.  Do not wait long after getting settled in to visit and get acquainted - this is not a situation where just showing up the first day of classes will do it.  

    Teaching Assistantships.  If you have a teaching assistantship, find out as soon as you can what you'll be teaching and get prepared - it is not unusual to be assigned a lower level lecture or a lab in a class that you haven't actually ever taken.  This is both a good and a bad thing.  Teaching a new class is something that you may be asked to do repeatedly if you go on to an academic career, and learning new material well enough to teach it (and answer questions) will hone your studying skills probably beyond anything you've yet developed.  A broad background will look very good when you're applying for academic positions as well, and a willingness to try some unusual course will endear you to the program coordinators (the unusual courses are the ones that none of the TA's are really qualified for) and get you good recommendations when the time comes.  On the bad side, it certainly is more stressful and will require much more preparation time.

    As mentioned above, the amount of autonomy a TA is afforded varies widely from institution to institution, and sometimes within a department as well.  You may be a true assistant, sharing a class or lab with a professor, or you may be an incredibly cheap faculty member, running a class or lab completely on your own, or something in between.  The value of your experience will very much depend on whether you are comfortable in your situation.

    Major Professors / Principal Investigators.  At some point, you will be assigned a supervising professor for your graduate research (were assuming an M.S. track here).  Perhaps you already know who that will be - selecting a grad school based on available researchers was covered above - or maybe you're in grad school as a factor of academic inertia and are flying pretty much blind. It is common to be assigned to a professor on entry, but you should have some say in the matter if you want to.  Some grad schools hold off on assignments - some even have "rotations" that students can go through before picking a concentration area, almost the same way that medical interns do.  If you have some say in the order of a rotation, you might want your early rotation, scheduled during the more hectic beginning days of grad school, to be labs you feel are worse "fits" - better to see the good fits later, when you have more time to deal.  At some point, however, you should have a single faculty member who oversees your progress in graduate school. 

    It is quite common for your major professor / Principal Investigator (PI) to "put you to work" in their own lab, on some aspect of their own research - this is why you were advised to pick someone whose work interests you.  There are major professors who may allow you to strike out on your own project, but don't assume that this will be true.  You should learn many valuable skills in your time in the lab, but they will tend to be narrowly limited to whatever typically goes on there.  Once you have gotten acclimated and familiar with the territory, even a restrictive environment might be broadened with the right approach:  if you have a interest area that you can link to your major professor's research, you might have a chance of stretching beyond his confines -  say you convince him that electron microscopic, or spectrographic, or DNA analysis could be applied, or some new wrinkle added;  this might allow you to gain valuable additional lab techniques and take you on a semi-independent tangent.  The down side is that you probably will pick up a second professor from whatever lab is providing those techniques, so you will have two (or more) people to please with whatever you do.  In a perfect world, with conscientious research, that would not matter, but you'll be dealing with human personalities, rarely perfect.

     In many cases, its the other people, not the "boss," in the labs that you'll mostly be dealing with, and keep in mind that you'll be around them a lot, at least to start.  It's a good idea to try to get some idea of how the people already working there feel about the environment (but what drives some folks crazy barely registers with others, so pay attention to the details!).  Some other considerations, if you can choose a lab from rotation, are:  involvement with students by the professor, both in teaching technique, general support (including gender issues), and advancing careers;  whether funding will be an issue;  how long a typical students "stay" is before earning a degree;  procedures for putting names on publications;  expectations of commitment in terms of hours or otherwise.

    Your Own Research.   To repeat what was just said, how independent you are will vary from lab to lab.  At some point, however, you will be expected to design your own study.  The parameters may be very concrete, as a substudy to the lab's main research, or it may be much more "from scratch."  This is the most creative aspect of science, and as such it can be the most satisfying and terrifying simultaneously.  This is where Scientific Method from your freshman year comes back around and bites you.  What are you trying to find out?  How can you exert control over your results?  (The classic "control group" rarely works as simply as we might like.)   What confounding factors have to be addressed (or ignored)?  How can you collect data so you have something useful that can be mathematically analyzed at the end?  How do you plan on doing your analysis?  What could you expect to go wrong and how much have you planned to deal with it?  You're setting a course that will hit multiple snags along the way, and you will hear the horror stories about a 5-year study that dead-ended and had to be started over.  You will also want to set up an approach that involves copious, possibly useless notes.  You'll hear other stories about research that dead-ended in one area but went off on another tangent, thanks to the researcher keeping loads of what seemed like irrelevant notes on virtually everything that happened along the way.

    Most of the actual work that you will do in graduate school will be drawn from the design you put in place at the beginning of your research.  Many grad school drop outs got "well into" the research phase to discover that they had no clue what they were doing or where they were headed.  Some major professors will be micromanagers - if you feel that you will not be good at keeping your own momentum going, they are the best people to be working for.  If you feel that its time for some independence, that you can keep yourself directed as long as someone is around to answer your questions, then that is the sort of lab you need to find.

    And don't forget that basic tenet mentioned long ago - you need to use all resources available, including the human ones.  Don't be afraid to walk into the office of a faculty member you don't know looking for information - if their response is nasty and unhelpful, it won't be your fault!

    Graduate Committees.  Most schools will set up a small group of professors to act as your graduate committee.  These may be mostly people that you've worked with, but in a large enough department it may include people with whom you've had very limited contact.  What the committee does varies from school to school.  It is common for them to write periodic exams that you take to assess your "progress," which could mean anything.  If you have to take such exams, it's an extremely good idea to talk to your committee members and find out what areas they think are important to know (in my own experience, one of my committee members expected fairly extensive knowledge on history - people, dates, things that I had no idea would be important on such an exam and which I hadn't learned anywhere).  In most places, it will be the committee that eventually assesses your thesis, the paper that "sums up" your graduate research project.

    Writing Your Thesis.  It's the running joke of grad school:  people who say "I'm almost done - all I have to do is write my thesis!"  Writing your thesis will probably be much more difficult than doing your research, especially if you blew off your undergraduate writing courses figuring you'd never need the skills.  It is common for somewhere along the line, one of the faculty members who needs to approve your work will actually notice things like spelling and grammar errors.  At least word processors help some, especially for the infinite revisions you'll need to do.  You can only trust spell-checkers just so far, though.  If you have friends that are good proofreaders, find out how to thank / bribe them.

    Publishing.  Although most PhD theses need to be published to be approved, the rules vary for MS theses.  It certainly helps to get approval if at least part of it is published - remember, to many of your committee members the subject will be out-of-their-area and hard to assess, but journal publication says that outside peers in your field thought the work worthy.  Publishing raises a whole new level of problems, though:  scientific journals generally each follow slightly-different format, so you'll need to tailor your work to specific sources (and change them if you have to try another one).  You will get feedback from the journal editors, both on general form and scientific content (this is peer review, you may have heard of it), which may be difficult to deal with sanely (you may run into similar problems with your major professor and committee members, which can be worse because they may be within physical reach);  people (translate: you) get quite proprietary about work they've invested such time and effort in.  Don't expect to get an article published without major revisions - if you need to, comfort yourself with the idea that the reviewers have to do something to justify their positions...

    Presentation(s).  It is common to be assigned seminar and research classes that will require oral presentations - try to get used to speaking in front of groups and handling questions.  It might be suggested that you present your research at a conference, which is a prestige addition to a resume but can be quite stressful.  You may just be presenting a poster (think a highly scientific variation on a 2nd-grade project) or an oral presentation, which is more nerve-wracking.  It is also extremely common to expect Master's candidates to present their research to the department, with slides and videos and charts and tables, all of the things involved in the papers but blown up and projected.  Attend such meetings, watch others go through it, pay attention to who asks questions and the sorts of questions they ask, and then don't be surprised if you get something completely different for your own experience.




After a Master's Degree - 


Do you continue on?  There are some things that can be done with a Master's degree alone.  These include the things that a Bachelor's is good for, as well as teaching in the "lower echelon" of colleges - community colleges, junior colleges, some smaller four-year colleges.  These jobs will be more teaching and less research oriented, and will often involve no research facilities or funding at all.  Some research positions, especially in commercial areas if you have a marketable expertise, may be accessible as well, and some consulting jobs too.  Look below for some job-seeking advice.  However...

    Going for a Ph.D.  What is available to the MS-holder is more-or-less there for Ph.D. recipients as well, but the additional piece of paper may move you to the forefront of job applicants and increase the range of available academic jobs.  The Ph.D. is especially important for university and upper-level laboratory jobs (both of which may require post-doc experience, covered later).

    Whats a Ph.D. program like?  If you liked the Master's Program, you'll probably enjoy a Ph.D. program as well.  If you stay on at your current university, there may be very little change, and switching schools will involve changes more between programs than between levels.  Assistantships are available, although there may be an expectation of taking a Research Assistantship rather than one in Teaching.  Expect a probable increase in responsibility, maybe even a bit of a supervisory role in your professor's lab - this of course varies according to the professor.  You may also be expected to be much more self-directed in your research.
    The research for a Ph.D. should be much more extensive and in-depth than what was needed for your Master's - go to the library and look through archived dissertations for a flavor, especially those that were developed in your major professors lab.  You may be expected to go to more meetings and make more presentations, and most programs insist that your research be published to be acceptable.

Research - The Importance of Being Stupid.




After a Ph.D.  (And preparation during the Ph.D. period) 


    Post-Doctoral Work. 
It has become almost a requirement in some fields that if your aim is fairly high, you'll need to do some post-doctoral study.  This may be described as a continuation of the research you've done as a doctoral student, but probably in a new institution, at close to the same low wages, while you position yourself for some upward mobility.  Many high-profile research jobs and university-level faculty positions are being filled by people with such experience, but situations may vary in subfields, so ask around.

    Early Preparation - Networking and "Dry Runs."  For many post-grad positions, you can ease the transition with some preparations during the final years of your Ph.D. training.  Go to meetings within your field (or whatever field you want to continue in) and try to meet people.  Ask questions about others work, get yourself known, keep track of who you've met and where they are.  Try to get a feel for what's available and, if youve got some idea, let people know what you're looking for.  If you can be likeable, you may find that you'll get calls or e-mails when openings occur, and the more people you know on hiring committees or who can talk to human resource executives for you, the better you'll do.  You will want to present yourself as someone that others would want as a colleague, which can be difficult  - it's tough to see yourself as others might.  Talk to friends about what your strong and weak points on first impression might be.  Take note of how you react to new acquaintances, and what aspects make you take note of someone, from both a good and a bad standpoint.

    When possible, include yourself in procedures for grant applications and/or consultations - both of these can be critical skills for positions you might be interested in.  If you can tell a university search committee that you actually wrote your lab's successful grant applications, you will have vaulted over a cadre of other applicants.

    Sitting in on the Hiring Process.  If your graduate school doesn't provide such opportunities, you'll need to find a way to participate in faculty searches - even searches for non-science positions can be useful.  This will allow you to look at cover letters (very important!), resumes (somewhat important), and transcripts (possibly critical) and listen to discussions about who will be called for interviews.   It will be very difficult to get a job if you don't first get an interview, and most positions will get many more applicants than will be interviewed.  You'll probably find that such things as spelling, grammar, and clear writing will be extremely important to at least a few members of any search committee;  some will be swayed by a smooth cover letter;  some may prefer "real-world" experience while some may look for a breadth of academic experiences, including teaching, publications and possibly citations;  most will know enough about what needs to be done in the position that academic background may be the most important aspect (and being slow with a transcript can make the difference!).  All of these can be addressed in your future applications.

    Sit in on interviews whenever possible;  you will not only get a feel for what will commonly be asked but the experience will become less intimidating for you.  If you can, try to be included on whatever "extras" applicants go through at your institution:  they may be asked to teach a class, or meet with administrators, or be given a tour (it could be useful to get a chance to talk to them in a less formal setting and then see how they change - for good or ill - in the actual interview).  If you have nonacademic contacts and are looking at such a career (sitting in on the academic hiring process will still be valuable), being able to "sit in" on hiring may be more difficult to arrange but may be even more valuable.

    Academic Careers.  You will probably by now have developed a feel for how the different academic levels put different demands on the participants.  You are probably overqualified for most secondary-school positions (contracts often stipulate pay based upon degree, which prices you out of entry-level positions), but any level of college is attainable in theory.  Start looking early - The Chronicle of Higher Education is a source (it will be useful to subscribe and get access to postings online earlier), as is Science.  Get an idea of what requirements seem to go with what level, and how the timing typically works.  You may need to move, based on how broadly your particular expertise applies.  Start to decide how much you want to devote to research, because the amount you can do, or will have funding for, will be wildly different at different levels.  The flip side of that is that the more research you do, the more results you'll need to produce - publications ("publish or perish" is not just an expression), patents, grants, recruited students, etc.

    The Adjunct "Problem."  A rather amazing number of classes at many colleges are being taught by adjunct, or part-time, employees, which reduces the number of full-time positions available but often offers an application process less rigorous that you need to go through for a full-time position.  If you have a position on a campus already, it may be much easier to move into such jobs when they open.  To make something close to a living as an adjunct, you probably will need to commute to multiple campuses, though, and work a lot of nights and possibly week-ends.  And that leads to...

    Location, location, location.  If you have a choice of places to go, one consideration to keep aware of is regional - how many colleges are in the vicinity of where you're thinking of going?  If something were to happen at this job (especially after you get settled into an area), it's probably better if other potential employers were nearby (for the adjunct route mentioned above as well).  This is especially important if you have a significant other also looking for an academic job - you're most likely to both find proper work in an area with multiple opportunities.  On a side note, college is an excellent time to find a significant other, but it's the period after as you adjust to outside life, with all of those added stresses, that really determines whether you've chosen well.  You certainly may decide to follow a career (but whose-?) wherever it leads, which will probably involve many moves.

    Research Careers.  In the sciences, research and teaching are often present in different mixes, but there are purely research positions available.  If possible, try to get some flavor for how these work while you're still in school.  Depending upon the company, different skills and personalities may be useful.  Upward mobility may vary widely, depending upon the importance of research within the company framework.  And upward mobility (this can be true in University labs as well) may draw one out of research into administration, a very different pursuit.

    Keep in mind that, if unsure whether you want to devote your career to industry or academia, you probably want to try research first;  it is easier to get a teaching job with "real world" experience than to move from "the classroom" (where, it's assumed, your skills have atrophied and you have fallen behind the latest trends) into industry.

    Consulting and Advising.  These options will be much stronger in some fields than others;  some consulting opportunities will necessitate working in a consulting firm, some may demand that you quickly establish your own business, a challenge that involves marketing and legwork and will be hugely helped by some preparation in business.  Advising will usually be governmental, which may be both challenging and frustrating (not that almost any career doesn't have those aspects) and may be useful for making contacts, as well as often being extremely stable work over the long term.




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS - Many people have helped with advice and information, including Andrew Littlefield, Kristy Daneli, Michael Macri, Michael McCarthy, Stephanie McDarby, Robert and Randy Fox, John Kohn, Varghese Pynadeth, Leah Penn Boris (& Ed Alkaslassy) and lots of folks at the Scientists Community at LiveJournal.

FEEDBACK - Are there more questions needing answers here?  Is something unclear?  Does your experience contradict a point, or would you like to add something?  Please e-mail me...



Copyright 2001-2016.   Michael McDarby.    
Last Update June 1, 2016.