How To Start A Career In Science
Now more than ever, the world needs scientists. We need science, and the technology that flows from it, to address pressing challenges in climate, energy, health, and human harmony.
So I’m delighted every single time a student asks me how to get started in a career in the sciences.
Jennifer, for example, asks:
Dear Dr. Erik,
I am emailing you because I really enjoy my research methods class and could see myself doing psychosis research as a career. That is where my dilemma comes from, I don’t know how to get into research as a career. If possible could you point me in the right direction? Also, I’m getting really good grades now but I had some bad grades earlier in my university studies. Will that be a problem?
I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying your research methods class, and I’m delighted to hear of your interest in a possible research career. Here are some suggestions about next steps for you.
If you don’t know already, learn how to use PubMed to find papers/studies related to questions that interest you.
Your university librarian can show you how to become a power user of PubMed.
Then start reading the papers all the way through to find which ones most excite you.
(If you can’t get through the whole paper without falling asleep or doing some other distracting activity, that will be a message from your brain telling you that the topic is not really all that interesting for you).
You’ll be baffled by many things in the Methods sections of these research papers and likely will not have heard of all the statistical tests that they report in the Results section.
Don’t get bogged down with those at this stage. The more you read, the less baffling it will become.
Also, since you’re currently taking a research methods class, you can go over your Methods section or Results section questions with your instructor. There’s no better way to learn than when you’re made to apply your book knowledge to real life questions.
Having access to an instructor to help with this is icing on the cake.
Once you’ve done some reading to find the topics that really drive your curiosity, then look up the authors. The lead investigator will often be the one whose email address appears in the paper as the corresponding author.
This will let you know who is doing the work that ignites your interest.
Next… contact the lead investigators.
Let them know that you’re considering a research career, that the questions they are trying to answer are the questions that interest you, and ask if they would have time to talk with you to get their advice on how you could enter a research career.
Real teachers will be delighted to talk with you.
The ones who are too busy to respond won’t be good mentors.
When you talk with the investigators, you’ll also want to ask who else is doing good work in the field that interests you.
Now you’re building your list of universities where you’ll want to consider applying. And you’re building this list based on projects or ideas that interest you. It’s way better to let the idea lead you to your next school. It’s often painful to first choose the school and look for an idea that works within it. Same advice goes for anything in your career in science. Let the idea guide your methods. Don’t learn a method and look for ideas you can subject to it.
Finding the questions that really interest you is really the most important thing at this stage. (And again, talking with your teachers or working scientists can help you find those questions). The question is important because acquiring science skills is hard and long. Pursuing a question that matters to you helps you stay engaged with the learning process and adds meaning to your work.
I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you start working on now will not be the question you’ll be focusing on 10 or 15 years from now. That’s because science is largely unpredictable – as are the opportunities that you’ll find as you work within science. The project you’ll be working on in graduate school is not the end-all, be-all of training. It’s just a tool to help you learn how to think like a scientist.
The upcoming next stage of your training is about you getting the thinking skills and mentoring in science so that you can successfully ask and answer questions that are important.
To enter graduate school, you’ll probably have to take an entrance exam. Most likely, it will be the GRE. So you’ll want to start familiarizing yourself with that exam and looking at where and when it’s offered.
Regarding competition and your background, they will probably demand evidence of your current ability to be successful in their program (that’s partly what the GRE is supposed to help with).
Developing a relationship with lead investigators (from the initial steps I outlined) may give you an advocate in the admissions process.
You may also be pleased with this little-known fact about working toward a graduate degree: it might be free.
Many science graduate programs waive tuition and pay a monthly stipend in exchange for your working as a teaching assistant or research assistant.
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