How To Stay Sane in Graduate School!

May 24, 2010

Being a graduate student is an exciting journey that definitely has its ups and downs. The roller coaster ride comes from the highs and lows of the many experiments that are performed with usually only a fraction of them resulting in positive results. When you perform several experiments and spend countless hours in the lab only to find out your efforts do not lead to an expected outcome, frustrations can rise frequently. However, when   a positive result is finally obtained, the feeling is so rewarding that it often makes all the aggravations worth it.

One way in dealing with the many frustrations that arise along the way in research is by surrounding yourself with a solid network of people who can provide advice and mentorship. As a graduate student you learn to optimize experiments and being vocal to other colleagues and friends about the problems you are experiencing can often lead to insightful ideas that you would not have thought of on your own.

Additionally, I feel that although keeping a strong focus on your research project is very important, it is also key to become involved in other extracurricular activities. It is often these other activities that provide some breathing room from the normal day to day research problems and can also help create a great network of friends and mentors.

Being actively involved in other activities can provide a strong skill set that will most likely prove valuable even after graduating. As a student there are several opportunities to become involved such as by joining different societies or even taking on a teaching assistant position. Becoming a teaching assistant is a great way to discover if teaching in academia is something you want to pursuer after graduating.

Furthermore, amongst the busy schedule you may have due to your research committments and other activities, it is important to remember have some fun and enjoy yourself! Taking time to relax can allow you to clear your head and sometimes even lead to great research ideas!

On the whole, I think graduate school can be one of the best times of your life and it is all about being able to stay passionate about your research project and learn as much as you can, but also stay actively involved in other activities and have some fun along the way.

Vaneeta Verma


Not Research. Now what? – Alternative career paths outside a lab for people with a background in life science

May 20, 2010

You have finished your degree in an area of life science. Perhaps lab research does not look like a good career option for you, or you just simply want to try something different. You ask, “ Not research. But now what? ”

There are many answers to that question. You do not have to spend the rest of your life in a lab like you did in your last year of undergraduate study or through your graduate school. There are lots of opportunities outside laboratories for you to choose from. Here are some options.

1. Journalism and writing

If you have good writing skill and communication skill, you could consider becoming a science journalist for newspaper science/technology/medicine section, popular science magazines such as Scientific American, or for online science websites. A career in journalism will expose you to the lasted development in biotech and the latest discoveries in life science. It is a stimulating job.

2. Education

This option includes teaching at different levels. If you enjoy teaching high school biology, attend teacher’s college and obtain a bachelor’s degree in education. If university is what you prefer, you could become a lecturer. Also, there are online education programs that need scientists. Consider teaching an online course or getting involved in the making of educational software. Additionally, you could teach for private companies. For example, become an MCAT biology instructor for companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review.

3. Software engineering

If you are good at programming or math, why not work in biocomputing or bioinformatices. You do not have to join a research lab and analyze data for other biologists. You could design computational tools or biologists. Either Write and patent your own software independently, or join a software company, for example, the MathWorks, and help engineers develop software.

4. Art

Artists are needed for illustrations in scientific papers, textbooks, magazines and educational software. Try to combine your life science background and your artistic talent to help out scientists illustrate their ideas in research papers or help educate the public with your drawings.

5. Public policy

Scientists can get involved in policy making at the federal level in various areas, for example, drug approval, natural health product regulation, public health risk assessment, environment conservation, etc. Such a job will usually involve a large amount of literature research.

6. Law

This path requires you to attend law school. Your background in science gives you an edge to practice medical laws and patent laws. You are not limited to working for a law firm. You could work as a lawyer for a biotech or pharmaceutical company as well.

7. Patenting

A patent agent is a person that represents patent applicants and helps them get their innovations patented. You do not need a law degree. To peruse this path, you need a year of on-the-job training as a patent trainee at a law firm, and then pass the qualifying exam. A technical background and good writing skill are necessary for success in this area.

8. Healthcare

Another option is to become a health care professional by attending professional schools such as medical school, dental school, pharmacy school and optometry school. Admission is competitive and the training is long. However you science background definitely helps. The job stability and good salary are attractive to many people. Let’s not forget about pursuing a graduate degree in the allied health sciences, for a career as a Physiotherapist, Occupational Therapist, Dietitian, Speech Language Pathologist or Physician Assistant, just to name a few.

9. Marketing and Sales

The easiest way to go into sales is to work for a biotech or pharmaceutical company. A sales representative is usually well compensated. Since it is performance-based, your commission can potentially exceed your base salary. To succeed in sales, you need good people skill. As a sales representative once told me, “ it is all about networking.” Also be prepared for frequent travelling.

10. Investment banking

Investment banking is very hard to enter. There are only 20,000 positions worldwide every year. A six-figure base salary is guaranteed. A performance-based bonus can reach up to million dollars. Get an M.B.A. or another degree in Finance first, and then get into investment banking. There is an increasing need for scientists in this area, as healthcare banking is becoming more and more important. Training in science can usually help an investment banker to predict if a drug or medical device business would succeed or not.

11. Technology transfer

Help evaluate a research innovation and turn it into a business. A lot of new technologies in life science can be turned into business and change our daily life. You could specialize in areas such as biomedical science, biomedical engineering, agricultural innovation, etc. To enter technology transfer, you need some business background. You might want to consider getting an M.B.A.

12. Philosophy/Bioethics

If you have a passion for philosophy, you could combine it with your science training and become a bioethicist. There are not many job openings in this area. You are most likely to become a university professor or book authors.

Laboratory is not the only place for a life science graduate. Remember your training in life science is just a start. You can combine it with almost anything you are interested in! Go for something you are passionate about because it is your passion that will lead you to your success.

By Candyce Sun