Since all I can think about recently is graduate school, I thought I’d fill you guys in on some of the nuts and bolts of a life in science. Often, professors just assume undergrads know what a typical career path looks like in the sciences, but in reality most people are sort of clueless.
So thank heavens for Professor Lois, who decided one day while lecturing for 9.12 that he needed to tell us “what you’re getting into by majoring in biology.” (That’s actually a verbatim quote. Imagine it in a cool Spanish accent.) 9.12 is known in words as Experimental Molecular Neurobiology, one of three lab courses offered by the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department. Except that we think in numbers around this joint.
My notes from that lecture can be found here, in PDF format. There are lots of arrows on that page, so I’ll try to clarify.
First you finish your undergraduate degree in the subject of your choice. You don’t have to be a biology major to go to graduate school in biology, but you should have at least taken some upper-level biology electives and labs. Most importantly, you should have some serious undergraduate research experience under your belt. (Luckily, that’s not a problem for most of us at MIT — 80% of MIT undergrads participate in research at some point during their four years.)
After you graduate with flying colors, you head to graduate school, generally to a PhD program. Master’s degrees don’t mean much in biology or other sciences (although they are more useful in engineering). A fact that surprisingly few people know about science/engineering PhD programs: You don’t have to pay for them. Actually, they’ll pay you! I mean, it’s not a huge amount, but $30,000 a year is quite a bit more than I currently make as a UROP. I even applied for a fellowship that will (if I win it) pay me $45,000 a year. That’s crazy money!
Following your PhD (which could take anywhere from four to six to a zillion years, depending on how fast you get your thesis done), you have to decide whether you want to go into academic science (at a university), industry (for biologists and chemists, often pharmaceuticals), or government (NIH for me, NASA for my boyfriend). You could also at this point decide to go to law school (patent law is apparently extremely lucrative for people with a strong technical background) or be a science writer.
Sidenote: A lot of people at MIT are interested in MD/PhD programs, in which you go through both a PhD program and a medical school program and come out a) exhausted and b) with two sparkly degrees and practically a guaranteed position in academic medicine. (Brag! My friend Jen ’06, who was cheerleading captain with me last year, just found out today that she’s been accepted to two MD/PhD programs.) MD/PhD programs are nice because most of them pay for medical school, but they’re definitely not for the lazy.
So back to our hypothetical biology undergrad –> grad student –> postdoc in academia (for the sake of argument, let’s call her Mollie). A postdoc lasts for about 3-5 years, during which said postdoc attempts to publish anything and everything he/she can in order to build up his/her CV. The average postdoc in the US works 50 hours a week (I read that in Nature last week while eating lunch at the lab. Guess I’m already well on track, huh?). Postdocs in academia do not make very much money; my 21A.100 (intro to anthropology) professor says that academics have a great deal of “cultural capital” instead of economic capital, which apparently means they’re supposed to be happy with making peanuts because people think they’re smart.
Finally, if the postdoc has not been naughty and has left out a plate of cookies and some eggnog, Santa Claus brings her a faculty position in a respected academic institution. At this point, all the research skills she has honed over the past n years are all sort of useless, as she must now learn how to manage the technicians, undergrads, grad students, and postdocs in her lab without everybody killing each other. Professors make a great deal more than postdocs, especially after they get tenure (which means they can’t be fired and therefore may hire people to fan them with fern leaves and feed them grapes), but the best part about being a professor is that you get to be last author on all the publications that come out of your lab.
People do not usually get rich as academic scientists, even if they are very brilliant and well-respected. (The exception is Professor Sadoway, who wears nice suits, drinks fine wines, and drives fancy cars. I’m not really sure how he got away with it.) Oh well, at least I’m marrying a rocket scientist… ;)
Answers to questions:
1. Timur accused me of being superhuman, which I do not think I am. Does it really sound like I’m doing that much work? Cause, I mean, heaven knows I eat and sleep and whine in the lounge and take showers and play with Adam and all that fun stuff. Maybe I should do another “day in the life”, only on a day when I have nothing to do.
2. Adnan (zking, right?) asked if most MIT students are involved in extracurriculars. Jessie might be a better one to ask about that, since she’s vice president of the Undergraduate Association and might have those sorts of statistics, but I am certainly sure extracurricular participation is the rule rather than the exception. I mean, look how many extracurricular groups are registered at MIT. And that doesn’t even include MIT’s 41 varsity sports programs. Furthermore, many students are involved in running various aspects of campus life, from the campus-wide (the UA) to each individual living group. MIT students were very used to being involved in extracurriculars in high school; why should that change upon arriving at MIT?