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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Careers in biology by Mollie B. '06

Also known as "why on earth I'm applying to graduate school".

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?

9 responses to “Careers in biology”

  1. Nikki says:

    Wait, so are you two engaged?

  2. Merudh says:

    lol you seem to know all the cc “players” now…adnan, timur lol

    but anyway, if you don’t already know the name’s merudh…I think you mentioned my name in a previous entry…sorry I didn’t get a chance to comment. But anyway, all your stories are fascinating and wow all these smart people getting into all these smart places. I wish you the best with that fellowship you applied for by the way

    …in the meantime, i am awaiting the results of my MIT decision =O

  3. Merudh says:

    lmaoooo “engaged” ahahh

  4. Timur Sahin says:

    @Merudh: Are you kidding, me and Mollie? We’re like this: *crosses fingers.* In fact, just the other day, I was walking down the hall, and someone said “Mollie!” and I turned to answer. True story. We’re practically twins.

    Okay, not really. While it’s true people have confused me for being a female before (mostly from behind when I had long hair and was absolutely clean shaven), I in no way resemble Mollie.

    I had something serious to post here, but I lost it to a stupid browser bug. I’ll post it tomorrow when I have time.

  5. Adnan Esmail says:

    Thanks for your response. I was truly fascinated by the breadth of extracurricular opportunities available at MIT. I would definitely enjoy emerging from my shell and joining the various clubs and groups! I now understand why some of my freshman friends at MIT are overwhelmed not with the work, but with the immense amount of enthralling opportunities. There’s just so much stuff to do, so little time!

    Anyway, I wanted to know how you decided on your major? I, for example, am very interested in the Neurological Sciences and Psychology (maybe Neuropsychology?).

    To add to this, I love both biology and technology. I’ve formally “declared” my major in my apps as Biological Engineering. I’ve found, however, that bioengineering seems to apply technology to biology. I’m wondering if it would encompass applying biology to technology.

    Amidst all this, I have developed a keen interest in alternative energy sources and practical applications of technology. As you can see, my interests are very diverse. grin

    Anyway, to concisely state my questions, as my structure is very jumbled:

    1. How did you decide on your major? When?

    2. Any recommendations on a major that might encompass my large range of interests?

    3. Is there a specific major which applies Biology to Technology? If so, is it Biological Engineering?

    Once again, thanks for your prompt responses. Your blog really does provide insight into the life of an MIT student.

  6. Timur Sahin says:

    As far as I know, Mollie and Adam are indeed engaged. If not in the classical “I-got-you-a-ring” sense, then at least in the “We’re-married-before-I-publish-my-thesis-no-ifs-ands-or-buts” sense. raspberry

  7. John says:

    hahah you make your As in a comical way to me. It took me a few minutes to figure out they were As and not Us

  8. Raghav says:

    Thanks for that.

    Adnan, you have voiced my thoughts to the letter (except for the psycology part anyway). I asked the same question about bioenginneering to my EC (a Bioengineering graduate from MIT).

    According to her, Bioengineering (cell & tissue engineering track) is more about biology than physics. An example of research she gave was regenerating nerve cells to cure paralysis, which is exactly the sort of thing I want to do (don’t want to design pacemakers etc.) MIT’s programme is amazing in that sense, surprisingly less Physics and more Biology.

  9. Anna Park says:

    What paths do students who want to enter the medical follow when there isn’t a pre-med program? And how did MIT get them closer to achieving their aspirations?

    Thanks for aiding prospective students like me! Any response would be wonderful, especially when I’m trying to persuade my parents that MIT would be the perfect place for me. They, unfortunately, think it might be tooooo stressful. :(