As your undergraduate years wind down to completion, you will ultimately ask yourself, what next? Fortunately, as a life sciences student, there are many paths you could take and the hardest part may be choosing one. If graduation is just around the corner and you have no idea what you’re going to do next, don’t panic. Yes, let me repeat, it will all be okay.
Whether you’re planning to continue your education or jump into the workforce, take some time to consider your future. Depending on who you are, the time you’ll need may range from a few days to a few years. Both extremes work, but your next move will vary depending on where you lie on the spectrum.
No More School…for Now at Least
Soon you’ll have your new and shiny diploma and you’ll be left with some choices to make. If you’re not feeling graduate school or you at least need a break before furthering your education, here are some options you might want to consider.
Right off the bat, don’t be afraid to start with an internship. Internships can be a great way to transition into regular employment by strengthening your resume and providing a sneak peek into a particular research environment. Maybe you really want that genetic engineering position working with mice, however you don’t have an engineering degree or mammalian research experience. An internship is a great way to get that experience and prove that you’re driven to learn. Or maybe you’re curious about life at a biotech/pharma company. Here’s your chance to get a taste, make valuable connections, and learn new skills transferable to your next job.
Industry vs. Academia
If you’re not interested in an internship and you’re planning on pursuing a traditional research position, the first two things that usually come to mind are industry and academia. While finding a position in the biotech/pharma industry is extraordinarily competitive, the average compensation is on the higher side. Competition can be stiff for industry positions because usually BS and MS graduates are competing for the same or similar spots. Landing a job as a research technician in academia is relatively easier but the compensation is usually less. However working in academic labs may look attractive to those trying to break into a new research field, garner strong letters of recommendations, or make connections at a particular university. One alternative option would be to check out research hospitals, which tend to be more of a hybrid of industry and academia (leaning one way or the other depending on the institution).
If you’re not ready for graduate school but plan on attending eventually, don’t feel bad about taking some time for yourself. Graduate school of all kinds takes serious motivation and if you’re mentally exhausted from attaining the degree you just got, it’s probably best you take a breather before trying to get your next one. Taking time off is a great way to see what it’s like in the real world, experience adulthood, pay off any debts, and gain some perspective on life with new responsibilities. By taking time off, it shows you’ve given some thought about your future and your next steps are well intended.
If you know you’re ready to bring your education to the next level and you have given yourself time to complete the application process, let’s talk graduate school. Assuming your undergraduate degree is in the life sciences, there are three common ways to move forward.
Master of Science (MS)
An MS degree usually runs for 1-2 years and includes formal coursework as well as hands on research experience. Some schools offer a “fifth year masters” program which is basically a year-long continuation of your BS including graduate coursework and often a research component. It’s a great way to sharpen your skills in a particular scientific field while gaining an edge in the workforce. Compared to a PhD program, the entry requirements are less competitive, the time commitment is much shorter, and in most cases you’ll be responsible for funding. If an MS is not crucial to your future career, it may be hard to justify the financial investment while other options, such as PhD programs, are available. Side note: If you’re looking to branch out into business or law, getting an MS before an MBA or JD can be an excellent combination that will set you up for a promising career.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arguably the most attractive aspect of a PhD program is that most are fully funded (at least in the United States). If accepted into the program, many schools guarantee fully covered tuition as well as a yearly living stipend. A PhD in science is often regarded as the most comprehensive training in scientific discovery. After 5-7 years of a combination of advanced coursework and original research, you’ll have established your ability to perform science on the cutting edge of human knowledge. Obviously a PhD will open many doors however it is not for everyone. It takes serious motivation, commitment, and ability to finish successfully and due to the hypercompetitive state of grant funding; even the most advanced degree will not guarantee your dream job. However, if you hope to become a professor, principal investigator, or high level scientist in industry, a PhD is pretty much required.
Master of Business (MBA)
If you love science but still want to express your business savvy tendencies on a regular basis, you might be interested in attending business school. Some are surprised by the fact that you don’t need a BS in business to attend some of the best graduate business programs in the country. In fact, business schools seek out science majors who often have the most developed critical thinking skills of all students. If you started as a science major and your true calling is business, know the transition is well within your reach.
Off the Beaten Path
Some people enjoy science yet, the traditional career paths are just not for them. If you find yourself under this category, don’t worry. There are plenty of alternative jobs available to people with a strong background in science. Some examples are more common such as science communication or talent acquisition while others are less common including brewing scientist or winemaker.