When my undergrad graduation was approaching, I was surrounded by peers who didn’t know what they wanted to do after university. Originally, many of us chose to study biology out of pure interest or with hopes of going to medical school. But as fourth year approached, we all quickly realized that not all of us could, or even wanted to be doctors. So we had to forge out a different path. Most of my friends chose to remedy their what-to-do-after-school dilemma with… well… more school. Some went into two-year accelerated nursing degrees, others into college for lab-technician degrees, and then there were people going the opposite way – into business for their MBAs (masters of business administration).
It seemed that almost all of my friends chose to continue with school, whether professional or graduate.
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. Despite the advice of my elders, I knew I didn’t want to go to professional school, as I couldn’t imagine being in school for another 4-6 years. So, I did what I always do whenever I have difficult decisions to make: I weighed the pros and cons.
If I went to professional school, I would have to take out loans. A lot of loans. On top of that, I would be in school until my late twenties. Also, what if I began and it turned out that I didn’t like it? The tuition was too high to have the luxury of changing my mind. There’s also the opportunity cost. I would waste all those years in my twenties not making money, while my contemporaries would be revving to buy houses…
The alternative to professional school was graduate school. The benefit was that it would take just two years to complete my masters, and since masters in science are usually fully funded, I wouldn’t have to take out loans. The downside was that research does not always have a clearly defined path. I had many friends who finished their masters and weren’t sure what to do afterwards. Those who opted for laboratory jobs didn’t feel fulfilled. Funding for science isn’t as good as it used to be. Their jobs were contract work, or, if they were full-time, weren’t as exciting as doing research at a university. It’s hard to break into university research jobs unless you have a PhD. And like that, we’ve come full circle: remedying not knowing what to do after school with more schooling.
So I decided to put school on hold for a while. I began to look for biology-related jobs. I’ll be honest. It was tough. With more and more people getting biology degrees, I quickly realized that almost every job I was interested in only hired people with a masters in science.
I eventually did find a job that was interesting, fun, and allowed me to grow. How did I find it? I stopped focusing on marketing my education, and started marketing myself instead. Previously, I would list on my resume the courses I took, such as “advanced topics in statistics”, or “neurobiological systems”. While achieving good grades in these courses is something to be proud of, it doesn’t necessarily translate to work skills. So, I began speaking about the skills I learned in those courses, not necessarily the knowledge. I marketed myself on my presentation skills, leadership ability, creativity as well as critical thinking. While to me, listing my grades and academic achievements were synonymous with these skills, that wasn’t the case for employers.
Even more irrelevant to employers was my “work experience”. I worked as a TA during my undergrad, and as a research assistant every summer. When discussing those jobs, I essentially listed my positions. It was just scientific jargon. No one cared what lab techniques I had performed. Tertiary skills from working in a lab were what got me hired. Although my abilities to independently learn things, to complete twelve hours of work in eight, to create a coherent presentation that outlines the problem, approach and results were things I learned while working in a lab, they were not necessarily “lab skills.” This is what made the difference.
So what happened to my friends? Predictably, those who went to professional school are all almost done, and excited to begin their jobs. Those who went to graduate school are facing two paths: stay in academia or enter industry. And me? After a year of working at a science-based start-up, I decided to pursue my masters.
Regardless of what you choose, the important thing is that you choose what you are interested in doing, not merely what others tell you to do. And remember, even if you pick one path, it doesn’t mean you can’t revisit another one later.