Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Career advice for aspiring scientists

I freely admit that I am a huge geek. I knew from a very early age (around 15 or 16) that I wanted to be a professional geek, also known as a scientist. As soon as I realised that there were people out there actually researching the things I was just starting to learn about in biology lessons, I wanted to sign up to join them.

Unfortunately, my school’s career advice went something like this:

Adviser: What’s your favourite school subject?

Me: Biology. We’ve just started covering Genetics and I love it. I want to get a PhD and work in a genetics lab.

Adviser: So you like science? Have you considered being an engineer?

Me: I don’t want to be an engineer. I want to get a PhD and work in a genetics lab.

Adviser: There are lots of good careers in engineering.

Engineering was pretty much the only science-based career (not including medicine) that the career adviser had heard of. The work experience that the school organised for all 16 year-old students saw me chopping onions and cleaning pans in a cafĂ©. It wasn’t until I went on to study
genetics at Newcastle University that I started to meet other people with the same career goals as me.

When I was still working in the lab here in Vancouver, I took part in an outreach programme called Let’s Talk Science. I talked about bacterial genetics, antibiotic resistance and the spread of diseases to a local high school class. I also got to judge the school’s annual science fair, which was great fun. The students were, almost without exception, very enthusiastic and open, and had lots of questions for my colleagues and me about careers in research. I wish programmes like this existed everywhere – I would have loved to be involved when I was a student.

I’ve also come across groups of local high school students at a couple of different conferences. They come to the booth, ask lots of questions, and take away posters, other literature and free pens. The last group I spoke to had all volunteered to attend and were having a great time quizzing exhibitors and poster presenters about their work. A few of them said they were considering careers in biology, so I gave them my card – hopefully they will receive better career advice at school than I did, but if not, they’ll have a real live scientist to contact.

If you’re a student in an area that runs science fairs and lets you attend conferences, I say go for it. Take full advantage of all those opportunities, even if you’re not sure you want a research career.

If you are being told that you should be an engineer or a doctor, but you want to see what else is out there, hang in there! I went to school in the pre-internet era, but there are now lots of excellent career advice sites out there. My favourite is published by the journal Science.

Good luck!


  1. YES!

    I went to high school in a relatively small rural town (~11,000 people). When I was deciding on what to do at college it was "Well, you can be a physician, or an engineer."

    I had no idea there were so many cool things in bio research to do!

    You would think things would be better in a larger city, but there is a science high school down the street from me-- what do they want to do? Physician. Engineer. Im going to start a student outreach group when I start grad school this fall to be like your 'Lets Talk Science' program :)

  2. I was lucky enough to have an excellent biology teacher who gave me hope that a research career was possible! But that was later on than the careers interview I described.

    Good luck with your student outreach group, it sounds like a great idea. I tend to think that kids are naturally curious and once they realise what research is all about, it should start to appeal to the ones that already enjoy their science lessons.

    I love your blog BTW - I just recently found it via Pharyngula. I'll have to write something about ERVs one of these days!


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