Education - College
By: - at February 25, 2013

What Can I Do With a Degree in Science?

Pursuing a Career in Science

Science Careers Are RewardingSo you are thinking of pursuing a career in science. If this is the case, I would like to share my thoughts on the matter and explain a little about how I came to attain a Bachelor’s of Science. This article is geared toward high school students and early college students, workers looking to change careers, etc. Science can be referred to as our collected knowledge of reality. It is ours known physical laws and it is continually being re-written. Science, for the purposes of this article, is a vague term and covers anything from the study of life to the interaction of the building blocks of reality, the stars and beyond. Presently, higher learning has never seen this high degree of specialization within the paths of study for the sciences, and it will continually increase in the future. With this in mind, one must make crucial decisions early in order to make the correct career moves.

Why Contribute to Science

Now is an exciting time to be part of the scientific community. We are ever on the heels of the next break through in understanding. We essentially have the ideas of the future written down. They are laid out in front of us and are theoretically possible, we just need to put the work in. What was once thought to be science fiction is now reality, and we can look to science fiction now to be what our future holds. So if you have what Einstein called, “an irresistible desire to understand nature,” you are destined to contribute to the body of science.

Academia

Almost any career in science starts in academia. To attend a college or university is almost a pre-requisite in science in these times. Employers want to see that you’ve done the course work and put in the lab time before they invest in you. The level of education you want to pursue depends on the amount of time and money you are willing to expend.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degree in scienceThe different tiers of education offer profoundly different lifestyles for the graduate. A Bachelor’s degree in science, unless it is from a top level school and you were part of a good research team, i.e. had some excellent research experience, you are going to basically be looking forward to washing beakers and being a low level lab technician. A typical Bachelor’s in science will last 4 years and may even include some heavy course work, including many lab courses which are often 1-2 credit hours yet require a lot of work. I’m not trying to be pessimistic though, because I feel that pursuing any Bachelor’s degree offers a well rounded education.

Of course, any four year degree opens the door for a graduate school and professional school. At the end of this point in your education, you are going to have to have a definite idea about where you want to end up in terms of a career. If you are satisfied with conducting mediocre, but necessary tasks in a laboratory setting you could exit academia at this point. If you strive to be behind the wheel, or in other words, have a more specific idea about how you want to contribute to science. Many scientists have stopped their education for whatever reason at this point in academia, taken up a professional job in a lab, and still gone on to study science in their spare time.

Master’s Degree/Professional School

Science BooksIf you are thinking that getting a science degree is going to pay you big in the end, you must consider the fact that you are going to be a student for many long years. Unless you are a genius who could fly through school, test out of difficult classes, or produce a ground-breaking theory in your spare time, you will at least be in school for 2-6 years past your four year degree.

A Masters Degree offers an opportunity to take the first step to show future employers that you have the capacity to lead and educate others. Often Masters of Science programs require you to be a teaching assistant and teaches the skills of mentorship, which is a good skill to have in a laboratory setting. Professional schools are schools which offer a specialized training often for work in one specific field or profession. Some examples are medical, cytotechnology or medical technology school, etc. The end result of these jobs is that the student will find employment in that profession. These professions often are high paying jobs and offer a great stopping point for academia.

Also, many professionals have made significant contributions to science, for example the London doctor John Snow essentially created the field of epidemiology by conducting the first ever well documented tracking of a disease outbreak. The study of epidemiology has gone on to save countless lives through the study of how diseases spread and how they should be handled within a population.

Post-Graduate Degree

The term post-graduate degree in science has many different meanings depending on the country of origin and also varies with the university or college. In terms of the United States, the options of science post graduate degrees are Doctorate of Science (DSc) or Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). If you are in a post graduate school, you have proven yourself a leader and thinker in science. The end result of these degrees is often leading a laboratory or staying in academia to conduct research and teach.

DIY Science

Scientist Michael FaradayFew scientists have managed to become a success without at least a minor start in academia. Michael Faraday (pictured on the right) is an inspiration to me. A man who had no formal education, was born of a family in London without financial means to attend school. He wound up being a book binder’s apprentice and being around books so much, he would read them and was stricken with thirst of understanding nature. He went on to become one of the greatest experimenters of all time inventing the electric motor, generator, and Bunsen burner to name a few.

There is a growing movement now in many of the sciences to shrug off academia and once again take to the kitchen and basement laboratories to conduct honest contributions to science. Technology is making it possible to set up actually rather sophisticated laboratories for a nominal amount of money. One can order all the equipment, reagents, and modern amenities of a laboratory from the internet. One can even send away solutions to have DNA analyzed. In Marcus Wohlson’s book “Biopunk,” he highlights this growing movement in the biology field. He argues that scientists are becoming fed up with the slow progress of academia in solving some of the great mysteries, for example a cure for cancer. The whole movement is about making any discoveries open to the public, which would provide rapid progress. When discoveries are made in academia, now law is that the university holds patent for the invention or process discovered.

MOOCs

MOOC colleges and universitiesNo, this is not some derogatory term. It is an acronym which stands for Massive Open Online Courses and deans of colleges and universities I can imagine are having nightmares about. These MOOCs are increasingly becoming more sophisticated and are offering more of what you would get from a fee based online course through a university or college. I recently completed a certificate program from an online university which I payed approximately eight thousand dollars for fourteen credit hours, all online and taken in my basement on my laptop. I just finished a MOOC from Udacity and actually found it better than the course I took from the top level university. Sure, I can print of the Udacity certificate of completion, but still there is progress to be made with its acceptance at an employer. Sebastian Thrun, one of the creators of Udacity and former Standford professor has put a lot of work into ensuring that by taking one of his courses you are getting a good solid framework engrained for that subject.

What you need to take away from this is that if you feel you have the smarts to get something done, you can find the education for free if you know where to look, but if you want to land a job with no education, you have to have something solid to point to, i.e. a theory, project, experiment, which you’ve completed on your own merit. One can call this entrepreneurial science, because it involves the high risk, make or break conditions of a start up. You could invest a whole lot of time in a scientific idea, theory, or invention to gain credentials and come up with nothing. Even Albert Einstein was rejected from Doctorates school worked relentlessly on his theory of relativity for nearly a decade before hitting it big with his first paper on the topic.

Essential Skills

If you are serious about a career in any field of science, the following skills are necessary and do not appear to be going away anytime soon:

  • Computer processing of data;
  • Writing and Research;
  • Science Fiction.

Computer Processing of Data

Moore’s law to 2020With Moore’s law projected to be true to at least 2020, we are going to be utilizing the computer in ever more sophisticated ways. Moore’s law states that computer processing power doubles every twelve to eighteen months. We are doing ever more increasingly complex tasks on the average personal computer. Science is all about observing nature and collecting data on these observations, organizing, analyzing, and communicating that data. If you can focus on the means of organizing, analyzing, and presenting data, you will be the superstar of the laboratory. The person in the lab which everyone must go to in the end and say, “we got this, what can you do with it.” Most importantly, I recommend focusing on database management and programming for organizing and analyzing. A good working knowledge of Structured Query Language (SQL) and at least one open sourced database and an introduction into the Microsoft suite of database options is a good start. Concerning programming, I recommend also an open sourced language like Python, which offers great support for the scientific community. Computer programming is a skill which will always be in demand. If we rely on computers, we will always require a means to communicate with the machine, to tell it to do what we need it to do.

Data analysis is a facet of computer processing, although really could be treated as a subject on its own. It involves using proven statistical methods to “crunch” data. With datasets becoming ever increasingly large, this will be an essential task around the lab. Many university curriculums spend a good deal of time covering this exact subject. If you are pursuing academic degrees, you may want to consider attaining a minor in some form of statistical analysis. A really good introductory book is “Data Analysis with Open Source Tools,” and also covers nicely a lot of the science data analysis tools that Python offers.

If you want to get into presentation, web programming is the only way to go. The internet has made the world flat and in many circumstances laboratory groups must interact in real time, and in this sense internet is king. An easy programming language to learn is PHP, because it is well supported, i.e. there is a large community of PHP programmers and many how to books and online forums and tutorials. This is one of those languages, that if you type in a problem with PHP behind it into a search engine on the internet, you will likely get a result for an exact solution in code which you can copy! By making some minor tweaks you will solve the problem. I recently needed to look up phone numbers from a file with listing of addresses. Within a few minutes I found a PHP section of code which interacted with the White Pages web service and created a file with the address, primary resident’s name, and phone number. That is why I love PHP and recommend learning it.

Writing and Research

Writing and Research on ScienceI remember when I first got out of college and started looking for jobs, I saw a lot of the openings looking for a science graduate with experience writing scientific reports. If you are going into the field of science, you absolutely must get used to reading and writing scientific reports. Really the only way to do this is to jump in head first. Start at the closest university/college science library. At first, I recommend picking a topic and approaching the librarian and asking for assistance in researching it. You may come across a prude who doesn’t want to give you the time of day. If this happens, simply ask another. Often, there are students working in the library who are sitting around joking with one another. Put one to work by having him or her show you the ropes of using the catalogue system. There usually will be some log on steps you must learn. Even if you are not a student, almost any university library will give out a community access card.

Once you attain and get the hang of accessing documents and articles, you will realize the power you have. Imagine all of the scientific writings produced every year, many of which are unique ideas just put out there to read. Newton said about making his discoveries that he stood on the shoulders of giants. You too can climb up onto their shoulders and make discoveries and they start at the library. It’s truly amazing to me how many more don’t realize that this geyser of knowledge exists. The librarians in these settings are often formally trained in information science and get thrills by looking shit up for you. It would be a shame to deprive them of this.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction NovelsThis last skill I mention is really not a skill but an experience. If you truly have a thirst for science, if you desire for knowledge, you must read at least a few science fiction novels. Einstein famously stated that he valued creativity over knowledge. A good science fiction novel embodies creativity. It provides us with an idea which was never conceived. To this day it boggles my mind to think that authors such as Alduous Huxley created a world, a “Brave New World,” which test tube babies were common place, and psychotic drugs were prescribed to combat a social disorder. He wrote about this before anything remotely close seemed possible, although now common place. Jules Verne gave us a world where rocket travel to the moon was no longer fantasy, but within our reach. I guarantee there is science fiction novels out there right now which hold our future. One of my favorite current science icons is Dr. Michio Kaku, who in his book “Physics of the Future,” tells of a future filled with innovations, all within the laws of modern physics, yet to come to fruition, all proposed already in works of fiction from unique minds like Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov.

In the very least, by reading science fiction, you will have a common ground with fellow scientists. You will often find a common thread between scientists is that they got their start reading science fiction. It has inspired many scientists to reach into the unknown. For all these reasons, I recommend reading a current science fiction novel which reaches far into the future. I recommend reading David Murasek’s “Counting Heads,” which gives us a glimpse into a future where one can choose which age they want to appear, everyone is instantly connected to anyone on the planet, and colonies on our surrounding planets and moon.

Get Started!

In summary, pursuing a career in science is synonymous with investigating your environment. Carl Sagan famous astronomer stated that having a society utilize technologies which they fully do not understand is a recipe for disaster. We need more scientists in this world. So get out there and get your degree in science and start your career today.


 

 

 

 

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