Med school or grad school or other? What to do after getting a Biology degree

How to decide the right career path from academia

As someone with an undergraduate degree in Biology, I and many others I’ve spoken to have often felt that we were trapped towards the end. There is two obvious paths laid out for us after graduation, a choice between going to medical school or graduate school.  Both paths are long, hard, and lacks the financial rewards that our engineering or computer science friends may find in industry immediately upon graduation.

For some people, it’s what they’ve always wanted to be, a doctor or a scientist, to change the world, to make a difference, saving lives.  Then there’s the people who goes to medical school mistakenly thinking that it’s what makes the most money, and the people who go because it’s what their parents wanted.  The people who go to grad school tend not to be doing it for the money, but still, many may have unrealistic ideas of what a scientist’s life is like.

For me at the time, I knew that I did not want to be a doctor (having had a terrible experience volunteering at a VA hospital filled with apathetic doctors).  I also knew how difficult and indeed how terrible grad school could be.  After all, I saw my mother through grad school, and I practically grew up on campus.  I was quite familiar with the late late nights, lack of holidays and weekends, working for practically minimum wage, and on topics that only few others in the world cared about.  But given the choice between med school and grad school, I chose grad school.

Why?  Because it was what I was good at.  I’ve had laboratory experience since high school, worked every summer in labs, and is familiar with many techniques that made it easy for me to be get into many labs.  I was good at writing and presenting my work, and good at doing research, got grants and awards.  It was what I was good at, but it was not what I wanted to do.

The only other options I thought were available back then were things like optometry or dental school etc., which at the time I thought of as vocational schools that were below medical school.  If I was going to pick those, I might as well go to med school instead.  It was only later in grad school that I learned that dental school and the like is really not a bad idea.  You get out faster, start practicing earlier, don’t have to memorize as much stuff, make just as much money in many cases, and it’s less competitive to get into an excellent dental school than med school.  And for someone who’s interested in both research and health care, there’s plenty of research opportunities too.  I got my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, which has an excellent dental school.  Often times during local research conferences I would find presentations of research projects from dental school students.  There are surprisingly interesting research topics in fields of neuroscience and physiology that benefits from a dental background, even in my own field of circadian rhythms.

The other option is veterinary medicine.  I would have loved to be a vet.  I got my undergrad degree from Cornell University, which contains one of the best vet schools in the country.  The vet students were always the most enthusiastic, happiest people on campus, they really are doing what they love.  During graduation, all the other schools just clapped and had happy smiles on their faces.  But the vet school graduates cheered so loudly and was ecstatic as they raised up their long gloves blown up and tied as balloons.  But going to vet school is very competitive.  I didn’t have the hours of animals experience out side of a research lab.  My grades were great but not excellent.  And logically, I was able to convince my self out of being a vet.  After all, you’ll have to learn much more than you would in med school, and get paid much less.  You’ll work in dirty conditions on farms at all hours, or you’ll get scratched and bitten by pets (which I really didn’t mind since I was very familiar with handling angry animals).  But worst of all, I kept hearing rumors of how so many vet students end up working for the government as meat inspectors.  Indeed, as a Freshmen I had visited Cornell’s very own meat factory as part of our biology curriculum.  ugh.  So as much as I would have loved to be a vet, I convinced my self out of it.

Later I find that there are many more career opportunities for Bio majors out side of the health care/research fields.  Indeed, if you keep your eyes open for opportunities, many things are possible.

It is important to look for internship positions before graduation.  Not only does it get you job experience and a foot in the door in a possible future career, it lets you test the waters to see if it’s a career that you want to pursue.  Industry internships does not have to be just in pharma or health care related companies.  For example, management consulting internships at large firms such as McKinsey and BCG would be a huge advantage.  Same with many other large companies.  Sure most of the interns are engineering students or people in finance or the like, but a biology background could provide critical insights and give you the extra edge.

Even if you didn’t get a chance to do an internship, it’s still possible to pursue many non-healthcare careers with a Biology degree.  Amongst my friends, there are those who went to Microsoft as a programer, and those who became web designers while holding a Bio degree.  Yes, you don’t need a computer science or programing degree to get a computer job, your individual skills are important as well. If you like to write, get involved in the school paper, and pursue a job in journalism.  Be a science writer.  There are other biology majors who became actresses, artists, etc.

Out side of taking advantage of your talents, there are also many opportunities in startups.  While many large companies may weed out their hiring candidates based on what they hold their degree in, startup companies tends to be more flexible.  Better yet, connect with your friends, start your entrepreneurial business, have the freedom to choose your own path.

Back then I had thought that I was confined by my degree to only two choices, Med school or Grad school, but really, what confined my choices was perhaps social expectations of what a biology degree can do.  Really, many things are open to you if you just find the right opportunity.

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5 Responses

  1. Stoppingarsane says:

    A great reading for me. I just finished my undergrad in biology and was insecure of what to do next. But after reading this article I had a wider sense and possible opportunities. Thank you for the author.

    • L S Zhang Ph.D. says:

      You’re welcome! It’s a hard thing not knowing what you want to do, the mind constantly returns to the same thoughts while we make our decisions. Good luck and let me know where you end up!

  2. Blair says:

    Oh man, I had been scouring the internet for personal accounts such as this. Really, thanks for writing this – I know that I should not have placed myself in the your shoes but sometimes it was hard not to. (I couldn’t help but smile when you cataloged “optometry or dental school etc.” as vocational schools that were below medical school.) Glad to know there are others who have been in the same boat I am in; hope I can find my own path as I return to Michigan for grad school!

    • L S Zhang Ph.D. says:

      You’re welcome Blair! And congrats on Michigan, what department are you in? For me it took me some time to get used to Michigan after the very different atmosphere at Cornell, but in the end I really fell in love with all that the school has to offer. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Bala says:

    Thanks so much for writing this!

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