Posted by: idm04 | 2012/11/23

“Career Resources” Session (in the Life Sciences)

I went to this informal Q&A career resources session hosted by two profs who were the professors for a genetics course I took, and there were about 10 students who showed up and disappeared one by one as the session went along. There isn’t a whole ton of information here as I didn’t take notes, but I wanted to share it because what I remember because it could be useful for some people…

Disclaimer: The following text contains my interpretation of the professors’ views and may not exactly be a fair representation of what they actually think and/or believe. Also, the views expressed are not necessarily ones with which I agree.

Note: We had a very informal and DISORGANIZED “discussion”.  The italicized and numbered points below are the “main” messages of the profs’ responses to the students’ questions and below those points is what they said in more detail.

1) Bioinformatics is a field that has plenty of job prospects and potential.

–The first topic we talked about was bioinformatics. A student with a background in software development said they were bored of it and hence took this course (BIOL 334). Upon finding it interesting, they wanted to know what they could do in the field of bioinformatics, and what the job prospects were.

T: The job prospects for bioinformatics are very good. Full genome sequencing is only ~$1000 now (full genome sequencing is where they sequence your entire genome, and not just looking for single nucleotide polymorphisms). This means that we can sequence the genome of people from many different populations and compare them. To compare them we need bioinformatics.

Also, the field of molecular genetics has grown vastly over the past years and we now have a lot of sequences from many types of organisms and people as well, but no one to analyze that vast amount of data. This is where bioinformaticians come in. You do not need a MSc or a PhD to be able to be a bioinformatician, you just need to be somewhat good with numbers/data and analyze it. C: someone with a software or programming background would be especially useful because they could create the programs to analyze this data.

T: Large companies will always look for people to analyze their data for them. Again, you do not necessarily need to undergo a graduate program, and companies will be throwing jobs at you in the field of bioinformatics.

One day, people will have cards containing their genome sequence and doctors can just scan it on some sort of card reader. There are multiple benefits to this. For one, it is convenient and time saving because doctors will not need to take a family history to determine the likelihood that the person has a predisposition for a certain genetic disease; they can just check his/her card. Secondly, it will change the way drug dosages are given. The doctor can check the sequence of a certain gene or genes to see whether the drug target of that individual will bind the drug very well, or not, and dose accordingly. There are probably other benefits to this that were not covered. But basically, there is a lot that can be done in medical genetics and bioinformatics, and bioinformatics is a field with many job prospects.

–Another student asked about company/industry work as well as what people can do with a degree in science.

2) In industry, you can get a job with a BSc but will probably not be able to control your own project unless you have something higher like a PhD. There is work for scientists in many places such as government, private sector, industry and academia.

T: There are many jobs out there, it’s not only just academic research that people can go into with their Science degrees. They can work in government, the private sector, or industry. For industry work, it is difficult to take charge of your own project if you do not have a degree past a BSc. With a BSc, you might be able to lead a group of individuals like research associates but you have a low chance of actually controlling your project and essentially, calling the shots. Again, the MSc is a working degree and it shows employers that you are capable of lab work and can learn lab skills. With a PhD, an employee in an industrial company (e.g. biotech company) will be able to move up the ranks and ultimately control the companies’ projects and determine what projects people in the company should focus their efforts on.

A BSc can also make decent money being a research technician.

The government also needs good scientists in order to work with the industry and the private sector. When a company comes to the government to ask them to approve a drug or whatever product/service, the government needs to be able to evaluate it and they need good scientists to do so. (T did not explain the difference between industry and private sector work.)

–A student asked, “Graduate students are poor and although I think I’d like research, I don’t think it makes a lot of money. That’s why I’m considering medicine. What do you think?”

3) Choose a career that really interests you. No one cares what your parents think, and you shouldn’t either. If the job interests you, money shouldn’t be an issue. Think long term when considering commitments like education.

C: yes of course grad students are poor. But if you were to be accepted into UBC med school this very moment, would you accept the offer or not? I think most people would say yes, but med school isn’t cheap either and they’d be poor during school. But you have to think long term, and find something that really interests you.

What’s your interest with respect to jobs? Do you just want money, or do you want a career that is fulfilling and fun? I know several students who went into law school, and quit after a few months. They said they wanted to be a lawyer throughout their undergrad and during law school, but when they started working, they really hated their jobs. This is despite the fact that lawyers make a lot of money. If you’re a (corporate?) lawyer and not making more than $2 million a year, something’s wrong.

There was a student who graduated from med school and started practicing in a hospital. The pay was great but the hours were terrible. If the hospital called her to sign a death certificate at 3:30 in the morning, she had to come in at 3:30 in the morning. No, it can’t wait until 6:30 when you normally come in. She had to work long, grueling hours, and eventually she quit her job and redid her residency and went into endoscopy, which she now loves. But there are many med students who decide they don’t want to be a doctor.

T: a student who did his Master’s in my lab wanted to apply to med school. He was brilliant: he did excellent lab work, had excellent references and his grades were excellent as well, and he performed very well on his MCAT. After flubbing the interview two years in a row, he talked with me and I said to him “There’s no way your grades are a problem for getting into med, nor anything else. It must be the interview, but you have a great personality and I can’t see why you wouldn’t make it. You must be flubbing it subconsciously because you don’t actually want to go into med. Do you really want to go into medicine?” The student then admitted that it was his father who wanted to see him go into medicine. Eventually, the student ended up elsewhere (sorry, I forgot where, it might have been something related to fisheries sciences) but basically he was making a good living doing what he liked.

C: Yes, grad students are poor if they have to pay for their own education and housing, but in the long run it can be worth it. And besides, grad students can still get by. And once you learn how to live on very little money, you’ll know how to be frugal in the future and no matter how much or little you make, you’ll always be able to get by because of that experience.

Postdocs can easily get jobs at universities. The principal investigator, after so many years of being in a lab, doesn’t want to do the bench work. So that’s where the postdocs come in. The postdocs are paid to do that research — that bench work. So they can always find jobs. And the great thing about being a postdoc is that you get to travel. You can go anywhere in the world — North America, South America, Europe, China, etc. I know a husband and wife team who were both postdocs and they would hop from one lab to the next in 4 year periods. Some postdocs just live their lives going from one postdoc position to another to another and so on, because they enjoy traveling/research.

If your main concern is money, why would you even consider medicine? Doctors don’t even make that much money. Sure, they make more than us [professors], but if you really want a lot of money, go become a lawyer. Go become a master electrician, or a plumber. C said: there was a guy who went to the same high school as me and he basically sucks sewage out of the ground. He started doing this out of high school. After 14 years, I’m doing what I love [which is teaching] and he’s still sucking sewage out of a ground. Sure, he makes more money than me, but at least I’m doing something I enjoy doing. I would never suck sewage out of the ground as a career.

T said: You have to really love wearing $3,000 suits and driving really expensive cars a lot to do a job you hate. People who are filthy rich often hate their jobs. But they can’t get out of it because they have a wife, they have kids to pay for, the mortgage for their gigantic house and their cars, etc. There’s no point of doing a job you don’t like no matter how much you get paid. Never do something you hate doing because you’ll regret it.

And even if you go into a field that doesn’t pay well in general, if you’re really good at it, and it’s really one of your passions, you CAN make a lot of money. You just need patience, time and the right network.

C: Also, you don’t know what you like until you try it. Just like how one-third of all lawyers quite their jobs in their first year out of law school because they find out through experience that they don’t like it, you may or may not like laboratory science. If you’re thinking about it, then go out and try it and you might really like it. Or you might realize you don’t ever want to do it again. Talk to profs and even if profs don’t have space in their lab, they might know someone who does and that’s how you can get into research.

–A student asked: There is a lot of competition for students wanting to go into research after graduation or after getting their PhD.

4) If you really want something, then get it. Competition is everywhere, not just in Science.

T: Sure, there will always be competition. You just have to be better than everyone else and luck is always helpful. When I got one of my earlier jobs (I forgot where), a few months later, it turned out a 100 people were interviewing for a certain position in the same establishment. And one time at lunch, one of my colleagues said “Hey T, they’re all interviewing for your position!” and I just froze and thought about it… and realized that that there’s probably at least 30 people that were more qualified than I was fighting for a position identical to my own. So sometimes, you just need some luck [in this case, applying at the right time perhaps].

If you show competence in the lab you work in or do your MSc/PhD in, then you’ll get a good reference. Network and find labs or employers that will hire you and do your best. Eventually you can get where you want to go, it just takes time. And networking. And luck. Pretty much goes for a job in any career.

–A student asked: What if I want to take a year off after my undergraduate degree? Will professional schools/grad schools look down upon that?

5) No one really cares if you take a year or so off from school.

T: Lots of people take a year break between their undergraduate and the next step in their education, whether it is a graduate program or a professional program like medicine. You can always say you had to work to pay off your tuition debt, or you had to take care of family because maybe for example your mom fell ill, etc. No one will think twice if you tell them that. Now, if you took 4 or 5 years off, then that’s a different story.

–A student asked: I want to get into dentistry, what is your advice?

6) Fairly straightforward: get good grades and references and volunteer/work somewhere.

C: if you want to go into dentistry [or medicine] and you’re taking a year off, then like we said earlier, no one cares if you take a year off, but it’d be good if you could get some work in an dentist’s office. Even if you’re doing admin work, you’ll get to know a bit of what doing dentistry is like.

Students who really want to go into professional schools like medicine will start talking to profs and getting to know them in first year. Building these connections so that eventually they’ll have good references by the time they want to apply. This is a continual process and it shouldn’t be done last-minute. Many students have e-mailed me asking me to be their reference, and I don’t even know them. I look them up and sure they did okay in my course, maybe they got 85% but we haven’t even met in person. So I can’t write their reference.

I also know a girl who had mediocre grades in first and second year. But she realized she wanted to go into med, so she completely changed herself and her surroundings. She ditched her boyfriend, her party friends, etc. and worked her [ass] off. She managed to get a 95% average in her later years, and really, they don’t care that you did poorly on your first year, as long as you improve. Anyway, she managed to get into medicine. So don’t worry if you didn’t do that well in first year. Now, some students do the opposite. They do well in first year and then they start going down. That’s not so good.

–A student asked: I’ve done (lab) bench work and I really enjoy it. I’ve also done work in industry and I’m not convinced it suits me. What I could see myself doing as a career would be teaching — teaching at a college or university (ie. not high school) — because it’s something I think I would really enjoy. How would I go about doing that? The reason why I’m not set on going into graduate studies is because of what I hear from grad students and other people: that they’re not sure what they’re going to do and that there aren’t many jobs out there.

T: (Basically, he repeated a lot of the above points, especially those about competition). In summary, if you really do your best and show your competence, you can go into teaching or whatnot.

C: When I was doing my Master’s (at Guelph?), I had to give a week of guest lectures to my prof’s class because he was off somewhere. And I realized it was really fun and something I would enjoy doing as a career. Sometime after getting my PhD, I got a job at Capilano College, and taught there for a while. Then after a few years, a job opened up at UBC and that’s how I got here.

(C actually also recommended getting a teacher’s degree/cert? and teaching a high school first)

Grad students often have to take up TA jobs and some of them just do the bare minimum. One of the TAs for 334 (I forgot his name) was really into teaching. He made his own problems for tutorial sessions, he had his own unique and effective way of explaining problems to students and he was genuinely concerned for student learning and it showed. He was one of the best TAs for this course. So when I got a call from someone at SFU asking me what I thought about his teaching ability, all I had to say was “hire him, he’s unbelievably good,” and that’s where he is now.

/end of session

There was a lot of stuff I missed in this post because I couldn’t remember everything as I didn’t take notes. I didn’t take notes because I wanted to take key messages away from the session and not necessarily the details. This session was yesterday though, at least I didn’t procrastinate much on writing this post!

Reminder: Again, this advice does not necessarily represent my opinions nor does it necessarily accurately reflect those of anyone else. This is only my interpretation of other people’s views.

I’d like to end with the following video (thanks to my cousin for sharing, and yes I know many people are sharing it on FB)

If you have any comments, opinions, or advice you’d like to share on these matters, feel free to do so below.





  1. “med school isn’t expensive”
    I think you mean “med school isn’t cheap”

    • LOL…yes thanks let me fix that

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