Grad School and Beyond

I had a meeting today with two Profs from the School of Natural Science & Mathematics; Dale & Errol. Dale is “that Biotech guy” (a gross understatement ;) ), and Errol is a prof in Chemistry (incidentally, he is also my prof in Chem this semester).

Our meeting was the result of a casual chat I had with Errol regarding Grad school, my future career, and what I need to do to make it happen. Quite honestly, I have the desire but am completely blind with respect to what I need to do. Errol suggested I meet with he and Dale to discuss this in more detail.

I suppose I should back up a little bit.

I enjoy my current career; I find programming and development to be fun, challenging, and rewarding; Doing so on the web is great as well (quicker turn-around, instant results). But – I think my heart truly lies in the field of the natural sciences. When I read non-fiction, it’s typically about Bio, Chem, Physics, or some mix of them all (seriously, I’m a bit of a geek, if you hadn’t noticed. Don’t tell my wife.) I’ll be graduating in the spring with a Sarah Palin degree (Bachelor of General Studies) and an Associate in Chemistry (it’s the only actual Chem degree that was offered at my school). I build molecular models with MolyMod kits for fun. But most importantly — I feel the sciences are where I can make the most positive impact on the world, and I feel it would be wasted talent / desire to not pursue this.

What I want

So I’m planning for a semi-radical change in careers in the near future (late 2010, assuming Mel graduates in Spring ’10). The problem is, I’m really not familiar with the realm of science careers — how they work, the vernacular, the processes, possible career paths, etc. I lack the professional vocabulary to plot my course in this venture. In my initial request to Dale & Errol, I touched on three basic points:

  • Something in the universe of Chemistry (or at least largely from the Chemical perspective)
  • Something that is ethically rewarding, ideally:
    • no military, pharmaceutical, or Monsanto-type jobs
    • jobs in the environmental sciences, something relating to reducing human impact (i.e. alternative fuels / energy), etc.
  • Something that allows me to really utilize my brain (i.e. not being an instrument-monkey)

Dale recommended that I start scouting labs, do some research about where the big labs are, and start doing some networking with the teams therein. From what I understand, getting on board with a good lab is key to being successful in research. (Good lab = better equipment, better cohorts, better opportunities, etc.)

He also suggested that given my history in the computer science field, I investigate the possibility of Informatics, Modeling, Combinatorial sciences, etc. Apparently this is a growing field, and could potentially find some harmony between the past and the future.

Grad School

For selecting a Grad school, they both suggested that I start looking into programs now, so that I can get an idea of what’s available and what they require. There are two routes to go: “library research” or “original research”. The former is a bit of a quicker journey, and would involve mostly doing book-research of other people’s work. If I decide to do doctoral work in the future (I’m undecided if I’m going to go for my PhD, although they both seem to think I should), I’ll have to do this kind of stuff anyways, so it would be good practice.

The latter is the more practical side – real lab work, much more involved. I think that’s the route that would be more appealing to me. The catch is, of course, that this route is much more time-consuming. A “libary-research” type degree could be completed in a year or two; They said that with this route, I should expect to be locked down for about 5 years to get my Grad. Dale also said I’ll probably need to have 2 to 3 peer-reviewed papers published in that time. (From what I’ve read, getting published isn’t as simple as it sounds)

I had also inquired about working while in Grad school — they said most grad schools (the big public ones at least) will provide Grad students with a stipend, somewhere between $15k and $25k annually. It’s less than I’m making now, but by that time it would be reasonable for Mel to be working as well, so I we could have dual income, and at least I wouldn’t need to be working a full-time job AND doing grad research — because I’m pretty sure that would kill me. (Assuming Mel didn’t. :) )

I also asked if my age would be a problem (not that I’m terribly old, but I’m a little behind-the-curve compared to the average student age), and they both agreed that unless I wanted to go into Med school (and I don’t) it will be a non-issue. Apparently Errol did Grad School when he was 50!

Present Time

I’m graduating in the Spring. This is non-negotiable, Sarah Palin degree or not (10 years is long enough for an undergrad, IMHO). I can take 12 credits in the spring and get full financial aid for it. Unfortunately, once you get your undergrad, you can no longer receive financial aid (at least grants, I think) for undergrad courses. I suppose that’s to prevent people from being career students. :P (My wife believes that if left to my own devices, I would just continue to accumulate degrees)

That leaves 3, possibly 4 semesters before I plan to ship start a Grad program. I want to make the best use of this as possible. The courses I want to take are:

  • Biochemistry
  • Physics I & II
  • Calculus II, III, and Differential Equations (I was informed I would need all of this math for P-Chem)
  • Moleculuar Biology
  • Bioinformatics
  • Piano (hey, I enjoy it :) )

Realistically, I’m not going to be able to take all of these. Physics and Calculus are 5 credits each. But I’ll take what I can. One thing that Dale suggested which I will likely do is that if a class doesn’t really matter if its on my transcript, I can request permission from the prof to just “sit in” on the course — unofficially knowledge for free, basically. There would be no official record of me having taken the course, but it would be handy for when I’m no longer getting aid, and help to keep my mind sharp and the material relevant. 

They also suggested that I do some SI (Supplemental Instruction) leading for Organic (or whatever I want to do). I think that’s actually a paid deal too — not much, but at least *I* don’t have to pay for it. :)

The GREs

I’ll also have to take the General GREs. Some programs may require additional GREs, I don’t know — but the Generals, at the very least. Some of my classmates are preparing to take them very soon, so I may see if I can join in on their study sessions.  I feel a bit intimidated by them, but I suppose that’s mostly because I really have no idea what to expect.  Depending on what will be on them, I may take them as soon as next spring, or I might wait until I’ve finished a few more classes. 

 

Overall, from our meeting I feel very encouraged — Dale and Errol were both really supportive, helpful, and they both seem to think that I’m capable of going the distance! I’m very excited by these prospects, and the timeframe seems reasonable. Grad School, Ho!

I am reminded of a poem by Robert Frost, entitled Two Tramps in Mud Time:

Out of the mud two strangers came 
And caught me splitting wood in the yard, 
And one of them put me off my aim 
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!” 
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind 
And let the other go on a way. 
I knew pretty well what he had in mind: 
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split, 
As large around as the chopping block; 
And every piece I squarely hit 
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock. 
The blows that a life of self-control 
Spares to strike for the common good, 
That day, giving a loose my soul, 
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill. 
You know how it is with an April day 
When the sun is out and the wind is still, 
You’re one month on in the middle of May. 
But if you so much as dare to speak, 
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch, 
A wind comes off a frozen peak, 
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight 
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume, 
His song so pitched as not to excite 
A single flower as yet to bloom. 
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew 
Winter was only playing possum. 
Except in color he isn’t blue, 
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look 
In summertime with a witching wand, 
In every wheelrut’s now a brook, 
In every print of a hoof a pond. 
Be glad of water, but don’t forget 
The lurking frost in the earth beneath 
That will steal forth after the sun is set 
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task 
The two must make me love it more 
By coming with what they came to ask. 
You’d think I never had felt before 
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, 
The grip of earth on outspread feet, 
The life of muscles rocking soft 
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps 
(From sleeping God knows where last night, 
But not long since in the lumber camps). 
They thought all chopping was theirs of right. 
Men of the woods and lumberjacks, 
The judged me by their appropriate tool. 
Except as a fellow handled an ax 
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said. 
They knew they had but to stay their stay 
And all their logic would fill my head: 
As that I had no right to play 
With what was another man’s work for gain. 
My right might be love but theirs was need. 
And where the two exist in twain 
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

But yield who will to their separation, 
My object in living is to unite 
My avocation and my vocation 
As my two eyes make one in sight. 
Only where love and need are one, 
And the work is play for mortal stakes, 
Is the deed ever really done 
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.