What would YOU do?

Marc Goldstein magoldstein at ucdavis.edu
Sun Apr 2 15:10:54 EST 1995

In article <3lk9fn$qq3 at news.primenet.com>, jaylin at primenet.com (Jennifer
Langley) wrote:
> I'm almost 30 years old and Two years ago I started College... I'm
thinking I want to
> major in Microbiology, but I haven't declaired my 
> major yet.  I also got slammed with the fact that I have to choose 
> between things like immunology, virology and bacteriology...
> So here is my question:  Knowing what you know, if you had the chance to 
> go back and do it all over again, what would you major in and why? 
> And hey, if you think the field stinks and you should have majored in 
> economics, let me know that too.  


   It's a good sign that you are giving very advanced thought to your
career.  My opinion follows, but first some background.  I graduated a
year and a half ago with my doctorate in Microbiology, emphasizing
biochemistry, enzymology, and molecular biology.  I've been doing a
post-doc in plant biology since, to give me some additional depth (it was
a mistake: I should have gone more medical instead of plant).

   Now back to you.  I presume your motive for entering college at age 28
was to give you more advancement potential in the job market.  That's
great!  But there are some realities of the job market that need to be
considered.  If you stop your education after your bachelor's degree, you
will find it relatively easy to find a job, particularly if you do
undergraduate lab research work.  However, most of the jobs out there for
you will have little advancement potential, either in academia as a lab
assistant (duties ranging from dishwashing to highly supervised lab
research work) or in industry as a research associate, probably in
validation or somesuch, doing highly repetative tasks.  If the lack of
independence doesn't bother you, stop here.

   The next step could be the attainment of a master's degree.  In the
biological sciences, a master's doesn't mean much more than a bachelor's
degree, except perhaps a slightly higher starting salary both in academia
and in industry.  You might be able to get an academic staff research
associate position with a masters, but you will face a lot of competition
for these increasingly rare, covetted posts.  Also, by the time you have
your masters you will be about 34-36 somewhere.  Can you afford to be in
school for the next five years or so?

   If you want more responsibility, go straight for the PhD.  Don't bother
with a master's along the way.  But be forwarned:  the job market is VERY
tight right now.  Especially for microbiologists.  So many companies won't
even interview (bacterial) microbiologists simply because we don't have
"cell culture" experience.  Particularly in the pharmaceutical industry,
they want people who "know how to grow mammalian cells."  Of course,
bacteriologists need to have excellent sterile technique, and could pick
up the cell culture bit quickly, but in industry they want people who are
already trained in the specific technique they want.  Recommendation: if
you go the micro route, choose virology or the like to give yourself
experience with various cell culture techniques.  Avoid straight

   But a warning comes with a PhD too:  If you want to go into academia or
industry, you will need post-doc training, probably 2- 4 years worth,
during which you will be making subsistance pay and paying off school
loans.  So if you get your bachelors at 32, you might have your PhD by 37,
and be joining the "work force" at 40, ten years from now.  Remember, the
opinions I'm stating are for now, and who knows what the situation will be
like 5, 10, and 15 years from now.

   Recommendations for other paths to follow:  Law: technology transfer is
hot, at least now.  Computers:  degrees in computer science make you
easily employable.

Good luck!  I hope you find a career path that will be both fun and
rewarding for you.


Marc Allan Goldstein
Section of Plant Biology
University of California, Davis
magoldstein at ucdavis.edu

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