Monday, April 22, 2013

Primer to Becoming a Research Scientist

The process of becoming a research scientist occurs in four stages with the graduate education stage broken down into several pieces. Even as someone who knew as an undergraduate that I wanted to go to graduate school in science, it was overwhelming to learn the intricacies of the process. For you, dear reader, I present a brief synopsis of the process. 

1.       Undergraduate education to receive a Bachelor’s degree, usually in a science field. Undergraduate education begins with introductory courses in a broad number of fields and gradually focuses on one subject area, such as Biology or Chemistry.

2.       Graduate education leading to a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in their field; this stage is called predoctoral. At any point from here on out, it’s acceptable Graduate education in the sciences, particularly the life sciences, usually includes 2 years of coursework. During this time, the student also begins performing research in a lab and chooses a topic to study. When coursework is complete, the student studies their buns off and takes comprehensive exams (comps), either written essay exams or writing and defending a grant proposal to a committee of faculty members. After passing the exams, they are free to continue their research until their committee agrees they’re “done”. (Research is never done but at some point you have to come to a stopping point and graduate.) Next, they write up everything they've done during their graduate research in a long document (essentially a book) called a dissertation. They present their findings and are grilled with questions from their committee and then left to sweat bullets outside the room while the committee deliberates. Finally, a committee member comes out, shakes their hand, and calls them Doctor for the first time.

3.       Post-doctoral fellowships are the next step in many areas of science. Postdocs, as they’re called, are a time for the scientist to continue their training as they work in a new lab. During the postdoc, scientists are given more free reign to develop their research project, they learn new techniques, and gather knowledge from experience. They also get paid a little more than graduate students and sometimes receive benefits such as health insurance. However, they are still considered trainees and postdocs are temporary positions.
a.       In the life sciences, it is now common for trainees to complete one long (3-5 years) or two short (2-3 year) postdocs prior to applying for a permanent position.

4.       Career! Near the end of a postdoc, trainees begin applying for permanent positions. The PhD scientist has a wide range of career opportunities even within research: education (academia), government, and industry are the most common fields for continuing research-based science. Scientists are equipped with skills required for many other careers as well: science communication, policy, or administrative are only a few.

That's it in a nutshell!

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