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So You Wanna Be a Research Scientist?

As a research scientist with a Ph.D., I’m often asked about my experience and my opinions on how to get into the field. Most of the time, I brush off the questions as it’s been about ten years since I went to graduate school, so things have likely changed. But I still thought it would be important to share my opinion on the topic and to share my story. I’m hoping it could be the catalyst to help others with their path.

I’ll start by talking about getting into research with a bachelor’s degree. The truth is, in research, if you only have a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely be passed over a lot. There’s no way to deny that. You can get into a research lab, but you’ll typically be stuck at the lower end of things. The most interesting projects will go to others, and you’ll be doing a lot of the technician work. If you work hard and prove yourself you can climb the ladder, but you can typically only go so far. Many companies require advanced degrees for certain positions. And this means that even if you are smart enough to do the job, you will not be allowed to.

Now let’s talk about graduate school and obtaining a master’s degree. I had to take the GRE to get into graduate school.  I’m not sure if that is still a requirement, but the schools you’re interested in will tell you what you need to take.

Big data is what’s up.  Whatever you do, try to take some statistics or data analysis electives.

What type of masters?  In my opinion, if you do a thesis-based master’s degree program, you’ll be in good shape for a research lab.  What subject should you focus on? The best way to pick a subject is to look for the requirements for jobs that interest you. And move toward that degree. (I’d still recommend doing a thesis-based one.)  From what I’m seeing, bioinformatics scientists and data scientists are in demand right now.  That could change, but I doubt it the way the world is moving right now.  Big data is what’s up.  Whatever you do, try to take some statistics or data analysis electives.  It’ll make you more competitive overall.  Understand that science can be a kind of niche.  You will most likely lose out on some jobs because you chose the “wrong” specialization, but there are other jobs out there for you if your degree is not too niche.

Now let’s talk about pursuing a Ph.D. in a hard science, which was the route I took. I didn’t incur student loans. Typically, what happens is that you get a fellowship or a stipend to live off of (about 20k-30k per year when I went) and the classes are “free” for Ph.D. candidates.  The stipend is essentially earned by working in the lab that you’ll do your thesis work in.  If you can’t make it all the way to a Ph.D., you can usually default with a master’s degree if you have the credits.  A Ph.D. is hard but doable.

Most grad students, including myself, are clinically depressed during graduate school. It’s painful. It’s isolating.

And you’ll get abused, which is a level of frustration and failure most people don’t experience.  If you come out of it alive, you’ll be a better person overall. And you’ll carry the highest academic degree achievable.  It is a completely achievable goal for you if you want it.  Some of the least intelligent people I know have a Ph.D. They just stuck it out. Their persistence paid off. That’s all you have to do to get a Ph.D.  Study enough to get a good GRE score, be personable enough to pass the interview, and be mentally strong enough to not give up for 4-7 years.  It’s not for everyone, but if you like research, you should consider it.

Although you have some decisions to make, my best advice is to: TAKE ACTION NOW.  Do something.  Find some local schools and ask for information as a first step. The enrollment departments usually have people that can guide you.  It’s their job to help you.  Use their resources.

If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out to me. I’m happy to share more detailed parts of my experience with you.

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Michael Levandoski, PhD.
Michael Levandoski, PhD.
Dr. Michael Levandoski, Jr. grew up in Morristown, New Jersey having a passion for science at a very early age. It was around 5 years old when he carried with him a dull, blue Styrofoam case containing a microscope for which he used everywhere he went. From viewing insects to plants to food under the microscope, his curiosity was never satiated. He participated in science fairs while in elementary school, putting in hours of dedication and creativity. His scientific inquisitiveness carried with him into adulthood, where he obtained a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics with a heavy focus on RNA processing from Rutgers University. His career in science has led him to move from New Jersey to Los Angeles, to his current home in North Carolina. Presently, as a Research Scientist, his work is focused on pathogen genomics and large-scale data analysis and data visualization. He has presented posters at national conferences and has served as a subject matter expert for infectious disease research. One of his unique strengths is using his programming skills to analyze massive data sets to aid in machine learning projects and explain complex biological phenomena in easily understandable ways to non-scientists. He is a big proponent of thinking “win-win” to join multidisciplinary teams so that he and his colleagues can succeed in various projects. Aside from his scientific achievements, he would say his biggest accomplishment was marrying the love of his life and collegiate homecoming queen, Edith. Together they enjoy hiking, traveling, and exploring local cuisine. Their happy home consists of 3 rescue dogs and 2 cats, which means there is never a dull moment. In Mike’s spare time he enjoys his lifelong hobby of martial arts. He is practicing Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and wrestling, where he encourages and inspires newcomers to break out of their comfort zone and test their limits just as he did. One of his core principles is that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak, and he tries to embody that idea physically, mentally, and spiritually across the spectrum of his passions.

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