So you want to be a scientist

Declaring a science or engineering major is great, but classes alone will only get you so far.  Want to do everything you can to land the job of your dreams after graduation?  Or get into your top choice grad school?  Here are some helpful resources.  I won’t say “look no further”, though, because there are a ton of resources that are just a quick search away.

First things first, a warning–just a caution, not a discouragement.  If you want to do research, you need to be aware that you’re not going to feel very smart most of the time.  Anyone who tells you otherwise has either never worked as a research scientist…or is a liar.  I consider this essay required reading.  I revisited it about once a month my first year of grad school.  Feeling like you’re a moron who doesn’t belong in the lab is so common that we have a name for it: Impostor Syndrome.  I’ve had my own struggles with it, and so has everyone else I know.

With that warning out of the way, if research is what you want to do, the best thing you can do is to start now and explore your options as much as you can.  I started working in my first lab as an 18-year-old freshman because I saw a flier posted on campus and took the initiative to call.  With a line of experience on my resume, I found it easier to move on to other labs, get scholarships, and start figuring out exactly what it was I wanted to study.  So how do you get into a lab, you ask?  There are a lot of internship programs out there, and I’ve written a guide post with plenty of links to them.

What about getting into grad school?  First, what IS grad school?  You generally attend classes for the first year or two, while also serving as a teaching assistant, but the most important part of the process is your research.  You join a lab, sometimes after doing rotations in a few different groups, and start doing the experiments (or calculations, if you’re a theorist) that will eventually make up your dissertation.  In the US, most of us go straight from the BS to the PhD without stopping to get a master’s along the way.  But this depends on your field–computer science, for example, sees a lot of students enroll for master’s programs.  Often, PhD students who decide grad school isn’t right for them will leave with a master’s.  PhD programs take about 5-7 years to complete, depending on your field, and science/engineering programs in the US will pay your tuition and give you a stipend.  They don’t pay ridiculously well, but it’s enough to live on.

Speaking of stipends, it’s a good idea to apply for fellowships.  Not only will you make a little more money and get to add a nice section to your CV, the validation you receive from having the scientific community regard your work as worth funding can be a definite sanity-saver.  (Remember, impostor syndrome strikes many grad students!)  The best-known fellowship programs include the NSF GRFP, NDSEG, and Hertz programs, though others also exist–the NIH also offers some predoctoral fellowships.  Searching more on your own is a good idea here.

[This page is under construction! More coming soon!]


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