Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Happened to 30 Biochemistry Graduate Students at Yale?

 
In 1991 there were 30 young people beginning graduate school in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Progam at Yale University. Where are they now? How many have tenure at a university? The answer might surprise you. Read about the fate of these students in this week's issue of Science [And Then There Was One].

Looking at my own department, there are about 10 Ph.D.'s from a similar cohort and four of them have academic positions in 2008.


[Hat Tip: Chance and Necsssity]

25 comments:

  1. Does not surprise me in the least. "Postdoc glut" has been a problem for couple decades now. The whole system is completely screwed up.

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  2. Problem?
    Surely this is a brilliant situation for academic departments. Think of the choice they have! /sarcasm>

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  3. As you know, Larry, I've been railing on this point for a number of years. We have a very, very serious problem in the biological sciences.

    Of the 26 1997-98 graduates who started in 1991, ONE has a tenured position! And this is of people who did their PhDs at Yale! I finished my PhD in 2006, so by this estimate, I should expect to have a one-in-26 chance of having a tenured position by 2015. I had no idea things were THAT bad.

    The problem is very, very simple. We train too many people for the amount of money we have to allocate to biological and biomedical science. University departments need to tie acceptance into Ph.D. programs to tenure-track hiring rates. I'm not suggesting a 1/1 allocation, but if we go with this article, 6/26 graduates are working in academia. Let's round that down to 1/5 Ph.D. graduates (assuming, of course, that the dismal rates of hire themselves dont turn people off academia, which they do...I know because this almost got me!).

    So let's have the universities create one faculty position for every 5 Ph.D. students they graduate. Not going to happen in a million years, but at least we've identified the problem.

    We make it so easy to get a Ph.D. these days. The process to get into medical school or law school is far more rigorous (though we're starting to see the same problem emerging in law). I fully support the notion that getting a Ph.D. (or any non-professional university degree) should be about learning for the sake of learning; you'll never find a bigger supporter of academia than me. But we also have to be pragmatic. I have to eat, help support my family, and hopefully plan for the rest of my life, including retirement. As it stands, I know that I can work as hard as I possibly can as a post-doc, and still face a job market that is almost hopelessly bleak. Unless I discover something absolutely remarkable that produces a very high impact publication, it's going to be heavy slogging. I knew this going in, and as I've said before, I'm in for the long haul because, frankly, I'm not good at anything else but science. But that doesn't excuse the fact that this system is broken, full stop.

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  4. The problem is very, very simple. We train too many people for the amount of money we have to allocate to biological and biomedical science. University departments need to tie acceptance into Ph.D. programs to tenure-track hiring rates. I'm not suggesting a 1/1 allocation, but if we go with this article, 6/26 graduates are working in academia. Let's round that down to 1/5 Ph.D. graduates (assuming, of course, that the dismal rates of hire themselves dont turn people off academia, which they do...I know because this almost got me!).
    *************************

    Or we can realize that a PhD is an academic degree and not a professional one. One does not get a doctorate in biochemistry. A person gets a doctor of philosophy in biochemistry. It does provide you the intellectual training to be a scientist yes but you are not limited to that. You can consult, teach, write, be involved in policy, etc. The skills set learned while achieving a PhD in the sciences should not be underestimated. Those peddling the notion that the only success is getting a tenure track position at a research university are selling a pyramid scheme.

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  5. I don't know the specifics of the 30 Yalies as my institution doesn't have an online subscription to Science. But, there usually is a large component of choice in the mix. With a Ph.D. in biochemistry, I expect one can get a lucrative position in the private sector as well as good jobs in public agencies.

    Across all the biological sciences, many of the subdisciplines train individuals to suit multiple careers. IMO, the problem is one of expectations. If you go to grad school expecting to be a tenure-track faculty member at an R-01, then you better expect to do at least a two-year post-doc, you had better have an outstanding pub-rate and you better have been at least a co-PI on a big grant if not the PI. If you want a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college, then you better have TA-ed a variety of courses and you better have been good at it, although pub-rate and grantsmanship also are increasing in importance at those schools.

    The problem isn't that there are too many PhD's necessarily, but that too many PhD candidates are woefully ignorant of what to do with their training when they are done, or pursue specific training that is unsuitable for their chosen career. Departments and supervisors share some of the responsibility for that. But, ultimately the responsibility is the student's.

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  6. Mike said:

    "As you know, Larry, I've been railing on this point for a number of years. We have a very, very serious problem in the biological sciences."

    It's a probably a matter of different expectations. I see it from another angle - 19 out of 26 PhDs are working in academia and bio-industry, thus drawing direct benefits from their training. Many are still actively doing research, and those not in research are in supervisory or instructor positions. Only 4 of them are in totally different fields, and they aren't doing too badly there.

    To me it is only a "very, very serious problem" if many of them are miserable in their current appointments or worse, find themselves unemployed/unemployable.

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  7. I read this article with some interest, but I think the article was way off track.

    Long gone are the days where the major end-point of a higher education was academic research. Over the past few decades many other options have become available for PhD and post-doc level trainees. Many people - myself included - enter their PhD's expecting to enter one of these other routes.

    Many non-tenure academic research positions exist - especially in research institutes and hospitals. Outside of the academic world there is government and military research, biotech/pharmaceutical companies, teaching, "think-tank" and public policy organizations, numerous non-research government jobs, investment advisers, and many more - and all of whom expect PhD or post-doctoral training.

    If anything, the nature article reflects not a problem with the tenure-track job market, but rather represents the degree to which academic training and expectations are living decades in the past.

    The problem isn't that most of these postdocs didn't get tenure-track positions.

    The problem is that current training programs do not reflect the modern biological research/industry world or the expectations of current trainees.

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  8. Or we can realize that a PhD is an academic degree and not a professional one. One does not get a doctorate in biochemistry. A person gets a doctor of philosophy in biochemistry.

    I absolutely could not agree more (and I said as much later down the post!). You will never find a bigger supporter of that notion than me. That having been said, should I expect to be a post-doc for the next 8 years, whereas those who came before me could have expected their post-docs to last no more that 3 or 4? Why has THAT happened?

    Those peddling the notion that the only success is getting a tenure track position at a research university are selling a pyramid scheme.

    Nobody said that. That isn't the point at all. It's that for those of us who DO want to be academic scientists, the situation has been made bleaker by the irresponsible actions of universities (by accepting too many people) and PIs (by taking on too many graduate students...what's wrong with taking post-docs??? Oh yeah, we cost a bit too much).

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  9. Long gone are the days where the major end-point of a higher education was academic research.

    And why is that? Yes, there are now options, but those options have always been there (at least they have been for the last 30 years or so). Industry has always been there. Science writing has always been there. Science policy has always been there.

    I contend that a huge part of the problem is that many Ph.D. graduates are simply recognizing that they simply can't work in their chosen field; many want to be academic researchers, all other things being equal. So they're doing the smart thing and getting out.

    I did exactly this two years ago. I finished my Ph.D. (8 publications to boot!) and then went to work for a major Canadian funding and advocacy agency doing research development. I hated it. So I came back to research. I've made my bed, and I intend to lie in it. I came back will full knowledge that this situation is bleak. So I'm not complaining for me. But that doesn't mean that the system doesn't need some drastic changes.

    Ph.D.s should, first and foremost, be about training the mind; they are not a skill development program, per se. Yes, you learn skills, but chief among them is the ability to think and solve problems. It's a Doctor of Philosophy for a reason. 100% concur with this.

    But the fact remains that a Ph.D. is required to be a biological or biomedical researcher (or an M.D., but dont even get me started on that). This is, of course, but one career option. But I'm not talking about other options; I'm talking about those of us who want to be researchers at universities and research institutions. For us, this situation is completely untenable in the long-term. Something has to be done. And I contend that this "something" is to accept fewer Ph.D. students, replace their workload with the "glut" of post-docs out there, and maintain a healthy degree of turnover in academic research. University departments need to create tenure-track positions at a much greater rate than they are currently doing, and if they can't, they need to accept fewer people into their department. To do otherwise is absolutely irresponsible.

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  10. Mike wrote Yes, there are now options, but those options have always been there (at least they have been for the last 30 years or so).

    True enough. However, the number of non-academic/non-tenure track positions is much greater today than in the past. Likewise, the way these non-tenured positions are viewed has changed dramatically. It wasn't that long ago that industry jobs were looked down up, basically where the "not good enough for academia" types ended up.

    Today those same jobs are not only respected (mostly), but are desired and competed for.

    I'd agree that the PhD/post-doc to tenured position ratio sucks, but at the same time I would still argue that the major problem is that the training environment still does not reflect the modern job market.

    Long story short - we're still training people to be PI's in an environment where such positions are rare; despite the fact that for at least a decade the "alternate career paths" are actually the main direction most people follow.

    And, in case anyone cares, I am (hoping) for an academic-tract job once the postdoc is finished.

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  11. we're still training people to be PI's in an environment where such positions are rare

    I would agree with that. In my case, my supervisor (a clinician-scientist in a hospital-based, university-affiliated research institute) has been quite open about providing the trainees with the proper experience.

    We have one graduate student that definitely wants to be in industry after this is over. He is getting lots of exposure to drug trials and pre-clinical work.

    Of the four PDFs in our lab, I am the only one who wants to go into academic research, and I am getting a training environment that caters to this, while the others have different expectations put on them because publishing in Science/Cell/Nature etc isn't as critical for them as it is for me.

    If more labs were like this, it would go a long way to solving the problem.

    And, in case anyone cares, I am (hoping) for an academic-tract job once the postdoc is finished.

    Best of luck to you; we're in the same boat.

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  12. Mike wrote: If more labs were like this, it would go a long way to solving the problem.

    I agree. My PhD supervisor was somewhat good at this - especially at finding clinically-orientated projects for those planning on perusing an MD (and we had a lot of MDs in the lab, perusing MSc/PhD).

    The post-doc supervisor is fairly hands-off, so its upto the postdoc to develop a lot of those things themselves.

    That said, the departments in both institutions really show the academic bias. One case sticks out strongly in my mind - during my PhD I organized a western-Canadian student/postdoc conferee. Career development was a large part of the program. As part of the program we wanted to have reps from academia, gov and industry.

    Guess who was the only person the uni would approve us to use our money to fly in - even though the money we had came from industry donations.

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  13. Mike says,

    University departments need to create tenure-track positions at a much greater rate than they are currently doing, and if they can't, they need to accept fewer people into their department. To do otherwise is absolutely irresponsible.

    This doesn't make a lot of sense. There's no obvious relation between the number of tenure-stream positions a department has and where their Ph.D. students end up.

    During the 1980's, for example, our department hired very few people into tenure-stream positions. Our Ph.D. graduates ended up in tenure-stream positions all over Canada, in the USA, and in Australia.

    Why in the world would we turn away such outstanding students who we know we can train to take jobs anywhere in the world?

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  14. Another point which may be worth making is the imminent retirement of baby-bloomers. Granted, some will probably work to the day the die, but more likely than not, there'll be a number of positions opening as the more sane (less dedicated?) ones retire.

    At least, that's what I'm banking on
    ;-)

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  15. There's no obvious relation between the number of tenure-stream positions a department has and where their Ph.D. students end up.

    Clearly. I'm not claiming that the PhD graduates from UofT biochem will end up working at UofT biochem. However, the fact remains that UofT biochem is putting out X number of graduates per year, and contributing that many graduates (or, one suspects, a large proportion of those graduates) to the post-doc pool, which gets larger and larger every year.

    So if every institution in Canada (for instance) agrees to create new tenure-track faculty positions, indexed to the number of PhD graduates they are prepared to produce (again, not advocating for 1/1, but some proportion thereof), we would at least not be adding to the post-doc glut.

    During the 1980's, for example, our department hired very few people into tenure-stream positions. Our Ph.D. graduates ended up in tenure-stream positions all over Canada, in the USA, and in Australia.

    And your department contributed to the overall post-doc glut; there's no getting around that. Every department at every university is going to be a net contributor to the post-doc glut (unless they hire above their graduation rate). What I'm calling for is some measure or lowering the net contribution. Obviously, not all departments can afford to hire as many tenure-track positions. My contention, therefore, is that they ALSO cannot afford to graduate new PhD students. And the way to stop this is by accepting fewer students into these programs.

    Why in the world would we turn away such outstanding students who we know we can train to take jobs anywhere in the world?

    Because it's irresponsible. If UofT biochem cannot afford to hire back at a rate that is indexed (again, at least in part) to the rate they accept and graduate PhDs, they are disproportionately contributing to the overabundance of post-docs. No money to hire faculty? Then no money to train students.

    The obvious issue here is that departments receive university funding (and ulitmately government funding) based on the number of students they take in. At U of O Cell and Molecular Medicine (my former department), they were pushing M.Sc. students out after 2 years (including thesis writing and defense!), simply because they only get 2 years of government funding. After that, the student is a "drain" on the department.

    So I don't expect that departments will be heeding my advice anytime soon. So the responsibility has to be taken up, in part, by the PIs themselves. PIs should be hiring far, far more post-docs than graduate students. BUT, they have to pay the PDFs more (though they get much more in return), and PIs are hamstrung by the granting agencies.

    This system is broken. The government does not increase CIHR/NSERC/SSHRC/etc funding commensurate with the number of good grants coming in. Therefore, the agencies give out fewer, less lucrative grants. Therefore, PIs are forced to hire cheaper labour (i.e. graduate students over PDFs). Therefore, more Ph.D. graduates are produced, and the post-doc pool gets bigger and bigger. At the same time, departments don't care; they measure success (in part) in terms of the number of students they train.

    This is so depressing for a PDF who desperately wants to do research and (more than that) to teach. But as I've said, I'm in this for the long haul.

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  16. bryan says,

    Another point which may be worth making is the imminent retirement of baby-bloomers. Granted, some will probably work to the day the die, but more likely than not, there'll be a number of positions opening as the more sane (less dedicated?) ones retire.

    I'm pretty familiar with a lot of departments and I don't see any change in hiring over the next ten years.

    The biggest expansions of life science departments took place in the 60s and 70s and most of those Professors have already retired and/or their replacements have already been hired.

    At the University of Toronto we are facing announced budget cuts of 5% every year for the next five years. That doesn't leave much room for hiring new faculty members. The situation isn't much different at other schools in Canada.

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  17. At the University of Toronto we are facing announced budget cuts of 5% every year for the next five years. That doesn't leave much room for hiring new faculty members. The situation isn't much different at other schools in Canada.

    And yet, U of T continues to enroll more and more students without so much as a care about what these people will do with their degree once they're finished.

    Granted, new students have an obligation to know the job market before they start, but I would argue that most of them are not making informed decisions; where would a 4th year B.Sc. student go to get up-to-date information about the prospects of working in particular scientific industries? Is this information widely available?

    All departmental recruiting literature that I've seen advertises the fact that graduates of Department X are working in academics, industry, government, etc. But this is disingenuous. Nowhere do these documents mention that, should you choose academics after graduation, your prospects of getting a tenured job in the next 10 years are as low as one-in-26.

    I know I sound like a broken record (CD?) on this, but this is getting really bleak, really fast. Guess I really should be spending less time on the blogs, and more on getting the Nature, Nature Cell Biology, and Science papers that it takes to get offered a faculty position these days. These 55 hour weeks just aren't cutting it anymore.

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  18. Mike, you don't sound like a broken record--there needs to be more, much more outcry of the type you are writing about. I feel for you man. At least you are committed and have accepted that you're in for the long haul.

    I graduated last month with my Ph.D. I don't have a postdoc position lined up. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in a month's time from now, let alone a year, 5 years from now.

    Why? Because during graduate school I didn't take the time to expose myself to the "alternative", actually not-alternative anymore, career paths, but instead focused on my work and the academic world. I sent applications for postdocs, had one interview, and went through that "expected" path. I didn't like where it was going to lead me at all.

    Something happened about 6 months before I graduated. I woke up. As much as I loved the research and my subject, I started asking myself the question: how is this going to give me a living? How is this going to pay the bills? How is this going to give me a sense of permanence (location, job stability)? How is my work going to be recognized and give me those things that non-scientists take for granted?

    I started reading and realized how incredibly terrible the situation is for postdocs struggling to find permanence in the academic world. Because I had my mind focused on academia and didn't know what else to do, I started panicking. I started having a rash of physiological problems--sleeping issues, eating issues, headaches, panic attacks, confidence issues...some of those symptoms have gone away and others I'm dealing with, but what remains is regret. Why didn't I see the situation earlier?

    Now that I've realized as much as I enjoyed the work, I cannot commit 3, 4, 5, 6 years or more to doing postdoc upon postdoc. I'm spending my time doing self-assessment exercises, reading all kinds of career guides, understand the skills I gained through grad school (beyond the techniques) and my strengths and weaknesses. I'm hoping I can connect who I am as a person to a job outside of academia.

    I want to enter the real world where I won't have a contract job that doesn't pay well and has little-to-no prospect of leading to a permanent position--I mean, I don't want to join the ranks of thousands of disgruntled postdocs.

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  19. Peter says,

    Why? Because during graduate school I didn't take the time to expose myself to the "alternative", actually not-alternative anymore, career paths, but instead focused on my work and the academic world.

    This is a serious problem that we need to fix. In our department we have seminars by alumni who have chosen different career paths so that our graduate students are exposed to a variety of options.

    What we need to work on is getting my colleagues to respect those other choices and help their students choose the best option for the student—and not the best option for the supervisor. So far we have had only partial success.

    There are plenty of jobs in the commercial sector. Some of our graduates choose careers in science journalism. Some take positions in science administration like Mike did. Some go to medical school or law school. And some—not enough in my opinion—choose to go into teaching (high school, college, university).

    Quite a few of our Ph.D. graduates choose careers that have nothing to do with science and most of them are very happy with their choices.

    Given this diversity of laudable and options, how many graduate students should a department accept every year? Clearly we can't tie that acceptance rate to just one of the many possible career paths, can we? Wouldn't that be irresponsible?

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  20. And some—not enough in my opinion—choose to go into teaching (high school, college, university).

    Ahh, you raise another good point. If I could find a job tomorrow that allowed me to teach university-level science, make a decent wage at it, provided some level of job security, and perhaps allowed me to contribute to the scientific literature in other ways (textbook writing, etc), I would gladly take it.

    But the fact remains that most university positions are tied to research, and, to be frank, research dollars. It's research that brings in the grants, so teaching, for many, becomes of secondary or tertiary concern.

    Does your department hire tenure-track professors who just teach and write? I've seen these types of jobs posted at some universities, but they tend to be non-tenure track and very often time-limited (2-5 year contracts, for example). The good jobs go to those who bring in the money; teaching is an afterthought.

    Given this diversity of laudable and options, how many graduate students should a department accept every year? Clearly we can't tie that acceptance rate to just one of the many possible career paths, can we? Wouldn't that be irresponsible?

    Yes, we can tie acceptance rates to tenure-track positions, and no, that's not irresponsible. This is not a small problem, Larry. The rates of hire are not slightly below acceptance rates. They are, I would guess, at least an order of magnitude different (I would be shocked if hiring rates are 1/10th of acceptance rates).

    And there's a bigger concern, Larry. Departments could graduate thousands of Ph.D. students each year if they wanted to; that's not what's bothering us. What IS bothering us is the obvious conflict of interest here. Departments don't have to (and should not have to) be accountable for whether or not OTHER industries have places for us, but they DO have to be accountable for the jobs that they, THEMSELVES, create. Medical schools don't EMPLOY M.D.s as physicians (well, not per se); law schools don't EMPLOY L.L.B.s as lawyers. Denistry schools don't EMPLOY D.D.S.s as dentists. Heck, acting schools don't EMPLOY actors. But your department DOES hire the people it trains; it has a vested interest in keeping the pool of applicants as far ABOVE hiring rates as possible, in order to ensure the fiercest possible competition amongst the candidates. There is a conflict of interest that has to be stopped.

    So, no, your department does not have to concern itself with whether Macleans is hiring science journalists, or whether Astra Zeneca is hiring drug development scientists. It ONLY has to be responsible for whether IT IS HIRING tenure-track scientists, itself. To do otherwise is 100% irresponsible.

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  21. In my department (which is research-intensive), everything from courses, student seminars, departmental retreats, events, and most interactions with faculty members are geared towards preparing graduate students for an academic research career. My department advertises this everywhere it can.

    The problem is, I know for a fact that a significant proportion of graduates from our department actually DO NOT even try to pursue an academic research career. I estimate this fraction to be as high as 50%. The other 50% try pursuing an academic research career by obtaining postdoctoral positions, but a proportion of those inevitably leave academic research for other professions (I don't have a feeling for what this fraction is). So the department is failing in its advertised mandate and this is a disgrace.

    Larry, it is fortunate and commendable that graduate students are able to transition into non-research careers. But the problem I have, and this was echoed by Mike, is that the design and intention of graduate programs are to train students for employment as academic researchers, while almost completely ignoring the reality that most of us cannot or do not pursue that path. I totally agree with Mike--there needs to be separation between the "traineeship" environment and the "working" environment. You're a student in academia training to be a worker in academia. Except you most likely cannot get a permanent job as a worker in academia.

    Aside from seminars that only recently have started, and a university career centre that is not well-versed in helping graduate students find non-academic work (and actually REFUSES to advise postdocs), there is little in the way of formalized exposure, education, training or development of Ph.D's transitioning into non-research careers.

    I don't think admission numbers should be tied to outcomes in terms of careers, but I DO think there should be trainee development officers assigned to each department, whose responsibility is to ensure each and every student has career development advice. If enrollment goes up by 10 students, one more career development advisor should be hired.

    You can't blame faculty since they themselves only know research careers. Students can't rely on their supervisors and committee members. There MUST be additional funds for formalized mechanisms to help students in their development, like internships, volunteer placements, etc.

    I don't know if I can do anything else but research. I know I developed many skills during my studies, but I have never applied them in anything like journalism, law, sales, etc, because that wasn't a part of my Ph.D. program.

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  22. Incidentally Mike, can I ask you what your research administration job is?

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  23. Incidentally Mike, can I ask you what your research administration job is?

    I ran the cancer prevention initiative at the National Cancer Institute of Canada (http://tinyurl.com/3o9acv).

    I finished my PhD in August 2006, and then worked at NCIC for a year. I missed research too much; the constant intellectual stimulation was missing. I need that. So I applied for post-docs in May of 2007, and started in my current lab in Sept 2007.

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  24. The world owes you nothing.

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  25. I just found your blog and this post on google. My school doesn't have an online subscription to Science, so I haven't read it, but the discussion in the comments has been invaluable. As a biochem undergrad who wants to go into research (most other students are pre-health), I've still had only a vague understanding of what I would do with my education.

    I guess this makes me even more eager to try and work into a position at a local medical research foundation that I've admired. Being part of a school faculty sounded like an attractive option, but I wasn't really sure what are the opportunities.

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