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What now?

  1. Aug 14, 2009 #1

    I actually graduated two years ago so maybe it's a little late to be posting this. I've been doing community work since leaving Uni but I miss science. I have a Masters in Marine Science and Management and a BSc in Environmental Biology. My dissertation was on genetics and I have some experience in GIS. I'm 25 and... I just don't know what to do now. I wanted to be an astrophysicist but chose the biology road instead. Astrobiology research looks really brilliant but I don't know how to get into it. Ocean modelling and sea ice are lifelong interests of mine, so perhaps I could go into climate research. But I don't have a quantitative background, in fact my first degree was a little wooly. I studied zoology for the first two years but have no interest in being a vet. It's earth systems that really interest me... but once again, no physics background. I guess a PhD is my natural next step, but... what? The things I'm qualified to do (eg ecology, microbiology) don't interest me that much, and the things I want to do (modelling and planetary processes) I probably can't, not without going right back to square one and resitting high school physics and doing a degree in maths. Right?

    Would love some perspective, and sorry about the whinge........
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2009 #2


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    We have had questions of this type before from people who majored in various other subject areas, and I often have this one nagging question that I've always puzzled with but never asked .... till now. Please don't take this as a criticism, because it isn't meant as that. Rather, it is more of a general querry out of curiosity and puzzlement.

    Did you ever talked to your professors, especially the ones within your own subject area, or did you ever talked to your academic advisor, on this very topic? I'm always curious about this because I would think that, of all people who should be aware of the job availability and the state of employment in a particular field, these should be some of the people who would know. Even if one intends to go into graduate school, I would think that your academic advisor could easily be someone who can advise you very well on that, especially when he/she would have a bit more knowledge of your academic records.

  4. Aug 14, 2009 #3


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    One suggestion I have would be to start talking to professors doing research in the areas you have interest in. See what they might recommend for the necessary background. You might be able to get into a PhD program with your current qualifications and then pick up the necessary undergraduate courses in your first year or two.

    What you probably want to avoid is using the "not qualified to do what you want" idea as an excuse to keep you from happiness.
  5. Aug 14, 2009 #4
    I'm not offended at all :) You're right, it does seem counterproductive to ignore such a valuable resource, but in short:

    No I didn't. I guess I felt they wouldn't understand me.

    In my experience, professors can be an intimidating bunch and many students are still unsure of themselves, even by the time they graduate or start a Masters. Some students gain loads of confidence and by the time they graduate they know exactly what they want but in my experience they are the exception rather than the rule. When I left Uni, I had very little experience of real life and had really unrealistic expectations about what would happen afterwards. My main supervisor was rarely in his office and the second one didn't even know my name. I wasn't assertive, and thus got stuck on a research project I didn't enjoy. That wasn't their fault - I didn't speak up, I just mutely let them direct me into the exact opposite of what I wanted to do (I joined the program to convert my biology experience into physics / modelling, but they saw a qualified geneticist and instantly found a use for me somewhere else). Why didn't I speak up about what I wanted? I don't know, I guess I was just naive about how research really worked. And I just wanted to be useful. I thought that things would turn out okay, and it didn't really matter so long as I was doing something useful (it wasn't really useful, but never mind). There was only one professor I really spoke to, and she gave me loads of advice (and still replies to my emails two years later).

    It's nobody's fault, and in no way am I blaming anyone or regretting my degrees - it's just the way that things turned out.

    That's really good advice, I hadn't thought of it. I do remember in my first year at Uni there were PhD candidates taking classes with us. It hadn't really occurred to me to just ask professors for advice. I am definitely, definitely going to do that (any advice on contacting experts without being annoying?).

    I have already been looking at internships with science consultancies, particularly those in marine / climate science. I just know that a few weeks or months watching real people research in the exact field I'm interested in will give me a clear background of whether or not its work I am capable of. If I can do it and enjoy it, then I know what to focus on. If not, I've lost nothing.
  6. Aug 14, 2009 #5
    Story of my undergraduate/MSc experience, Adrastea! What I needed way back then was a forum where guys like ZapperZ and Choppy could provide useful questions & answers ...
  7. Aug 14, 2009 #6
    I would have thought that extremophile research for Astrobiology would be pretty good for someone with a microbiology background?

    Gotta have some people to understand what we find under the ice on Europa!
  8. Aug 15, 2009 #7


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    If one is interested in Astrobiology, then please refer to this - http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/
    http://nasascience.nasa.gov/researchers/sara/division-corner/planetary-science-division-corner [Broken]

    There was position open for a lead astrobiologist.

    Here is NASA's site on climate monitoring - http://climate.nasa.gov/

    Looking at oceans - http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/plankton_space.html

    Earth Observatory is part of the EOS Project Science Office located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    There is also NOAA - http://www.noaa.gov/eos.html [Broken]

    I agree that some professors can be intimidating, especially if they think a student is not interested or lacks direction. On the other hand, I've known some professors who were very good at mentoring.

    Besides checking out websites for NASA or NOAA (and one could contact scientist there regarding their academic background), one can read scientific journals in order to review the research and who is doing it, there are also professional/scientific organizations/societies that provide valuable network for students to meet professionals and researchers from a large population outside one's university.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  9. Aug 15, 2009 #8


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    Not just Europa, but here on Earth.




    While there is a lot of research being done on algae with respect to biodiesel/biofuel from algae, perhaps it would be worthwhile to explore the potential of extremophiles to convert CO2 into fuels or other useful compounds. I don't know of any research in this area.
  10. Aug 15, 2009 #9
    Interesting links, Astronuc. You are right - exploring our own planet is pretty exciting when we see it in an astrobiology context. Looking for microbes in space and we barely understand the ones we have here on earth!

    Looks like biofuel and pharmaceutical applications are the way the projects get their funding...
  11. Aug 15, 2009 #10
    Extremophiles really fascinate me, they always have. What I *wanted* to do for my MSc research project was distribution of deep sea corals, but I had funding / department issues and ended up doing tropical coral genetics instead (which had no possible astrobiology connection). I've wanted to know what is under the ice on Europa since I was a child! But tbh there could be just as many exciting bugs under the ice in Lake Vostok:

    http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~mstuding/vostok.html" [Broken]

    I've always absolutely loved reading the blogs from Antarctic researchers, especially those who have an astrobiology interest. Even when I was a kid, as young as 6 or 7 years old, I would make up stories about life on the moons of Jupiter. I even wrote a novel about it ;)

    If I'm really honest with you guys, I know exactly what I want to do. I suppose if you had to make up a name for it, you could call it "comparative oceanography." I want to look at liquid / solid 'water' on other planets / moons (I often end up referring to moons as planets, it's more laziness than stupidity).

    Here's what I really, really want to do: I'm a spatial data kind of person so what I dream of doing is sitting and staring at photographs from the surface of Titan or Enceladus or Mars or whatever and just running them through filters and making false-colour composites and trying to figure out depth and properties and features and the like. I took a grad course in remote sensing and I absolutely loved it. I'm someone who looks at one pixel blob next to another pixel blob and tries to work out if its a vent, a seep, a mountain, a plume. Layer data in a GIS. Fiddle some more. Run stats. More layers. Fiddle a bit more. The moons of the outer planets have captivated me since I was a kid.

    I just don't know how to go from being an unemployed marine biologist to a researcher. I don't even understand how science at this level really works. If I were to do a PhD in astrobiological imaging, how would I obtain the data? Do I have to apply to NASA or the team who designed the instrument? How does it work?

    The data I want doesn't even exist... not really. And the parts that do, I don't even understand how I would be able to use it, even if I was registered somewhere as a PhD candidate. I don't really understand the politics of space science and who the data belongs to, who you have to work for and what you have to do if you want to analyse it.

    Anyway, that's all very well... but reality kicks in and I have bills to pay, and I'm not really that bright, so all of the above may well be just a distant - and ridiculous - dream, like wanting to be a rock star or something.

    The other things I mentioned, climate / ocean modelling, deep-sea research, spectroscopy.. well I suppose it's all related to astrobiology but maybe slightly more accessible than some impossible dream of designing instruments for photographing a lump of ice a billion miles away. I dunno, maybe if I could work in climate science for a bit I would get the experience I need, or deep sea research is interesting enough on its own so I won't care any more.

    I've spent the last year working in community environmental education (cleaning beaches and writing leaflets).. the thought of ever actually working for NASA or NOAA seems as far away as Cassini right now...
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  12. Aug 15, 2009 #11


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  13. Aug 16, 2009 #12
    Looks like some of these could be right up your alley, Adrastea:

    "...studies of Arctic psychrophiles and hydrothermal vent hyperthermophiles in situ.
    studies of the evolution of microbial mat communities..."

    Tropical coral genetics may not be directly related, but I am sure you could make up any missing grad-level courses you need once you are there.

    Carpe diem!
  14. Aug 17, 2009 #13
    Okay, this is a bit off topic, but just for fun I'd like to relate my advisor experience.

    Many years ago I graduated with a BS in physics. I wanted a job and was very open about where I would work. I tried a few leads and nothing was turning up.

    So I went to see my advisor. I told him I was looking, but was having trouble finding. "Where would you suggest I look? Is there a better place to start?" I explained that while I hoped to stay in science, I was open to many possiblities. I just needed some help being pointed in the right direction.

    He scratched his chin for a moment, looked at me very seriously and said:

    "I don't know."

    That's no reason not to try. . . but if your advisor isn't helpful, know you're not the first. :biggrin:
  15. Aug 18, 2009 #14


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    My undergraduate advisor wasn't very helpful either, but I used another person's advisor who was!

    There are two points that I'm trying to get across here:

    1. There ARE, believe it or not, a lot of resources available to you already when you're in school. You may not be aware of them, but they are there! Your advisor and your instructors are the first line of people that you should make use of. In fact, some of them are PAID to do these things. And again, believe it or not, there are many of them who are concerned enough about a student's well-being to make the extra effort to help.

    2. One has to be a bit tenacious when faced with these roadblocks. It is part of growing up where nothing is going to be handed to you on a silver platter anymore. You can't find help with one person, find another one! That's what I had to do. Consider it as a training ground for when you go to graduate school (where you'll be faced with problems that you have to use your creativity to solve) and for when you enter the real world when you have to deal with bureaucracy and red-tape. When one's advisor says "I don't know", don't stop there! Ask "Well, do you know of anyone I can talk to about something like this?" If that person is still clueless, go away and ask another faculty member that may know you.

    Eventually, one come across individuals who will be major figures in shaping one's future and one's attitude towards one's profession. But you can never find these people if you don't go looking for them and getting a few hits and misses.

  16. Aug 21, 2009 #15
    I'm not sure that's really the issue for me here. I worked incredibly hard to get my degree and Masters, and since I had to pay for it myself, I worked really long hours alongside my degree. I haven't had any support from my family in nine years. I don't want anything handed to me. I just want ADVICE.

    I should have mentioned that I am in the UK and whilst I would honestly love to do a PhD in Astrobiology in the States, I can't possibly afford the $70K per year to do one.

    I'm trying very hard to not whinge and not make excuses for myself, but I really really don't know what to do now. I already SAID what I wanted to do, but honestly, what physics department is going to take a 25 year old marine biologist who only scraped an average grade at the time AND has been out of research for two years, when they could take a 21 year old physics grad who was the top of their class? No-one? I thought not. Why on earth would they?

    ..and yes, I HAVE tried. There are only about six Universities in this country with Astrobiology departments and to date I have been turned down from them all.

    So what options are open to me, really? I'm asking here BECAUSE I have no-one else to ask. I graduated two years ago... if my supervisors didn't know my name then, they aren't likely to remember me now. All I know is that my current career 'path' is a dead-end and I didn't do my degree to pick needles off beaches.
  17. Aug 21, 2009 #16


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    Have you looked for universities that offer masters degrees in Astrobiology, in order to try and boost your knowledge before applying for a PhD? I would imagine that there would be plenty of scope for a biologist in this field.
  18. Aug 21, 2009 #17
    Yeah, I did look... it seems the only conversion degree I could do would be a one year Masters in Astrophysics and I would just have to choose a research project in Astrobiology. Unfortunately it had a very high maths / physics component.
  19. Aug 22, 2009 #18
    I just applied to a couple of astronomy masters and asked whether I would be able to do them with my background and what the chances of doing an astrobiology project would be. I'll just wait and see what they say. The Open University runs part-time PhDs and have a really big astrobiology department so that is also an option (did I say that already?)... I just need a stable job first to be able to afford it. And, I can't figure out why, but the cost of a self-funded PhD is much less per year than a Masters. So that's probably my main option right now. It just means I need a stable job for 5-6 years which is going to be another problem in the field of short-term contracts and temporary work...
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