Advice for Professional, Biomed, and Related Careers
Our goal is to make you a strong candidate for your career, preferably with a number of options and offers in front of you.
The advice on this page is intended primarily for students wanting to enter professional school, doctoral programs, or research careers involving biomedical or related fields. For example, if your primary interest is in ecology, but you would like to study ecology from the perspective of how organisms work within their environment (physiology, genetics, toxicology, microbiology, etc), then you will find relevant advice here.
The Take Home
Its OK to be unsure exactly what you want to do, especially in your first couple of years. However, don’t close doors on yourself. If you have an interest in a particular career path, find out what you need, and what else is strongly preferred, to enter that path. Even better, find out what it will take to get multiple offers to enter that path, as its always great to have choices and relying on just one possible graduate school or job is risky. Then be sure you get those experiences and courses, to keep that path open. Ask advice regularly, from a variety of sources. Plan ahead, think about how your schedule will look over your entire time here, rather than planning by the seat of your pants term by term. Most importantly, push yourself to the limits of your ability, that is how you will be assessed and compared to other students later. Aiming for the bare minimum is always dangerous as your next step, whatever it is, will be a competition. You may succeed, but if enough students are also applying at the same time, you also may be out competed by those who aimed a little higher. Aiming lower also closes doors that you might wish were open later on. It is extremely unlikely that anyone will even complain that you are overqualified in this field.
If you aim for a high bar, we have a long track record of success helping students get into good programs of all types.
On the surface this may seem like an odd question: of course your goals are completely your choice, and you are welcome to pass through your time here in the way you feel is best for you. Balance your career goals with personal choices, and find the path that will make you happy. Many of our students are pursuing careers with very rigorous standards and extremely competitive admissions, but if is not your personal choice to enter that rat race, nobody will blame you and in fact that shows some personal awareness and desire for a balanced life that is admirable. There are a great many rewarding careers open to people with BSC degrees, and not being the top of your class does not mean you cannot find a good, well paid job in this field. In fact in some cases, a more balanced and less driven approach can even be an advantage, within reason.
The students we worry about are the ones who think they have a specific goal but have no real notion, or desire to find out, what it takes to get there. In this case, they don’t really have a goal, they just have something they want. Having goals indicates a desire to work toward them. Students who feel that classes and curricula should be set up to give them A’s rather than to challenge them, who feel they should have no studying or homework so that they can spend 8 hours a day on TV, social media, games or whatever, these are the ones in a difficult place as there is a built in contradiction in their own “goals”. Chances of success in this case are low.
It is up to YOU to decide where you want to be in this. If you do have a specific goal while here and are willing to do the things necessary to achieve that goal, at whatever level of difficulty or competitiveness, the following advice can help.
Many, if not most, programs provide a pretty simple list of requirements for admission. However, these lists of requirements are always the very bare minimum, programs want to see what you do above and beyond that. Employers usually do not publicly post a list of requirements, but you can determine what they looks for by talking to their recruiters or HR departments, looking at current job ads, and talking with advisors and faculty. Most importantly, YOU should be aware of any absolute requirements and preferred qualifications and plan for completing them. Start early and contact your advisors, the programs or employers themselves, and faculty mentors.
Any time you aim lower, such as aiming to complete just the basic requirements for admission to a professional school, you are likely closing off some possible paths to success. Not all programs have the same admissions standards, and some will look more carefully at those things that place a student above and beyond, than others. If you have a choice between two options that meet your basic requirements, choose the higher one. If you see something that might strengthen your ability to compete, try to find a way to do it. Remember, its a competition, and your competitor might just be doing the things that you are not. Students who load up their transcripts and resumes with relevant experiences will have much less to worry about later on.
The short answer is, take the hard mid and upper level courses. You may need to do some personal preparation to succeed in some of the harder courses, but its worth it. Students do take them, and those people are your competition. Moreover, graduate programs and employers look very closely at your level of preparation, as its a huge indicator of your likelihood of success. For example, if you are applying to medical school and have taken courses in all of the areas they will cover in their basic science courses, that gives them a degree of confidence that you can handle the workload. We have those courses, take advantage of them.
Admissions and hiring people are not that easily fooled, they can see what a transcript contains beyond a GPA. Your GPA is important, you can’t ignore it, and you must keep it comfortably above the minimum requirement for your chosen path. However, GPA is not the only deciding factor and may not even be the most important deciding factor. And, admissions committees will often, if not always, recalculate your GPA based on a set of criteria they have, to distinguish work they consider strong from work that might be less rigorous. A transcript with a B in an upper level hard course will most often look better than a transcript with an A in an introductory, filler, or other easy course.
Absolutely, yes. Get to know your professors. They can and will provide mentorship and advice that can help you find your way to the career you want. They all have a great deal of experience, and have seen many students succeed (or fail). You can get that knowledge. On top of that, you will need strong letters of recommendation. A strong letter can only come from someone who knows you. Letters that say, basically, that you showed up for class and got a grade, are almost worse than useless. They say that you have not developed any strong personal relationships while here, have not really impressed anyone, and possibly do not even have anything else to say. Speak up in class, go to office hours, ask for additional out of the classroom opportunities, and stay in touch. We know, some of them can seem a little intimidating, give it a shot anyways and you’ll find that they are not really all that bad.
You are not expected to go it alone in university. Sometimes we will see students who feel that asking for advice or help is almost akin to cheating. This is not true. Use the resources you have here and elsewhere to help you succeed, that is why the network of resources exists. Besides your professors, here are some ideas:
Your advisors: advisors are the people who are best suited to handle registration questions, and can help guide you along the right path to your graduation and career. Advisors should be one of your first stops if you have any questions about anything related to academics.
Admissions offices at your target institutions: you can get a great deal of information about admissions requirements from people locally, but nothing beats going directly to the source. Look at their web pages, contact them with any questions that might be specific to you. You should generally avoid contacting them with vague general questions like “what courses do I need”, that information is available elsewhere and it does not reflect well on you to suggest that you have not done your homework. However, if you know the requirements, and would like to know what you can do above that to better prepare yourself for the first year of classes, that is a question you can ask. Students are remembered, whether they ask a bad question that can be answered with a few minutes of reading a web page, or a good question that demonstrates foresight and motivation. See your professors and advisors if you need tips on making a good impression.
Potential employers: this is the best, and sometimes only, way to get first hand knowledge concerning what that employer will look for. Get to know people in the organization, often you will find people who are willing to help an obviously motivated student out. Check their jobs website or other job posting sites for current postings, and see what they are looking for. The same rules apply as for the previous point: prepare yourself before reaching out as it can reflect badly on you if you come across as unmotivated or unprepared.
Successful former students: People who have already made it where you want to go can be a great resource. Pay particular attention to stories about things they did to make themselves a better candidate. Be more cautious of things they say they didn’t have to do, or are not important. The reason for this second point is that they did not make the decision for their hiring or acceptance, and it is very unlikely that they are even aware of the things that were found to be weak in their application. Things may have changed (likely in an ever more competitive world), they may have gotten lucky due to a weak applicant pool that year, and so on. Good advice from former students is invaluable, bad advice can be very harmful.
Student Affairs: the student services office can help you with general survival advice at university. How to deal with stress or difficult situations, how to get an excused absence when one is warranted, what to do if you feel harassed or discriminated against, and so on. Find their web site here: http://www.marshall.edu/student-affairs/
This is bound to happen from time to time. People giving you advice will have varied experiences, so you can expect some different opinions. You can resolve this by digging deeper: ask them why they feel this is the best path for you, and why they feel some other path may be good or not. Use this information to make the best decision for you. Remember, your goal here is to forge the best path for yourself. Advice is simply that, use it to make your decisions.
If you find a hole in your schedule, fill it with something worthwhile. It can be a content course directly related to your interests (see below for more suggestions). It can be a course something relevant that you may not have considered before (look around, see what’s out there, ask advice). It can be a volunteer activity with a group, professional organization, or professional practitioner or researcher (hint, look for leadership roles in volunteer or student organizations). You don’t want to drive yourself into chronic stress by overloading or constantly worrying, but the important point is, if you find time fill it with something that gives you value and that will reflect well on you later.
Don’t coast, push yourself, as hard as you feel you can while not getting buried, to get things done as soon as possible. Do not leave required courses too late as that will snowball and you will end up missing out on something.
Yes. We have many ways to do research within and outside the department, and wherever you choose to do it, research can be the strongest single experience you can put forward. Even if you have no plans to do research in your later career, it is intellectually very challenging (admissions boards and scientific employers know this), you gain relevant skills, and almost any graduate degree will require you to understand research and how it is done. What better way? Furthermore, it is not safe to just assume research will not come up later in your career. Hospitals are placing increasing focus on research, and it influences their hiring decisions. Veterinarians do research. So do people in almost any biomedical related profession. Teachers and other educational professionals do research. Having research on your CV opens up career opportunities. Of course if you are entering research, either through a masters or PhD program or combined MD/PhD, research is likely to be the top consideration. In this case, look for multiple research opportunities, or a position in a collaborative lab that allows you to work with more than one mentor. These programs will often want to see more than one research focused letter of recommendation.
Your goal is to become a well-rounded candidate, encompassing academic success and relevant experience. There is no set plan, but here are some ideas, talk to the people listed under advice above to get more suggestions:
Look outside your immediate sphere. Many programs will look for a well rounded student who brings something different to the table. Look ahead and seek advice to give you some hints of what you might want in addition to the core biomed biology courses. For example, do the new ways of treating cancer involving genome sequencing and individualized treatments catch your interest? If yes, that is math and computer science. Avoid those, and you may find entering that field to be much harder. How about epidemiology, and the spread of disease? That can involve ecology and more math and computer science, for many of the positions. When this FAQ was written, it was the middle of the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak, and epidemiologists were in high demand. This will not change any time soon, new outbreaks are always happening. Toxicology or pharmacology? Load up on chemistry. And so on. Think about minors or even double majors, the extra work now can pay off long term. Exposure to other programs or other fields within your program can open your career options!
Volunteer. Many options exist for this: work with a group active in your area of interest, join a student group, shadow a professional, help out at a soup kitchen. Universities want to put out well educated individuals, but they also want to put out people who will be a valuable member of their communities. This is even more true at the graduate degree level, so professional and other graduate programs will often look for volunteer work. So, show you can contribute, and if possible, show that you can be a leader by trying to get such a role in whatever you do. If your chosen career path requires any particular experience, like shadowing in the case of most professional schools, be sure that you make this a part of your plan. Again however, don’t stop at the bare minimum, add more.
Do Independent Study. I.S. is the way to get credit on your transcript for out of classroom experiences. IS can involve advanced reading and discussion, research work, or a range of other experiences. Details of individual I.S. projects are worked out between individual students and faculty mentors, so if you see a faculty member whose interests overlap with yours, contact them to discuss possibilities.
Our goal is to produce students with a well rounded education, and to offer options to prepare them for any possible career path related to biology. Some aspects of your education are core to any career path, and we require these as part of all degrees. This includes a broad survey of biology, which is accomplished in the 120/121 series and your core 300 level courses. It also includes a good grounding in the other basic sciences and math. While it may be true that some careers do not ever use all of these core experiences (be careful of assuming this, things come back in unexpected ways some times especially if you want to advance through your career path), we can absolutely say that by taking these courses, no doors will close for you. Try to avoid or minimize them, and you may find that some doors do close. It is not unusual to see students who tried to take the short path come to us near the end of their education and try to fix some problem they have encountered because they are missing some core course. If you can’t see the relevance to your particular goals, talk to people here about it.
You have an extra challenge. Turn that into a positive story of working to overcome that challenge. The same general advice applies as for any other student, work hard and do the best you can do without overloading yourself. If you finish with a story that sounds something like: “I had all of these responsibilities and demands on my time, and I still managed to keep a full course load, take some tough courses, and keep my GPA up”, this sounds very good. It speaks to work ethic, dedication, time management, and so on. Missing a couple of upper level courses that other students may have had, can be a minor matter in such cases. However, don’t use it as an excuse for simply not getting things done. That does not tell a strong story about you. Even though you may feel truly overwhelmed at some times, in the end you will have to convince someone that you stand above your peers. Seek help if you need it, and show you worked hard within the constraints of your own situation.
You are. Its that simple. We provide resources, help, and opportunities for you to build yourself into a strong candidate, but taking advantage of those is up to you. Take ownership, this is your education and we all hope that you want to get the most out of it. The people evaluating you after you graduate will be looking for how well you did that. Generally speaking, they are not so interested in a person who did exactly as they were told, and no more. They also do not like to hear excuses like “nobody told me” or “I didn’t know”. All of that information is available to you, and you can count on it that your competition did know. They want to see a motivated, well educated and well rounded candidate. Be that student, and your chances of success are high.
Course Ideas, Suggestions, and Thoughts
Scheduling can be tricky, when it comes to balancing graduation requirements with preparation for standardized admissions tests, which are generally taken before graduation. Work with your advisors and faculty mentors to be sure you cover the most relevant material before you need it. It is also important to remember that you do not need everything on your transcript, you need to select courses to create a strong transcript that will reflect well on you.
Physiology is almost a requirement for any biomed professional school, and any biomed or basic physiological/anatomical research. BSC 228 (Human Physiology) provides a good fundamental survey of the systems necessary for life, and it is listed as a required course for some professional programs. Human Physiology is an introductory course, intended for non-majors and will not count towards a BSC degree. Animal Physiology is our stronger, upper level option for majors. Animal Physiology covers everything you will find in Human Physiology, but at an upper level, and adds in a comparative approach that is extremely helpful for anyone engaging in or reading biomedical literature. Most biomed research is not done on humans for obvious ethical reasons, rather we use model organisms like rats, mice, fruit flies, and nematode worms. For anyone who plans to enter careers involving any non-human animal, animal physiology is really the only choice. Furthermore, for any programs that require Human Physiology we can provide materials that show Animal Physiology is a stronger substitute, and includes everything that is found in the introductory course.
Very strongly recommended. These are some of the courses that professional schools, and biomed/physiology graduate programs, will weight heavily as they show that you have a good grounding in the material you will need to succeed.
Anatomy is a very strong suggestion for any biomed professional school, and any biomed or basic physiological/anatomical research. BSC 227 (Human Anatomy) provides a good fundamental survey, and it is listed as a required course for some professional programs. Keep in mind that Human Anatomy, like Human Physiology, is intended as an introductory course for non-majors, and does not count towards a BSC degree. Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy (often just called CVA) is our much stronger offering for majors. CVA involves cadaver (animal) dissections rather than models, covers far more material than Human Anatomy, and is the better option for medical or veterinary school or any research career. Furthermore, for any programs that require Human Anatomy we can provide materials that show CVA is a stronger substitute.
Very strongly recommended for any biomed professional school, and any biomed or basic microbiological or physiological research. Microbiology provides an understanding of how the most fundamental (and arguably most important) level of basic energy processing on earth works. It has connections to any branch of the biological sciences, from physiology to ecology. Microbiology has implications for health beyond infection and disease, as our symbiotic microflora play a role in regulating the gut, immune system, nervous system, and others. BSC 250 (Microbiology and Human Disease) is our introductory offering for non majors, and will provide a good fundamental understanding of the field. As for BSC 227 and 228, this course does not count towards a BSC degree. Our upper level offerings for BSC majors start at the 300 level, and include our core offerings (320 and 322) as well as advanced courses in areas like emerging infectious disease. Immunology is also strongly connected with microbiology, and should be considered an option for students with an interest in this area.
Genetics is another area that is fundamental to almost any career in the biological sciences. It provides an understanding of how inheritance works, how we study DNA, and how variations in DNA lead to the diversity of life. Molecular biology is a broad field encompassing aspects of genetics and cell biology to study how genes are regulated, and how gene products work together to produce a functional cell and organism. Many newly developed tools for research and healthcare are included, including bioinformatics, gene therapies, and genetically modified organisms (GMOS). Our core genetics offering (BSC 324) provides a good grounding for our advanced courses in areas like Genes and Development.
Evolution provides us with context for understanding why life works the way it does, and how we fit into the natural world. It also helps us to perform and understand comparative research, which has led to some of the most important biological and biomedical discoveries. This understanding of how species are related to one another, and how similarities and differences between species can be used to gain a better understanding of how biological systems work, is a very fundamental concept in biological research. We offer several upper level courses in evolution and related fields.
Relevant to any career in government, research, or private sector that involves working with the environment, or human interactions with the environment. Also, many biomed careers, including professional practices, benefit from some grounding in ecology and its related disciplines including plant sciences. For example, epidemiology and the sort of work that the CDC performs, nutrition, environmental toxicology, drug development from natural sources, and so on, all require some grounding in ecology to gain a complete appreciation of the field.