A nervous student interested in grad school asked me to elaborate on this since I said most undergrad departments don't teach what you actually need to know to do modern biological research.
I have lots of coy ideas for this post. For example I considered writing simply:If someone would give me a faculty position, I could just teach it.
But since other helpful commenters have written things like:No department would ever hire the person who writes this blog
I guess you probably don't want to wait that long to hear what I think. It could be a while.
I think most funded biological research now is biomedical. That could be a generalization, but I think most biology that's not even slightly related to medicine is probably underfunded these days.
That said, let's assume the basis of modern biomedical research is molecular and chemical.
Currently, biomedical research includes computational, nanotech, physics, and mathematics of biology.
At least, that's the stuff that gets funded.
Once upon a time, a few decades ago, biology departments did a lot of genetics research. They still do, but maybe not as much. Now it's a lot of stem cells, drug delivery, and signal transduction.
So far as I can tell, lots of departments still teach phylogeny like it's the epitome of biology and the obvious place to start.
Well, it is and it isn't. I personally think you can skip it, or maybe do it later on rather than as an 'introductory' course. It doesn't frame anything, really, so it doesn't make sense to do it first.
They still teach a LOT of genetics, and that makes sense to me.
DO take at least one genetics class.
If you want to work with flies or yeast, or make knockout mice, take more genetics. Lots more.
Otherwise, stop there and make sure you got at least 1 good semester of organic chemistry.
I don't mean memorizing and spitting out, I mean DID. YOU. GET. IT.
Do you know the pKa's of the amino acids?
Do you know what a buffer buffers?
Why are some things soluble in water while others aren't? What should you do about it if you need something to dissolve and it doesn't?
How does PCR work?
How long does a PCR primer have to be to make it specifically bind a sequence of DNA?
Take differential equations.
Take a nonlinear dynamics course if you can get into one. It's usually a pretty high level elective.
If you can't do that, read Sync
by Stephen Strogatz.
Take some history of science. Did you read The Double Helix
and The Dark Lady of DNA
Have you read a biography of Marie Curie? There are several to choose from. How about Barbara McClintock?
Did you do optics in your physics class? Do you understand how microscopes work?
What about lasers?
Lots of modern equipment is based on lasers and fluorescent light. Do you understand where fluorescence comes from?
What's the one critical feature that lets us separately detect different colors of fluorescence dyes?
Do you know how modern DNA sequencing works (hint: it uses fluorescence)?
How's your computer science? Could you write a program to sort files for you if you knew the file name format? Do you know what symbols are generally frowned upon filenames, and why?
Do you know how to use PowerPoint? What about a spreadsheet program? What about Endnote?
Have you ever taken a writing course - of any kind?
Have you ever taken a public speaking course?
Have you ever taken a drawing course?
I'm not saying you have to know these things. I'm saying you should make it your business to learn these things.
I could make a much longer list, but I'm kind of tired. I spent the day on an experiment that didn't work.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that if you want to do biological research, you need to learn how to deal with failure on an almost daily basis.
I know, they don't teach THAT in college.
I learned it from my extracurriculars. Ever watched America's Best Dance Crew
? You should, because dancers are used to getting criticism even on their best work, EVERY DAY. Musicians too. Sports are the same way, if you play semi-seriously, your coach will be on your ass to always be improving.
If you can handle that, and be your own coach
, you'll do okay.
You have to learn how to pick yourself up and just keep bashing your head against the wall until you make it through.
Most people don't learn that until the end
of grad school.
If you already know it going in, you'll probably wonder why everyone else is always complaining.
Labels: grad school, research