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Advice Needed: Research Assistant vs Postbacc

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I am about to graduate in December and I am going to pursue a career in research. I just began applying for research assistant jobs that interest me when I got some discouraging advice. My current plan is this:

1. Be hired as a research assistant starting as soon as January.
2. Work as a research assistant for at least a year or two (Ideally work for a company that can pay for grad school). Use mornings/evenings before/after work to build on personal projects (businesses I will start, etc.) and goals. 
3. Transition from work mode to school mode by doing some independent study of the most relevant types of coursework that I would need to refresh (ex: biochemistry), and prepare for GRE.
4. Apply to graduate school for PhD and attend.
5. Postdoc in Japan.
6. Career in cell biology and/or genetics research. Run my businesses. 

I like this plan, but I want to get advice to make the best moves possible. I did not get to give the person who gave me advice the full plan because they didn't listen to the whole thing. But their advice to me was that getting a research assistant job doesn't make as much sense as doing a postbacc, since a postbacc program may be designed in a way where continuing education is easier. They said that a postbacc would be better if I plan to go to grad school later. They also said that I might not have time in the mornings and evenings to do my own thing as a research assistant because I will be busting my butt on everyone's projects. They said some other things, but I felt like it wasn't really helping because they did not listen to most of the plan or my reasons for each thing.

I will list some of my reasons for wanting to do a research assistant job, but I would really appreciate everyone who sees this correcting me where I'm wrong, answering my subsequent questions, and giving me advice that would help me succeed. These are my reasons for why I am leaning toward research assistant.

  • I want to begin working in my field as soon as possible.
    • If I'm going to do a postbacc program, my understanding is that the application cycle is already about to end. If I start applying for postbaccs now, and they start in the summer next year, I'm behind. I know some have rolling admission, but it's still good to be an early applicant.
    • If I apply anyway, I need to work in the meantime. So it would make more sense to do DoorDash or something until then instead of trying to get hired in a lab. But I really want to do biology instead of going back to DoorDash.
    • If I do a research assistant job, I may not find one right away, but at least an actual job doesn't depend on an application cycle in the same way a program does. I had already started applying right before I got the advice that it's a bad idea.
  • I need to save money.
    • I don't have very much in savings and I have big plans. If I work now, I can save up for future goals/plans. Some major goals include, moving out and getting my own place, money for graduate school, starting my own businesses. 
    • If I do a postbacc, that's about $30,000 that I need for admission, right? I might be getting paid during the program, but I don't know if it makes sense to have a big bill like that right after finishing college.
  • I don't want to go straight into more school.
    • I want to work right away to gain experience in research that I'm interested in and to make money. I want a break from school so I can work on me and my goals. Not all postbaccs have an educational component, right? But if I do one, it makes the most sense to find one that incorporates that supplemental coursework that I mentioned in the beginning, right?

Based on my thoughts, can wiser people please give me advice on how I might need to tweak this plan? What are the most strategic options? If I go with my plan, am I putting myself at a disadvantage compared to doing a postbacc, or is it just simply a different path? And if my current plan is sound, can you please give advice on the job application process? And pray for me/wish me luck? Thanks for reading!

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Your plan sounds solid to me... I was a RA and am very glad I did it over a postbacc program. 

I guess in part it depends on the lab you work in, but I published as an RA, made great connections, and saved a ton of money. I had my own projects, and helped some others with their's, but I wasn't responsible for everyone's stuff.

For the argument that postbacc programs are designed to make continuing education easier... It can be the same way as an RA if you make it that way. My lab knew I wanted to go to grad school so they set me up with opportunities to do so: publishing papers, presenting posters at conferences, etc. I was fully expected to leave and start grad school. 

For the argument that you wouldn't have time for stuff in the morning and evening... Again, depends on you and the lab. Many labs pay RAs hourly, so I'd argue postbaccs end up getting overworked because they have a set salary. In my RA lab I was encouraged to work as much as I needed to to get my stuff done, but not too much more, so it varied by week. Again, I wasn't responsible for other people's projects. If I busted my butt it was for my project or projects I was sharing with someone else.

Postbacc programs pay less, and often have restrictions on if you're allowed to have additional employment to offset the living expenses. I felt like I was rolling in the dough when I was an RA.

Honestly, I work with a lot of postbaccs now and what they do is fundamentally no different than what I did as an RA. There's no wrong path, just a different path. Do you.

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On 11/4/2020 at 1:49 PM, hiredGrad said:

If I do a postbacc, that's about $30,000 that I need for admission, right?

What exactly is this money referring to? Not personally relevant, and I'm not familiar with post bacc programs, but I've just never heard anyone say having to pay a lot of money for them?

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8 hours ago, DRMF said:

What exactly is this money referring to? Not personally relevant, and I'm not familiar with post bacc programs, but I've just never heard anyone say having to pay a lot of money for them?

Didn't even catch that... NIH postbac program doesn't have an admissions fee. Not sure about others, but seems silly for them to charge you if they're also going to pay you... 


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Hi! So I did a post bac at a research institute (program is independent of NIH IRTA or NIH PREP), and I thought it was super helpful.

Rather than being a technician and helping maintain the lab in addition to being on some projects (the RA title is only for grad students so the equivalent job you're thinking of at my institute would be a lab tech), I only had to focus on doing the work for the projects I was assigned to by my mentors. Also, I think only the labs that have a lot of money took post bacs so I never had to worry about money regarding the experiments I was doing, which was great. 

I had biweekly meeting with the other post bacs and program coordinators to discuss grad school admissions, making posters, presentations, etc (things you would have to do/know as a grad student). I got time to do one-on-ones with the coordinators to do practice interviews, go over my personal statement, etc during application time. The person in charge of the post bac program was also the person who was in charge of grad interviews at the institute so I felt as though he reviewed my app materials as much as if I were an applicant for the program there. I do think this was super helpful in getting me as many interviews as I did.  

Also, my program paid for us to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference, which was super cool.

I never worried about money, but that may not always be the case with other post bac programs and it may depend on where you live. My program paid (I think) 5-10% more than the NIH IRTA post bac. 

There was no classwork for my program. I just had meetings for my program and then spent the rest of the time in the lab. Other programs do allow for coursework though. 

I do understand why you would rather be an RA, but I just wanted to let you know I had a great experience doing a post bac. I think either way, you will be fine. They are very similar at the end of the day. It more just depends what you're looking for and how you want to spend your time. 

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