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Path to Longevity Research? Also: Necessity of a PhD?


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I'm currently planning to apply to graduate school this year, and I've realized that I am kind of lost about what kind of program I should apply to. If I wanted to eventually end up doing longevity research, what would be a good graduate program to enter? Should I go for a degree in Human Genetics? Biomed? Is one field easier to get into than the other, if I know my application won't be as competitive compared to others?

Also, is a PhD necessary for biology-related fields? Is it okay to do a masters first to get a "taste" of the field, so to speak, before seeing if I want to commit to a PhD or maybe even try to apply for medical school?

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Regarding looking for a good program, I would look for schools with faculty that are researching ageing/longevity. Its a relatively niche field imo, so it shouldn't be too hard to narrow down your list. Then depending on which departments these faculty are attached to you will be able to select the specific program. I honestly don't think any of these fields are any less competitive than the other. The only advice I would give is take a good look at your research background and work/academics and see which area you have the most prior experience in. You would probably have a better chance at getting into one of those that fit your background and future interests.

You should do a PhD if a career in research or academia is your goal. If you are not sure about this a masters would be ideal, if you can get full or partial funding to do one. (or if money is not an issue) Otherwise I would recommend working as a research assistant in a lab to get a taste of the field.

Good luck!

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This thread seems to be all over the place. You are unsure about research as a career, mentioning that you might do a master's or medical school. However, you are set on a specific type of research. You also allude to potential problems by asking which field is "easier." 

Start by determining career type. Do you want to diagnose and treat patients? If so, go to medical school. You can do research as an MD, but you might have to do a post-doc after residency. Do you want to do the highest form of research without direct patient care? More specifically, do you want to show up to lab every day, read articles, conduct experiments, balance two or more projects at a time, present your work at conferences, publish articles, mentor students, and live a life of contemplation? If so, do a PhD. Do you want to do solid research with a deep clinical focus? That is, do you want to see patients once or twice a week while running a research group? Do you want to see patients with serious disorders while working to develop new treatments for those disorders? Do you want to be in training until you are 35 to 38? If so, do an MD/PhD. Those are really your three options if you want to be a career scientist. A master's should be used as a stepping stone because you didn't have enough research experience or as a way to get a job as a staff scientist (not a PI). 

Once you know which degree program to pursue, you can start looking at specific programs. Never apply to a program to work with a single professor. Unless you are applying directly to work with that person, you will likely end up in a different lab. Apply to programs with three to five professors doing research you like. If you are applying to medical schools, apply broadly and go where ever you get admitted. 

The field you choose is based on your experiences. If you have done human genetics research and you know that is what you want to do and you cannot fathom doing anything else, apply to programs specific to genetics. That applies to any type of research. However, if there is any chance that you will want to do something else (sounds like a real possibility based on your post), apply to larger programs or programs without a specific aim. For example, my program, BBS, is an umbrella program. We can work in any field. I rotated in a basic cell biology lab, a cancer cell metabolism lab, and a human genetics and neuroscience lab. I came in with six years of cancer research experience, but I ended up joining the human genetics and neuroscience lab. 

Overall, you are approaching this issue at the wrong end. You are looking at research areas before you are set on doing research. Take some time to reflect on your experiences. Decide what degree to pursue, then go from there. 

P.S. If you start a PhD then realize you want to do something else, most PhD programs will let you leave after two years with a master's. 

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I do something related to aging/longevity and will be joining a neuroscience program in hopes of continuing to study this, so I am somewhat aware of what's going on. If your career goal is research, you probably need a PhD or MD of some kind, but it does depend on what you want to do, and at what level you want to work. Do you want to look at genetic factors that promote longevity? Maybe go into genetics. Do you want to look in animal models? Probably some sort of biology or biomedical program would be a good fit. Do you want to work in humans? Neuroscience, psychology, or maybe an MD is perhaps the right choice. There is, however, a lot of overlap with many of these programs (and umbrella programs as mentioned above), and in PhD programs there may be faculty with a variety of expertise that you might be able to try out with rotations. If you're interested in the public health aspects, MAYBE an MPH could work for you but I don't know what exactly your options might be after. In any case, if you're not feeling a program, you can usually master out (as also mentioned by @blc073) - you're not conscripted forever!

I might recommend looking for volunteer or paid research assistant position in the field you find most interesting and see how you like it. Being an RA has been really important in shaping my interests and convincing me that I was on the right track. You don't mention if you have any research experience, but if not, you might want to wait a year to apply because it will be very difficult to gain admission without any!

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Just as a general comment about studying aging, make sure the lab you choose is prepared to do the type of project you have envisioned and have a good plan B. Aging is a pretty high-risk high reward area for a dissertation project. 

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