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Why a college education?


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Hello everyone, 

As someone who has recently received their bachelors, and is now going onto PhD, I have talked to a lot of people about their reasons why they wish to pursue a higher education (or even get a degree). As someone in the life sciences field, most of the conversations often come down to money, or the desire for the title. I wanted to share some advice, or information, that I think many people often forget in their quest of life, during their academic process. I have found that often times this information really helps people who have lost their way within their programs. 

To start, why does someone choose the major that they do? What is someones goal in life? What is their passion and desire?

Many people are not very familiar with the path they initially choose, nor do they know what the end goal really is. Many just apply for undergrad since they want a degree so they can get a job after college with good pay. Some like English, so they for english, others like how brains work, so they go for psych, with no real final goal however of what they want to do as a career. Naturally, this is understandable since when you first start out, you probably know very little about the career options or about the major itself. It's still good to have an end goal however, no matter how vague, and help narrow your search for a major (rather than staying undecided, going down the wrong path). 

I.e. I always wanted to make medicine and help cure diseases. I didn't know what major that entailed, or even what type of work, but that narrowed my search to a scientific choice, and I chose Chemistry. I majored in Chemistry, but realized half way through this was not my desired major. I have always wanted to make medicine and help cure people, and yes Chemistry is about synthesizing and literally "making" the medicine, but not discovering it. Also, most chemists don't care at all about the application of what they're making, but rather just how to make it. I realized, Biochemistry is the field I was looking for. 

Now you have a degree, and may or may not be looking for work, or going straight to a PhD. If you are, why a PhD? Why not a MA? Upper graduate fields are also very specific, so what exact branch of your major are you looking at? Or better yet, what kind of specialization are you looking to do?

This is where a lot of people have issues with, and a lot of problems arise from this. What kind of schools do I look at, what kind of programs? What does it mean to have the best program? Again, this end goal is important to keep in mind. By now you should have at least a fair understanding of your field and potential future ideal career. With that in mind, can you do that ideal career with just an MA? Do you need a PhD for it? This will help choose and select your program (MA or PhD), but now schools. Well what exactly do you want to do? First you need to read more about the field, as someone in the life sciences, for me that just meant reading a wide variety of papers and seeing what really caught my eye and interest. 

I.e. As stated prior, I always wanted to make medicine and cure people (I repeat this because this is the most important part), thus I majored in Chemistry, but realized Biochemistry was what I was looking for. Biochemistry splits into many branches though: Computational, Structural, Cell, Micro and that branches further into RNA, DNA, proteins, lipids, membranes and then you have a variety of techniques to look at them (biophysical) NMR, Cryo-ER, crystallography, etc. Now, from reading papers, I realized everything in our body comes from proteins, and thus, most drugs and a variety of diseases target proteins. Never cared much for genetics, so that crosses out RNA and DNA, and the others didn't interest me quite like proteins. Now there are a variety of techniques to look at them, but I found the NMR the most interesting out of them. The potential it has I believe is beyond any other instrument from what I've seen and the papers I've read. From the papers, it appears once you have the structure of a protein, you can get a really good understanding of how it works and why it does what it does, combined with computational methods, you can really answer a lot of questions about said protein. So that itself has narrowed my search down to Computational/Structural of proteins with NMR. Now, again, this all comes down to I want to make medicine and cure people. I feel as if Computational/Structural on proteins with NMR is an important key step to finding out how our body works and designing drugs to target it; thus it is for this exact reason I chose this path. Now that I have my path, MA or PhD? Well, again, I want to make medicine and cures, and I want to have an active role on it. I found out in the industry, PhDs have active roles in directing projects and making medicine, whereas MAs simply follow the PhDs direction. Since I want to have a direct active role, a PhD was the best route for me to choose with that in mind. Now this information has helped me greatly, because I know longer care about ranks of the school, but rather only about what best fits my research interest. I've come to realize, rank means nothing when it comes to your actual interests. I've already crossed out schools like Yale, Stanford, Berkley, MIT, and Caltech. Not because I can't get in, or even that they don't have big STEM departments (believe me, theirs are bigger than most), but despite the vastness of their department, they didn't have what I wanted. Most focused on DNA, or on different viruses, or using different methods, etc. Things that did not interest me. 

I am now at a point in my search, where I have a small list of about 7 schools, each with 3 professors each, all in rank of most desired to least desired (keep in mind the least desired, is still desired, so even the worst case scenario is still something I would enjoy doing). This has all stemmed from having one clear direct goal. "I want to make medicine and cures". Now granted, there a billion different reasons each person chooses the path they go down, and interest, money, and circumstances all play a role. However, I think too many people lose sight of the bigger picture in their minds when they go through the academic process, and I think that bigger picture can really help answer a lot of questions. I think before each academic step, it is important for one to take a break/pause, and ask themselves these same questions. What is their direction? Why are they going down the route they are? What drives them, motivates them, what defines their passions? Etc.

Anyways I hope this helps with your decision making, and progress through your academic and future careers. I personally think passion and interest triumph any knowledge, talent, or skill. If you have a clear direct goal that you are passionate about, and you use that to drive you and motivate you throughout your BS, MA, and or PhD, I think, that is what will set you above the rest. 

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