If you dissect the healthcare job market for people with college degrees in biology, you discover something intriguing: There's abundant variety in both the types of health-related careers you can pursue with a biology background and in the day-to-day activities of the jobs themselves.
For example, Shelly Feaver, a 1998 biology graduate of North Central College, is now an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health's Emerging Infections Program.
"The beauty of the job is that there isn't much that is day-to-day," she says. "I answer phone calls from the public and healthcare providers on anything from rabies to MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] infections. And currently I'm working on bolstering our pandemic influenza preparedness, a study on child-care centers and teachers' beliefs about antibiotic use, a study on long-term-care facilities and their antibiotic tracking systems, a project at the Minnesota Science Museum creating a video game as an educational tool on proper antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance, and an influenza-vaccine effectiveness study."
PhD Not the Only Path
Now that's variety. And best of all, says biology graduate Alyssa DiGiacomo, you don't need to pursue a doctoral degree -- another common myth among biology students -- to have a wide range of healthcare career possibilities to consider.
"If you don't want to get your PhD, that's OK," says DiGiacomo, a 2001 graduate of Harvey Mudd College who is a research manager for the University of Washington's Multiple Sclerosis Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.
Professors and others may push you toward getting a PhD, but this path isn't for everyone with a biology background, DiGiacomo says.
DiGiacomo speaks from experience. Right after graduation, she worked for two years as a research assistant at the University of Colorado, where she became interested in public health. That experience led her to enroll in the master's in public health (MPH) program at the University of Washington, which she finished in June 2005. She landed her current job two months later. Now she studies multiple sclerosis through survey work and clinical-based research.
"My MPH gave me some great research skills, so in addition to managing the administrative stuff, like the budget, and supervising personnel, I do a lot of data analysis, manuscript preparation, literature reviews and grant writing," DiGiacomo says. "I also help organize and plan meetings, monitor project timelines, write human subjects applications and renewals/modifications, and answer requests for information from outside people about our grant."
Researching the Possibilities
Feaver and DiGiacomo both talked to professionals in their fields to get a better idea of the diverse types of healthcare-related career opportunities available to them after college. They also gained critical experience through internships, part-time jobs and volunteering.
Christine Nguyen, a 2003 microbial biology graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, says even something as simple as babysitting, which told her she liked working with kids, can be valuable to your future career. Nguyen, a data coordinator for Cornell University's Weill Medical College, manages clinical research studies for a pediatric hematologist specializing in blood platelet disorders.
Like many biology grads, Nguyen plans to pursue a medical degree. But she's glad she discovered medical school wasn't her only healthcare-career option given her background, and that other healthcare jobs can be either solid careers themselves or excellent stepping-stones to other careers.
"My current job allows me to see many different areas of the hospital, which has been helpful in confirming my future plans," Nguyen says. "I wasn't sure that I wanted to apply to medical school when I graduated from college. But my work experience in the last few year s has helped me make the decision to apply."