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I currently have a BSc. in Environmental Science and would like to go back for a biology focused PhD in the next few years. I keep seeing the recommendation that having a good research fit will be important to potentially being admitted.

My question is, how do I go about getting research experience in biology when my degree is in something unrelated?

Answers to the question on How to gain research experience after master program? suggest various possible research opportunities. I've looked at jobs and volunteer opportunities like those, but I'm not sure I'm qualified for them. Even when I find a job that says ‘no experience necessary’, they are still asking for a biology degree. Presumably anyone with one would have had some experience in a biology lab, whereas most of my lab experience is in geology labs.

I don't understand why they would take someone without a relevant degree or experience (even if it's in-class experience) over interns, under/grad students, various types of volunteers with relevant degrees. Without understanding that, I'm not sure how to approach people about these potential opportunities.

How can I identify research opportunities I am qualified for, and position myself as a competitive candidate for these positions, when I don't have a relevant degree or experience in the field?

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    Possible duplicate of How to gain research experience after master program? (I don't think being post-bachelors rather than post-masters makes this question substantially different, but I may be wrong) – ff524 Aug 27 '14 at 3:58
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    I guess part of the question as well is how do I move from one major into a slightly related one. It's adding a good bit of difficulty into some of the suggestions from the other question. – Linasoll Aug 27 '14 at 6:46
  • @David-richerby Why did you omitted the degree tag? He has mentioned something about degree in his question. – Enthusiastic Engineer Aug 27 '14 at 9:40
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    @EnthusiasticStudent Because I felt it was already covered by "graduate admissions". (Almost) anyone who wants to enter graduate school already has one degree and is looking to get another one so the "degree" tag doesn't seem to add any information. – David Richerby Aug 27 '14 at 10:17
  • @DavidRicherby I don't feel qualified because the jobs are still asking for a biology degree. Presumably anyone with one would have had some experience in a biology lab, whereas I have none, and would still be under qualified. It would be relieving to discover that's not the case. – Linasoll Aug 27 '14 at 14:39
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Frankly, most undergraduate students (and new graduates) are under-qualified to do research in any field, including their own. For various altruistic and non-altruistic reasons, we're often willing to take them on anyways.

When I hire an undergraduate or M.S. student to work in my research group, I look for qualities that tell me they'll be train-able, and also a good investment for me. Things like:

  • motivation (as demonstrated by showing that they actually know what we are currently working on, have looked at our publications before asking for a job, etc.)
  • interest in pursuing graduate studies related to my field of research
  • soft skills (oral and written communication, organization, note-taking, etc.)
  • ability to learn new concepts and skills quickly and somewhat independently
  • basic quantitative and technical ability

I don't expect anybody I hire at this level to have relevant experience or experimental skills specific to my lab, whether they have a degree in the field or not.

So, keep pursuing opportunities like these, be honest about your lack of a biology degree, but highlight your eagerness to learn and your "transferable" abilities.

You might also look for research opportunities in cross-disciplinary labs that combine your new interest (biology) with your previous degree (environmental science). For these opportunities, your degree might actually give you a competitive advantage over biology students.

  • Are these opportunities typically posted as jobs, or should I contact people directly? I think that's what is throwing me off, earlier comments were talking specifically about jobs and using research opportunities and jobs interchangeably. – Linasoll Aug 28 '14 at 4:32
  • @Linasoll these opportunities could come about either through job/internship posting or unsolicited contact. The related question and its answers talk about how to find opportunities, so I'm not addressing that here. – ff524 Aug 28 '14 at 4:38
  • Yeah I've seen that question, but it's coming from the perspective of a student, not someone who has been in the workforce for a while, so really it's not all applicable. I was honestly hoping to find something that I can do nights/weekends or a regular job since I'm not going to get any sort of internships or similar. All the current advice I can find is how to find something while currently going to school or being just out of school. @ff524 – Linasoll Aug 28 '14 at 17:21
  • @Linasoll the individual in the linked question is out of school too ("I just finished an MBA"). As far as I can tell, all the suggestions in those answers apply equally to someone who is out of school for ten years or ten weeks. – ff524 Aug 28 '14 at 17:45

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