Specialized biology majors are for the birds

I see many posts on CC seeking advice on the best college for some specialized undergraduate biology-related major and can’t help but think how irrelevant this question is. Posters ask: what’s the best college that has a major in… neuroscience or marine biology? (These are the “hot” fields for high school students now, but I could have written entomology too). My advice is this… majoring in these fields as an undergraduate matters not one bit for your career.

What? Wait. Whoa. How can this be? As an aspiring scientist, the undegraduate student should focus on learning a breath of fields including evolutionary biology, cell biology, molecular biology, ecology, statistics, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, and computer science, to name a few. Sure, take a course or two in neuroscience or marine biology, but these specialized biology fields are best left to studying at the graduate school level, where taking deeper dives into specific areas is the goal.

The important undergraduate goals for a budding neuroscientist or marine biologist are these: 1) Learn how to write effectively; 2) Learn how to speak effectively; 3) Learn how to design a useful experiment and interpret data; and 4) Learn as much as you can about different science-related areas.

Knowing the intricacies of synaptic plasticity is way down the list of importance for the 18-21 year old neuroscientist.

Good luck with that here on CC.

Good point but very few students and parents understand the development of an academic career. I have heard parents call schools that teach “core curriculum” outdated and old-fashioned and the thought of Little Johnny or Jane taking logic, rhetoric or argumentative writing makes them ill. What facinates me are the buzzwords, right now it is “undergraduate research”. I also love when someone suggests to count the number of courses offered by a school to determine if the program is good. That one really tickles me.

My point is perhaps a tangent, but its part of the same issue.

^I agree @astern, although I do think having access to true research opportunities as an undergraduate is valuable. This gets to the point of learning how to design an experiment and interpret data. Another piece of advice on undergraduate research; the actual topic doesn’t matter. It’s all about the mentoring.

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@dadof1 To learn form and process…but parents and students don’t look at this way.

“I also love when someone suggests to count the number of courses offered by a school to determine if the program is good. That one really tickles me.”

Why? When comparing smaller departments across schools, this may be the quickest way to initially assess whether adequate choice will be available. More is not always better than sufficient, but sufficient is always better than marginal. Further research can proceed from that point. If the same approach were to be used to compare larger departments, then, yes, it would lack relevance.

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the thought of Little Johnny or Jane taking logic, rhetoric or argumentative writing makes them ill.


oh gosh, I plead with all students to take Philosophy Deductive Logic…no matter what their major or career goal is.
Writing Intensive courses, that require MLA format or similar, are also a must!

What facinates me are the buzzwords, right now it is "undergraduate research".


So true! Parents and students are truly upset if their Mary or Johnny may not have research opps from Day One. And god-forbid that they find out that many companies are looking to hire rising Jrs and Srs for their summer internships. It’s ok if after frosh and soph years, the student works a regular summer job or volunteers somewhere, instead.

Oh…and…undergrad BioMedE majors are not finding cures for cancer, either. It’s ok if an undergrad doesn’t offer that undergrad discipline…major in MechE or ChemE and take a few extra bio classes. And, likely the E dept does offer some BioMedE classes…just not enough for a major. If the school has a very good 3D printing lab with multiple machines, then super…take advantage of it.

On the topic of the importance of research, @astern wrote…

Couldn’t have said it better!

Well, as a parent of 2 students who put research opportunities high on their list of requirements, I know they did not consider them buzz words. They both spent hours in high school doing their own research, participated in programs like SSP, etc. Our youngest ds in particular immersed himself in every research opportunity he was allowed to join in. He was invited to join a research project his freshman yr, hired for a research project the summer between freshman and sophomore yr, and is continuing research this semester.

Considering the training he has received by the research project team and the hours he spends on research every week, they are not buzz words in his experience. (His older brother’s experience was similar. He was funded for international travel for the presentation of the research at a symposium.)

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Looking at the courses involved (which ALWAYS is the way to find out what a major at a school really amounts to) at a university I choose at random (University of Nevada, http://www.unr.edu/Documents/degrees%20and%20programs/neuroscience/Courses%20Needed%20to%20Get%20a%20Neuroscience%20Degree.pdf), it looks like their neuroscience degree has a large liberal arts function. That is, it satisfies curiosity about the world, emphasizing the biology and psychology parts of it. As such, it’s OK. No one should think the degree is going to make them a neuroscientist (In fact, this program has only two neurobiology courses!), but the mere association with a glamorous, high-level activity attracts people, the way housing tracts and apartment complexes with paradisiacal-sounding names lure customers.

While I agree that many high school students try to get WAY too specialized way too early, it’s also important to remember that many “specialized” undergraduate majors also require that students take a number of core classes in different aspects of the fields. For example, where I went to college, students who majored in neuroscience were required to take general biology, general chemistry, calculus, statistics, physics, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology, in addition to a couple more “specialized” courses in physiology and neuroscience. It’s not like these students are taking solely neuroscience classes from day one.

At the very least, nearly all biology majors are going to have to take prerequisite courses like general biology, general chemistry (and usually organic chemistry), physics, and calculus/statistics. Many will likely also have to take courses in other areas of biology, like molecular biology, cell biology, and biochemistry, as these are important fields in the understanding of neuroscience.

So to me, it’s not that big of a deal if students really want to major in neuroscience as an undergraduate, as long as they aren’t pulling out their hair trying to find “good colleges for neuroscience.” Most students can major in whatever biology major they want and still get relatively similar educations (except for some upper-division coursework). And I’m saying this as a biology major in undergrad (which you may consider “specialized,” since I majored in biochemistry and cell biology), who did go on to graduate school. Many undergraduate programs will require their students to take other courses that are valuable for studying neuroscience, but also that are important for studying biology in general. I don’t feel like there was a deficit in my education. I took all of the courses you recommended that students take, and they were all required for my major (except for computer science, which I took for fun). Most colleges (at least, the ones with good biology programs, or whatever field you are looking at) know what they are doing.

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I majored in neuroscience. I would not have been happy taking all the classes for a straight major in biology at a place that didn’t offer neuro-related courses. I majored in neuroscience because I was fascinated by the brain, not really the rest of biology. I didn’t pick my school based on being the “best” school for neuroscience or biology, but I picked a place that was overall strong and had opportunities for me to get involved in classes, research, and activities that interested me. If I thought I wanted to go on in neuroscience but went somewhere without any brain-related biology courses, that wouldn’t have been a good fit.

There’s a difference between undergraduates wanting to find a school with the top-notch marine biology program and not caring if the university is 3,000 miles from the ocean and doesn’t have any marine biology courses. If they never get a chance to experience it, how will they know if it’s something they actually want to pursue? I think people are sometimes going to extremes, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to look for schools with programs relevant to your general interests within biology - just don’t let that be the only deciding factor.

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My oldest is interested in majoring in neuroscience, and she has a lot of the same tendencies and preferences, I think, as @nanotechnology mentions in #11.

But then, her objective isn’t to become a doctor or even to become a biologist, but rather to figure out how to apply knowledge about biological bases of behavior to extremely different contexts. (Won’t be too specific on that here, because it’s such a precise enough plan* that it might actually out her if I was.)

But you know what? Even if she doesn’t end up doing everything according to her plan, no worries. I see neuroscience not as a pre-professional program for her—it’s not like she wants to be a neurologist or anything—but rather the exact same way I’d see things if she ends up majoring in biology or physics or rhetoric or art history. It’s a series of experiences that will not only help her learn to learn, but also tie into stuff (in the case of neuroscience, biology plus human behavior) that she enjoys in ways that should help her enjoy this process of learning to learn.

  • And this is a plan of 5 or 6 years standing. I know **I** wasn't that focused when I was in high school, but she's more like her mother than me in many ways, that among them.
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This is a timely thread. S2 is a 4.0UW student who loved his AP Bio (scored 5) and wants to continue with a bio major in college. But he has no idea as to specialization or if he might want to go into medicine. It’s encouraging to hear that taking a variety or related courses may actually be best.

I do bump into nay-sayers “there’s no money in bio if you’re not going into medicine.” Seems to me that with CRISPR CAS9 and so many other developments happening today that the field needs new young talent.

The field needs talent to advance, but there’s not always the money for it in academic research. (This year’s budget was relatively good so science, though, so I’m hoping that trend continues.) If you don’t go into medicine or teaching, though, you usually need a PhD to make a career of it. You can get a job as a lab tech with a bachelor’s, but you can’t work too far up the ladder without a higher degree.

Biology is a very broad field, so students are likely to have specialize somewhat in their junior and senior years, even within a general biology major, due to the large number of subareas and options within the major (unless the department is small and offers only a few of the subareas). However, all specializations will have a common frosh/soph curriculum including general biology, general and organic chemistry, physics, math and statistics (mostly the same courses that pre-meds have to take, so be prepared for big classes full of pre-meds looking for medical-school-worthy grades).

For example, here are the in-major choices that biology majors at Berkeley can have:

Molecular and cell biology major: https://mcb.berkeley.edu/undergrad/major/major-requirements/requirements and https://mcb.berkeley.edu/undergrad/courses/courses/ud-courses
Integrative biology major: https://ib.berkeley.edu/undergrad/major/index.php and http://ib.berkeley.edu/undergrad/courses/sembysem

Note that these two departments at Berkeley were combined from a larger number of more specialized biology departments (e.g. biochemistry, botany, genetics, physical education, zoology, etc.) in the 1990s.

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than get a biology degree.

This is an interesting topic to me as my D is having trouble deciding between Bio, Neuroscience (which is mostly Bio/Chem/Orgo/Physics/math/Psych at her school) and Stats, or some combo.

So, bookmarking.

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Occasionally here or on an econ-specific forum a student will be looking for a good undergraduate program in “behavioral economics.” In reality, there might be one course on this topic offered in an econ department and only if the one instructor with that specialty isn’t on leave.

Counting the classes listed in a catalog is useful if the catalog is up to date. We sometimes leave classes listed in there that haven’t been taught since the faculty member who proposed it died or moved a way a decade earlier. Pruning the course catalog doesn’t always get done regularly.

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@OHMomof2 I just want to echo some of what @nanotechnology conveyed in post #11. As someone who majored in neuroscience myself (technically, at Stanford it was a “BS in Biology with a concentration in Neurobiology” since we lack a standalone neuro major), it’s probably not surprising that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting what people on this thread might call a “specialized” degree. There is obviously benefit to having a breadth of knowledge–for instance, every organ system in the body is both affected and affects the nervous system–but most there is also much to be said about starting to explore a few particular areas in greater depth in undergrad.

My main advice? The most important thing is that she should major in something she loves, for a few reasons:

-College is not just four years of classes, it’s four years of life. You should be enjoying that as best you can. As a former Frosh dorm RA, I saw many students enter school thinking they wanted to do nothing but study all day, and major in something that would offer them “good job prospects.” They learn quite quickly that this is not the formula for happiness, and the smart ones soon open up to the social scene in their dorm and switch to a major that they actually enjoy. As a current medical student, I saw 200 of my peers attend the pre-med meeting during New Student Orientation–many of them there because they were pressured by their parents or lured in by the median physician salary–but only 100 made it through to medical school with me; this 50% attrition rate is typical of Stanford pre-meds, as well as prospective computer science majors to a lesser extent. Sooner or later, everyone will recognize that they want to do what they want to do, and nothing else. Better that they figure that out during or before college and be able to enjoy it.

-In psychological terms, it’s all about framing. The minute someone is told that something is “required,” it immediately becomes less attractive. I’m sure everyone can recognize such examples in everyday life. As an example, she may have run into this with test-prep courses/books: Many people buy more Kaplan or TPR prep books than they will ever have time to read, but if all of those books became a requirement, then suddenly, “Ugh, why do I have to spend all of this time and money on this stuff?” If she loves seeing how from the chaos of nature can rise the beauty of a Gaussian distribution, she should major in stats; if she loves the “hard science” of biology and all of its subdisciplines, she should consider being an “un-specialized” biology major; if she loves examining the brain and the mind from both a bottom-up and top-down perspective, maybe neuro is for her. Point is, she should choose freely, and believe that she chose what she wanted to do, not what someone on College Confidential told her she had to do.

-If she happens to end up wanting a PhD, then it helps a lot if her undergrad classes and research match up to the grad classes and research of whatever program she is applying for. Hopefully, she would be going for a PhD in whatever field she loves most, since, you know, it’s going to become her life. She should be able to convey why she has a passion for a given field to the adcoms, as graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, and running a lab as a PI are no simple tasks. The other piece of it is that, interviewers will ask you about your undergrad research as well as your goals for grad research. Switching to bronchiectasis research from synaptotagmin research is one thing; switching from leaf resorption efficiency is quite another, and may leave some interviewers scratching their heads. This is especially true of the combined MSTP (MD + PhD) programs, where they make specific effort to match you up with interviewers who have expertise in whatever undergrad research you listed on your app.

-If she happens to end up wanting an MD, then we couldn’t care less what she majors in, so long as she fulfilled all of our institution’s prerequisites as well. Many interviewers and adcoms look favorably upon someone who majored in a non-science field, for they had the maturity to recognize that undergrad would be the last chance (until retirement) that they had to explore that passion before dedicating their life to medicine. There is some interesting data published by the AAMC that non-science majors tend to do better than biology majors in many measures, including average MCAT score and acceptance rates; there are obviously lots of confounding factors here, including how many pre-meds who aren’t sure what they want to do simply major in bio “by default,” but it’s still interesting data.

-I don’t mean to imply that MD, PhD, and MD PhD are the only possible routes out of a life sciences undergrad major; they just happen to be the paths with which I am most familiar. Perhaps other posters can weigh in on the various other career/professional school paths.

I don’t know if your D is considering a specific career/post-undergrad path–and it’s obviously completely fine if she hasn’t at this age–so the specific advice may vary from field to field. I’d be happy to talk more about how all of this fits in to an MD. (Spoiler alert: The theory of special relativity that I learned in the required pre-med class of PHYSICS 25? Knowing it or not knowing it will never affect my patients’ outcomes, patient satisfaction scores, or any other quality of care measures. It might allow me to strike up some small talk with a pt who happens to have a physics background, though. Even things like quantum numbers/orbitals/dipole moment from CHEM 31x, which apologists like to say are pertinent to radiology? Sure, it can be helpful some of the fundamental theory behind how an MRI is obtained, but anyone who has so much as shadowed a radiologist knows that you don’t need to remember your carbon and hydrogen electronegativities to differentiate between, say, a astrocytoma and a microglioma.)

[/gets off soapbox]

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