April 28, 2020

WU | It’s Not the Best Time to Be a Biological Sciences Major

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A major is two things: A set of classes and a title. You are in charge of what set of classes you take, and your employer sees the title. Biology classes? Tough, but doable. The title of B.S in Biological Sciences? Not worth much. Definitely not worth the near quarter-million in tuition costs alone. I always knew this fact to some extent, but the current pandemic has made me realize that, as a biology major, I am thoroughly unemployable.

As biology majors, we are rich in credits …  and in opportunities to earn more credits. Over 500 students enroll in biology research credits every semester. Most enroll for multiple semesters. That is 500 students who are not getting paid for working the equivalent of a part-time job. Granted, research is one of the most valuable experiences an undergraduate biology major can have. My time in my current research lab has taught me more than all of my biology classes combined, but working in a research lab for credit severely debilitates my ability to hold a job.

In my sophomore year, I worked in a research lab that had the ability to pay me. I was grateful for the experience — not only could I learn in a hands-on way, but I could also get paid. I also knew that my getting paid by my research lab was a rarity among undergraduate biology students. However, after that lab closed down at the end of my sophomore year, I joined a new research lab my junior year — one that aligned more closely with my interests in virology. Unfortunately, I could only do research for credit.

Therefore, I took on a part-time job with Cornell’s athletics office tutoring student-athletes. The job provided me with flexible hours, something I needed desperately as I tried to integrate into my new lab. In the spring, I quit my tutoring job for one doing office work that provided more consistent hours and pay. It was incredibly stressful having to juggle school, extracurriculars and what amounted to two part-time jobs.

My parents insisted that if it was too stressful for me to do both, that I should drop my part-time job and focus on school and my research lab — things that would help me get into medical school (they choose to ignore the fact that I’m not really pre-med). I was grateful that I had such flexibility, as many students do not, but I enjoyed having my own money to make and spend.And many of my peers who worked in labs also worked part-time jobs, so I doubled-down and kept my job.

I made it work somehow, throwing away normal meal times and re-organizing my schedule time-and-time again. I felt myself drifting away from my friends, and I knew I was grumpier on the daily. But there was not much I could do as I stressed to balance the aspects of a “normal” undergraduate biology experience.

As biology majors, there is another method we can accumulate credits — by TA-ing. I get the occasional email asking me if I would like to TA for introductory level biology courses. The answer is a resounding no. While TA-ships in nearly every other major are paid, I have yet to encounter a paid undergraduate TA job for a biology course. Research can be understandably done for credit as a valuable learning experience, but TA-ships are jobs that should be paid. To me, credits act as a cover for professors who are asking for free undergrad labor. As such, many biology majors TA in other departments — chemistry, physics, statistics and information and computer sciences. And they get paid.

If we biology majors are not employable as undergraduates within our own school, how can we expect to become employable outside of it?

When coronavirus shutdowns began, my internship was the first to be canceled among my friends — who mostly had business or engineering internships lined up. Even before that, my internship stipend, $3,500 provided through the Office of Undergraduate Biology, was meager compared to my friends’ summer housing stipends, not even considering their actual internship pay. These are the signs: The need for biology majors in today’s job market is next to null.

There is an expectation that biology majors will continue on to some form of secondary schooling — either med school or grad school. At Cornell, approximately half of biology majors pursue secondary schooling. My plan post-graduation was to work in a research lab of some sort for a couple of years before applying to either graduate or medical school.

Now, that plan is moot. What scarce jobs for biology majors there were before, there will be even less of now as a result of the pandemic. As I face the prospect of immediately applying to secondary schooling, I also have to juggle the potential of online classes in the fall. As an incoming senior with one class left to fulfill her major, I am considering taking a gap semester if classes are online. Which means I need a job.

As I’ve begun shopping around for potential jobs near my home, I have found specific aspects of me that make me a potential hiree. For one, the fact that I currently work an office job doing administrative work is a plus. The fact that I allegedly can write is another. My quarter-million-dollar, near-complete-“B.S. in Biological Sciences”? No takers.


Lei Lei Wu is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at lw534@cornellsun.com. Get Lei’d, and the column will run alternate Mondays this semester.