Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Biomedical Engineering and US Med/Grad School

About a month ago, Joseph had asked for our opinions and advice on "scholarships, career options, attachments/internships and general stuff". Together with elia diodati, we had a long and detailed email exchange on these topics. We figured it is worthwhile posting the relevant parts here for interested readers, since there might be some who have the same queries.

We also welcome any constructive criticisms, and corrections to any errors on our part. The gist can also be found here.


Joseph -

"Basically, I'm kind of seriously thinking about my future prospects.

(I was offered bioengineering by Washington U in St Louis, and economics by Wharton. I rejected those two to accept JHU's BME offer. The other U I applied to, being Duke & bioengineering too, rejected me. So it's pretty much 3 options, and I chose JHU.)

Are the payoffs of the BME program in Johns Hopkins worth it, with the risks, vis-a-vis taking on the A* scholarship and remaining bonded for years on end, and potentially getting disillusioned halfway? I can have an aggressive risk appetite, but I also need to have a proper rationale behind it.

What prospects are there for BME degree and/or a resulting doctorate in the US? I asked some BME people (who happen to be mostly A* and DSTA scholars), and to my surprise, they couldn't even provide me a definite answer. What I plan to do is find a job in the US (in what, I don't know yet, I looked hard but there don't seem to be a good report on related jobs anywhere).

And in your personal opinion, how good are A* attachments?"


takchek -
"As far as I know (based on what I had seen in the career fairs held in both my Graduate School and undergraduate college, which are pretty well regarded highly ranked US institutions), BME is a very niche field. There aren't as many job opportunities compared to the more mainstream Mechanical, Computer, Electrical and Chemical engineering disciplines.

This applies to both the BS and PhD levels. I daresay at the BS level you will lose out to the Mech and ECE folks as they can do your work (and not vice versa). I would actually recommend you NOT to take up BME if you want to have a higher chance of securing a (engineering) job here in the US. A far better option would be to take either MechE or ECE and do BME specific electives in your junior/senior years. BME is a multidisciplinary major and has many overlapping modules/courses with MechE/ECE/ChemE.

I know JHU has the No.1 BME program in the US. Its reputation might be able to help you secure a job in the BME field, but you should have an idea the job market for this discipline will be small. The average starting pay would be ~50 - 55K USD for BS grads. Take away the income taxes, you will probably end up with about ~36 - 40K annually.

Now, for scholarships - have you actually worked in A*star before? Have you seen first hand the corporate environment there? I speak from a first person's account. Of course, different RIs have different research environments. My advice to you would be to try out on an A*star internship first before signing the scholarship deed with them. I don't actually recommend you sign a long-term bond with them. My take on doing science in Singapore was posted months ago here.

You know, I think asking the A*star and DSTA scholars is quite a waste of time. Many of those I encountered are more interested in maxing out their fun time here in the US than sourcing out opportunities that the university can give them.

If money is a problem, you might want to consider doing your undergrad at a public university, or in NUS/NTU before heading to the US for grad school. It will be good if JHU is giving you enough money to attend school here."

joseph -
"My strongest doubt is this: if I still continue the path that I'm walking on now, doing BME in JHU, doing a BS or a PhD, will I be able to obtain a good job BETTER than what A*/Singapore can offer me? If it's of the same pay, same standard (will Singapore's research/engineering environment improve in 3-5 yrs' time?), then there's really no point in going it alone, is it?"

(Ed: Joseph's other dominant interest is to study medicine, either in Singapore or the US. He was also offered a no-pay internship to do paediatric oncology research at NUS.)

tk -
"Let me break them down. Too many issues being discussed here. :)

1. Medicine. Med school in the US is VERY expensive, and extremely selective. Which I am sure you know by now with some background research on your own. That being said, a good JHU degree (with strong recommendations from the faculty) can put you in a very strong position to get a place in Med School. But you overlooked one thing. You don't need a BME degree to apply for Med School. Any of the engineering disciplines (with some courses in bio-related areas like biochemistry, genetics etc) will be more than enough.

2. I can't comment on the NUS attachment thingy as I have no experience interning myself there. As for A*star, if you really want to consider taking a scholarship with them, I would strongly recommend you do an internship with them first. What do I mean by corporate/research enivironment? Well, for starters, A*star is like the SAF. In fact, the incoming A*star head, Lim Chuan Poh is an ARMY man, formerly CDF. What do you expect? The whole structure is very top-down driven. You basically do what the top wants. It isn't really a place for creativity and inquiry (quite opposite of what science should be like). The turnover rate is very high (I know for a fact for 3 RIs). I guess that tells you how much unhappiness there is among some of the staff there.

3. Getting out of Singapore is an experience you can't put a dollar tag on. The beauty of the US college system is that it allows you to explore your options in your first two years if you are not really sure what you want to do. Don't be surprised if you decide to switch to majors halfway. It happens!

4. What do you mean by a 'good' job? In absolute dollar terms, you will be better off in the US. And the best paying jobs are those in Wall Street - Investment Bankers and Management Consultants. The work hours are crazy though. If you really just want to make moolah, I suggest you try to enroll in the business school. JHU has just started a B school - to open for students in Fall 2007. Although in this sense, UPenn or Columbia or Harvard might be a better choice. How good a job is is not just about pay, but also company culture and work environment. For the latter two aspects, unfortunately Sg-based firms fail miserably. Heard of the people fearing for their jobs by the time they hit 40? Aka Derek Wee?

5. I doubt Sg's research/engineering environment will improve much in the next 3 - 5 years; not with the current leadership. :P If you are intent on working in Singapore, you might want to go to NUS/NTU, than to spend all those money in an elite private US university and then seek jobs in Sg."

elia - "
As takchek has already mentioned, this is a very complex problem and so in order to get anything productive out of this I am going to break down and label a lot of the details. I can't offer you a definitive answer, but I can certainly point your attention to specific issues you have to think about and decide for yourself. If you want to skip ahead I have an executive summary at the end.

From what I have read so far, I can infer that:

A1. You are Singaporean,
A2. You are currently not a scholar, but you are considering applying for A*STAR's scholarship,
A3. You are interested in life sciences, not just because of the buzz about it,
A4. You are not too sure if an R&D career suits you,
A5. You already have an offer from Johns Hopkins to do BME starting Fall 2007.

Everything I intend say rests on these 5 assumptions. Please let me know otherwise. If I seem rude or condescending, I apologize in advance since it is not a trivial task to determine your current situation without further information.

First things first: even if you don't want to tell us (it's ok if you don't), you should know the answers to these questions:

B1. Why do you want to study overseas as opposed to studying locally, like NUS?
B2. Do you have any other offers from any other schools? If so, have you filtered through the available options to pick the most promising one?
B3. Are you still waiting on other offers that are potentially just as good, if not better than, the JHU offer?

OK, now your specific questions, as already labeled by takchek:

T1. Medicine. I second takchek's comments. Since US medical schools admit only graduates, your discussion of medicine as a career option is somewhat premature. What is most relevant to you now is to determine if BME as an undergrad major is your best option. This is not as critical as it might sound initially, because assuming you can
maintain a good GPA, it is ridiculously easy to switch majors in the US system.

First, find out if your program is "pre-med". Most universities offer a specific "pre-med" option to the majors that open the door to medical school. Given what you have, you can do BME pre-med and follow up into medical school. That's definitely doable.

T1b. Specific advice about organic chemistry. You MUST go out of your way to take all the organic chemistry classes available to you, even if it is not required for BME. You will probably also want biochemistry, and to a lesser extent molecular biology. (These are probably required for your major anyway)

I have taught enough pre-meds and written enough letters of reference to tell you authoritatively that a solid grounding in organic chemistry and biochemistry is by far the single most important subject for med school. More so than even biology, surprisingly enough.

Organic chemistry will also be very useful if you later do anything nano-y - nanotech, nanofluidics, nanobiotech, etc. From a simplistic, bottom-up point of view, biochemistry (and life) is organic chemistry adapted to deal with water, and organic chemistry is the bottom-up approach to nanotechnology.

It's worth repeating: a thorough knowledge of organic chemistry is essential and non-negotiable for medical school. If you hate organic chemstry and/or suck at it, you can forget about medical school.

If I had to pick a major that is compatible with BOTH med school and BME graduate school, it would be chemistry and/or biochemistry, not any kind of engineering degree. (Disclaimer: I hold a B.Sc. in chemistry.) If anything, pursing engineering may actually disadvantage you because you may not have the necessary background in advanced biochemistry and organic chemistry. Depending on how serious you are
about medical school, changing your major at a later time is an option you should seriously consider at some later point. Of course if you later decide to pursue BME, then clearly there are some things you will have not learnt in undergrad that you will have to catch up with later. But it seems from people I know that graduate engineering programs admit a rather diverse lot of majors. Maybe takchek can
confirm that.

T2. Attachments. I think at your level, any experience at all will definitely count in your favour. Both possibilities will not only give you experience, they will give you some idea of the work culture at both institutions. It is up to you to pick which place you want to explore more.

T2a. NUS. I have done some work in NUS, but not in the life sciences. No pay sounds like exploitation, it's even worse than NS! I would ask around to see if this is the normal practice in NUS. (It's definitely not true in the US) The work is almost certainly classic molecular biology, not BME. You probably won't get direct experience relevant to BME, except perhaps in application, but you will have a better feeling for what other life sciences are like.

On the other hand, if getting no pay for 4 months of work which isn't exactly relevant to your major, it could be a rewarding experience. Considering that you're not paid, they have little basis to complain if you take up their offer first, then if a better one comes along later, you can ditch them for that offer later.

T2b. A*STAR. It should come as no surprise to you that I don't have anything good to say about A*STAR, and probably takchek too. I have not worked in A*STAR first hand, but I comment on their research output in the chemical sciences. There is a strong impression of doing without much insight, and I have spotted elementary and egregious
errors in their published work to be completely unimpressed with the quality of work coming out of A*STAR.

On the other hand, I agree that an internship should give you a much firmer idea of what A*STAR's work environment is like. I would definitely recommend trying it out first hand for yourself. Don't take our word for it if you don't want to. Considering it data gathering, if you like. :) It's worth repeating that you can (and should!) just do a short term thing with them without jumping in straightaway with applying for their scholarship.

T3. The US experience. People say that you should think outside the box, but you first have to step outside the box to realize what the boundaries of the box is. The US system is all about breadth, not depth, at the bachelor's level: definitely go all out to explore, even outside the life sciences...

T4. Job prospects. Another perspective is to ask, "What job opportunities will I miss out if I major in BME instead of X?" JHU is enough of a brand name in Singapore and the US that the choice of school is not a concern. Going back to Singapore to work with a degree from JHU is not likely to be an issue.

If you are wondering why takchek suddenly mentioned business schools, it's because many people study engineering and then take off into the finance industry. You can expect usd 60k+ starting salary as a consultant, usd 90k+++ as an i-banker, depending on your performance.

But talking about this now is somewhat premature; if you think finance is interesting, take some finance classes and/or join a student organization that does investments or something. It's worth repeating: take full advantage of the US system to explore.

T5. Medium-term prospects for Singapore's R&D. Unfortunately I have to agree with takchek on this one. I think the hype is beginning to peter out and already many ugly issues (AF, Warwick, JHU and Shorvon, just to name the ones that are publicly disclosed) are beginning to surface. The name of the game in Singapore is to throw as money as possible at the problem and hope for a solution to materialize. But
that's not how R&D works. The best R&D is done when an entire codependent community of people - technicians, scientists, engineers, and administrators - are present and willing to help each other out.

In the current regime where administrators dictate everything and technical support is pathetic, you simply can't do good R&D. If you want to verify this, pay attention to what kind of help you set from the technicians and listen to the scientists grouse about administrators who don't understand research. Then compare and contrast this with your later experiences in JHU. Considering how fundamental and ingrained the problems are, I highly doubt this situation will improve by the time you consider the job market in Singapore.

Your other questions:

E1. "Are the payoffs of the BME program in Johns Hopkins worth it, with the risks, vis-a-vis taking on the A* scholarship and remaining bonded for years on end, and potentially getting disillusioned halfway? I can have an aggressive risk appetite, but I also need to have a proper rationale behind it."

Why should these be mutually exclusive? If you really want to apply for A*STAR (I wouldn't recommend it, but let's say you want to) you can just tell them you already have an offer. I don't see why you can't do BME at JHU, with A*STAR sponsoring you.

The real question is, is an A*STAR scholarship worth it? If you want to look at it from a risk-reward point of view, the A*STAR scholarship rewards are substantial. You save all your undergraduate expenses, and have a guaranteed job for 6 years after your PhD. If job security is a big thing for you, this is a great opportunity. The risks are also substantial: you have to live by all their petty rules (like the 3.8
GPA thing that got me into trouble by writing about it), and if at any point in the next 14 years you decide that you hate your work, your major, your boss, your life, tough luck.

Note that I said nothing about graduate expenses. This is because most science and engineering programs offer full sponsorship for their graduate students. A*STAR's offer of sponsorship is practically worthless in this respect.

How about without a scholarship? The costs are upfront and in your face. It's worth asking for financial aid from JHU; the situation for funding international students in the US has improved dramatically in the last 5 years. Chances are you might get partial sponsorship from the school. Here's a tip: if you agree to become a teaching assistant, not only do you get paid a small stipend, you also get more job experience (teaching is an important component of academia) and most likely you will get a tuition waiver for the semester that you are teaching in.

You also have the responsibility of finding your own job when you graduate. It's not easy for international students to find employment - there's a lot of work you have to do. But everyone I know who has tried hard enough has found a good position. Which is also one of the greatest rewards of going out on your own: you have complete freedom in choosing your future.

Bottom line: an A*STAR scholarship makes sense only if:
1. You need the money for your undergraduate degree, OR
2. Job security is VERY important to you,
3. You know that the career they are offering is EXACTLY what you want to do for the next 14 years into your future.

Since you have indicated that 1. is not important to you and 3. is not 100% true, it seems like getting A*STAR funding is not the best option for you.

E2. "What prospects are there for BME degree and/or a resulting doctorate in the US?" Your question about prospects for BMEs is hard to answer because BME is a very new engineering discipline; as such there may not be a high demand for BME graduates and certainly there is very little experience to go by. For engineering in general I
believe the market is much more receptive to engineers with advanced degrees; at least a master's, if you want to have a decent stab at a good job. However, considering the highly specialized nature of BME it may be more like the sciences in that you would need a PhD to have a serious job in BME. You can speak to felumpfus at
felumpfus.blogspot.com about the fine distinctions between the life sciences. She's currently doing her PhD at JHU.

E3. "if I still continue the path that I'm walking on now, doing BME in JHU, doing a BS or a PhD, will I be able to obtain a good job BETTER than what A*/Singapore can offer me?"

See T2, T4 and E1. The answer hinges critically on what you mean by "better". With A*STAR, what you get is what you get, it is non-negotiable. Speaking generically, you cast your net wider going alone; it is possible to get a worse offer than A*STAR's; it is also possible to get a much better offer than A*STAR's. By going with A*STAR, the hidden cost is that you must exclude any opportunities, for better or for worse, that come your way in the future.

Congratulations on embarking on the next big thing in your life. It's commendable that you are thinking about these things early on.

If I were you, based on what you've told me, you would:
1. Take up NUS's offer, but apply for other internships anyway, and ditch NUS if you get a better offer,
2. Don't take up an A*STAR scholarship, since you don't need the money and you aren't sure what exactly you want to do,
3. Explore as many fields as you feel like in your first two years, especially outside BME and the life sciences,
4. Take as many organic chemistry classes as you can,
5. Consider the option of changing majors out of BME in your last two years, if it turns out that there are better major options (chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, chemical engineering, bioengineering, to name a few) for you, and
6. Figure out what you want in a job.

Good luck,"

elia (cont'd) -
"You should look at these URLs for information.

You should also be aware of another option, the MD/PhD joint degree programs awarded by medical schools. People who want to do this program (i.e. subject themselves to double torture) are very rare and your chances of getting admitted could be higher. MD/PhD programs often cover a bigger part of medical school expenses too. So you could in principle do medical school concurrently with a PhD in BME. Again, the choices are not mutually exclusive. But you can think about this later."


felumpfus said...

Much like other engineering fields, there are plenty of job opportunities out there for BMEs with advanced degrees (MS, PhD), specifically in related fields. For unrelated fields, e.g. banking, investments, consulting, from my friends' experiences in job hunting, they don't really care specifically what kind of engineering you majored in. But I do agree that BME-related jobs for BS-holders are still rather scarce although the numbers are improving. A vast majority of BME undergrads here are pre-med and/or plan to go to grad school anyway.

But I have to disagree with you, elia, about organic chemistry and its relevance to medical school. Having been there, done that -- the only relevance of organic chemistry is that big shiny A+ on your transcript to show off on your application form. Same goes for biochemistry, unfortunately. The one true skill that any successful medical student should possess -- MUGGING.

Hyperchondriac said...

I second that about organic chem. although i didn't get a shiny A+. more like a cute little B+. but it was enough to get me into med sch. not one as prestigious as JHMI but my first choice, nonetheless.

but if you already KNOW you want to go to med sch, do it in australia or singapore or the UK. then take the Step 1, Step 2 and then apply for residency in the US if your heart so desires. studying med sch in the US is expensive and doing your undergrad here does not guarantee you admission to med sch. not to mention the length of time that it takes is painful.

But if you are unsure and you want the chance to explore your options, then by all means, go ahead. be aware of the cost though.

i was never really a mugger. more of a live life to the fullest kind of student. don't get me wrong, i studied. after all, i was paying a lot of money to get an education. but i wasn't about to not have a life by mugging all the time. its the same here even in med sch. maybe i won't be the smartest doc in town, but i would like to think that my patients can relate to me and trust that i care enough about them to treat them as if they are still human beings.


testtube said...

Anyone with a shred of idealism in them should not even contemplate an A*Star scholarship. Especially if they can afford an overseas education on their own.

Dennis said...

Interesting that you are so pessimistic with regards to Singapore's foray into the life sciences.

I found this article in the NYT a great read. NYT seems rather bullish on our prospects.


hokkienpeng said...

>>I was offered bioengineering by Washington U in St Louis, and economics by Wharton.<<

Bioengineering and Economics? If you can't even make up your mind where your interests lie, you probably shouldn't do a PhD.

Zhenxun said...

just stay away from the scholarships. not worth it.
and run away from the internships- or he can first go off to JHU, perform undergraduate research, then come back for an internship- if he so diesires. then he'd notice the difference between academia and er... nevermind.

just go west young man - unbound and ungagged, that is!

testtube said...


That is way too harsh. Most people only get to fully explore their interests in university. Expecting an 18-year-old to know what he wants to do for the rest of his life is ludicrous (which is why I think it's wrong-headed in the first place to give out undergrad scholarships to "future scientists"). And I wouldn't think too highly of 18-year-olds who think they know exactly what they want to do. I used to be such an 18-year-old.

Mingwei said...

I think you shouldn't expect much money from life science if you really love doing research. There's no escaping research as a phd, no matter where u go, its primarily research. The only difference is that research in singapore usually means a*star, thus if you intend to work in singapore, u might as well get the scholarship from them.

But, if u are intending to work abroad, go check out what kind of work u like to do first. There's a problem with studying all the way from bachelor's to phd in 1 sitting, and that is, u may find that there's something else out there, or the job u want wants something else. So, look around and don't be too hasty with that post-grad degree.

I think if you like what you do, you won't give a hoot about the a*star environment.