Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

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Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby Elizabeth Leo » Fri Mar 06, 2015 9:55 pm


First off, I'd like to apologize for my username; I attempted to have "Elizabeth Leo" and was informed that only alphanumeric characters were allowed and had the same result when I tried "Elizabeth.Leo". Probably user error and if so, mea culpa.

I'm an undergraduate student pursuing a B.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology with a minor in Computer Science (programming). I have a particular interest in Botany and a desire to work in either government or academia in a primarily research oriented position.

Now for the unique; I'm currently employed full-time as a State employee in a very basic data entry position not at all related to science and since I work a very typical office shift, I can only take classes online or in late afternoon-evening and only part-time. I have maintained a 3.9 GPA throughout my time at my current institution, have good rapport with faculty and my adviser, have been on the Dean's List, was inducted into TriBeta, etc etc. I've been able to secure a letter of recommendation or offer of one from every single instructor I've had and I work my arse off (if you'll pardon the cuss).

I can't quit my job as has been suggested by every professional scientist I've spoken to as I have full, excellent health benefits and both myself and my husband have medical conditions that need frequent treatment and medication (EDS and Degenerative Disc Disease, respectively). I have an AA in general studies under my belt so all the non-science classes are taken care of and I've been able to focus solely on math, chemistry, and biology which is excellent. But I'm hitting a wall; the upper level classes I still need (which I only need about 8-10 more courses, so if I COULD go full-time, I'd be done very soon) are rarely offered when I can actually attend and I've thus far been unsuccessful in my attempts to convince my faculty to expand more into online/semi online course offerings (for non-lab classes, obviously though I'm finding more and more virtual laboratory programs that are quite impressive, though not quite enough to warrant a full transition quite yet). My faculty has been amazing and I've been able to do things like get pre-req's waived to take a class that will only be offered at the time I can take it once, getting pushed into a class from the waiting list, and getting professors to offer classes just a tad later so that I can get to my job as early as possible (6am) and speed to campus for a 3:30pm class start time.

But its starting to feel like I'll never finish my degree and that my only choice is to figure out how to go full-time, which I have no idea how to do at the moment. I'm not rich by any means, my parents have never been in a place to help me, I don't qualify for need based grants/aide, and disregarding all of that, there's no way I could get enough money to support myself and my husband and pay for private medical insurance via traditional student loans or scholarships.

I feel stuck. I'm doing my absolute best and just find myself getting more and more bitter. I'm 26 and in class with people 19-23 or on the rare occasion that I do find an age-peer, they are seniors graduating next semester. Purely credits-wise, so am I but I have to keep pushing back my "expected graduation date". I'm talking to a couple professors about doing research and may be able to swing that over the summer semester when they don't offer any classes I need or can take, which will be good, but I'm still missing really core classes like Microbiology, Cell Biology, etc. My adviser recently taught a one-on-one oxford style tutorial class in which I prepared and presented each assigned topic/chapter every week and he critiqued me and assigned a homework question but this was obviously a special circumstance and I'm doubtful I'd be able to do it again. I'm involved in clubs like Women in Science, volunteered at the greenhouse for a year, and am an active member in many science organizations as a student, such as ASM, ACF, and BSA.

I just want any advice anyone might have, any kind of encouragement or (hopefully) a story about someone succeeding in a similar situation. I'm confident in my ability to do the work and have been told I already do graduate-level effort for my classes but I'm afraid I'll never get there. That everyone will turn out to be right when they've said "The only way you'll be able to finish this degree is if you quit your job and go full-time". I'm grateful to any responses, critical or otherwise, please don't hold back I've obviously heard it all before as far as the negatives.

Thank you.
Elizabeth Leo
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Joined: Fri Mar 06, 2015 9:26 pm

Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby P.C. » Sun Mar 08, 2015 12:29 pm

Given your situation and the extreme riskiness, poor job prospects, poor benefits, poor job security in Biology and particularly Botany, I would say switch to a degree and coursework where you can build your career in your state job career. Sure the work you do is boring but it better than being poor, with no retirement funds built up, underemployed and out of work most of the time , particularly as you age. If you are bored go into management positions, or get a hobby.
I know plant science first hand and the career prospects are very very very poor. Science managers show little mercy for people with health issues.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby PG » Sun Mar 08, 2015 3:07 pm

Since the traditional paths doesnt seem to be working do you have any other options? Note that I am writing in Europe so I know very little about how the US healthcare system works. the options that I can see are the following:

1) complete you degree in another country in which health insurance is a non issue ie payed by the state. Once you have your degree you might be able to move back to the US again.

2) The second option that I can see is if you can bypass the need for that degree somehow. You seem to be getting a lot of recommendations from people you have been working with. Is there any chance that you can finda job directly in your area of interest without having that degree? Especially if you can find a job that will allow you to complete your studies as an employee that would be useful. The actual job doesnt need to be full time just enough to give you health coverage. My guess (without knowing the US system) is that a job payed by the government might be able to do that for you.
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Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby Elizabeth Leo » Sun Mar 08, 2015 11:02 pm

PG: I'm glad that was your first suggestion, it's something that has been in the back of my mind for some times now. My biggest hurdle is a lack of capital; most countries I look at either want you to have an in-demand BS or have enough money to pay their fee to be a citizen. And as far as I'm aware, most students on visas would not qualify for nationalized health insurance. Is that not true?
To your second point, and in some part to PC the other reply, I have no ego attached to obtaining my degree, if I can get hired somehow while still completing it, that would be ideal. And if I get hired and they don't need me to complete it, I'd consider not finishing if I thought the job was stable enough that I would be comfortable not having the degree in case I need a new job. I'm even fine with stopping at a BS; I attended a Forum put on by the WIS club at my school and all three speakers emphasized taking alternative paths and being practical, that its not impossible to return to the degree path later on if you absolutely want to. They all had PhD's and two of them obtained them a bit later in life after taking detours (science policy, for example). So, that is an option. I'm glad I posted here, I've been kidding myself for some time now that there was some option I hadn't thought of yet that would let me keep all these plates spinning and actually accomplish my goal, but as with most things in life I have to be practical. I've always chosen job security over risk and its half the reason I'm in a job I hate, doing nothing related to my career. I have bills to pay. I can't just whisk off to a none or low paying internship for 10 weeks or take out loans to subsist on while I work part time or not at all and go to school full time.
To the point of practicality, other than obtaining and including as many letters of recommendation that I can (I already list them all as references but I could include their letters if that would help). Like I said (I hope) I only have lab experience from my classes so I've always felt like that would not be enough to get a position most places. Don't get me wrong, I always include it anyway. I include anything I think might make me look more competent.
Thank you both for your responses. As one more question, PC what did you specifically do? Everything I'm seeing in job postings would be government scientist that test the environment or food or crops, or agricultural positions in private industry, biotech maybe possible in terms of phytorestoration and the like though I doubt they'd make any money most of those efforts seem to be by academic research institutions. I'd obviously love to make some crazy breakthrough but I'm also fine just doing labwork every day. I enjoy it. And I'm a natural bureaucrat I've learned so I'm not afraid of administrative roles or policy making. I can tell you as someone with only an AA, a BS in literally anything serious is automatically more money than I'm making now.
Elizabeth Leo
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Joined: Fri Mar 06, 2015 9:26 pm

Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby PG » Mon Mar 09, 2015 6:59 am

If a a student visa will pay for national health insurance or not is probably dependent on the country. In my specific country studies that are planned to last longer than one year will usually mean that you are registered as living in this country which will then mean that you get access to practically free healthcare. For undergraduate studies there is today a fee to be payed by foreign students but there might be ways around that especially if you want to continue your studies for a PhD.
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Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby Elizabeth Leo » Mon Mar 09, 2015 7:22 am

PG thank you very much for that info! I'll look into what countries ate like that. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my post.
Elizabeth Leo
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Joined: Fri Mar 06, 2015 9:26 pm

Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby L. B. Gage » Mon Mar 09, 2015 9:50 am

Dear Elizabeth,

I was compelled to write after I read your forum entry. You struck me as someone who is hardworking and dedicated despite all your setbacks.
One thing I noticed from your description is that you are super BUSY! You are working full time and trying to finish a degree in Molecular biology with a minor in Computer science on top of all your other extracurricular activites you mentioned. My suggestion would be to ease some of your loads and focus on what is more important to you - getting that diploma. Is it really crucial for you to have a minor in computer science at this time?
You also mention that you current job duties mostly involve data entry, so I imagine this is something that could be accomplished remotely on some occasions. Is there any way you can negotiate a few hours in the morning to sneak out and attend some of your classes and make up those hours later in the day? Given your work ethics, I dont see why would your boss deny you this opportunity.
As far as the age goes --- You are only 26!!! Please don't let the age perception get in the way of achieving your dreams. It is still considered a young age in the US. If you could secure your diploma within 1-2 years you should be in good shape, especially with your long work experience in the area.
L. B. Gage
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Joined: Wed Feb 04, 2015 5:22 pm

Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby E.K.L. » Mon Mar 09, 2015 9:52 am

Have a look at the UK working & studying immigration laws (UKCISA has the relevant information for prospective students).
From what I recall (I'm not based in UK anymore), as a degree student you should be entitled to work half-time, but with two people and unless you choose London - which is ridiculously expensive and should be visited only as a tourist - it should be doable. A student visa should also entitle you to health insurance.


Actually, another EU country that you should look into is Germany. This is because, while you can work part-time in Germany on a student visa, there is an important exception to the rule: you can work full time as a scientific help ("wissenschaftliche Hilfskraft"), which would give you both healthcare insurance and relevant job experience. The healthcare system in Germany is one of the better ones in EU, in my opinion.
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Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby Chris » Mon Mar 09, 2015 1:18 pm

Elizabeth, I have a couple of questions from reading about your dilemma. You don't have to answer if they seem too personal. But here goes:

1) What does your husband do? If your husband is able to work, can he get benefits? If not, can the two of you get private insurance from the healthcare marketplace while you finish your degree? Good health insurance can be extremely valuable, but finishing that degree will also be very valuable to you in the long term.

2) How valuable are you at your job? A motivated hard worker like yourself would seem quite valuable - would they let you go part time or flex time in order to get these last classes out of the way?

While moving to another country could be fun and exciting, it seems like a more extreme option than you need here. Since you've established good relationships with your current teachers and boss, I would hope you can find a workaround without drastically changing your situation.
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Re: Undergraduate non-traditional student in very unique dilemma.

Postby WG » Mon Mar 09, 2015 2:00 pm

Elizabeth, I echo L.B. Gage's idea to look into negotiating some kind of compromise at work. If you can squeeze in a class or two during the day, you would be able to reach your goal much faster.

Now a question for you: how big is the state agency you work for? Is it a place where you could see yourself staying at (possibly in a different position) after you complete the B.S. degree? If so, you could try and make the argument (if you decide to negotiate some flexibility) that you completing this degree would be mutually beneficial since you plan on building your career there. Also since the health insurance is really good, leave the job as a last resort.

With regards to leaving the country: it can certainly be interesting but it also comes with challenges one of which is getting acclimated to the new environment. Sometimes that can also affect one's work/school performance especially if you haven't lived abroad before. So take this into consideration too. At your current institution you have already built enough momentum.

Finally, 26 is not old, it only seems that way since your sample size is currently skewed towards people in their early 20's. You still have a long life ahead of you. The important thing is to keep working towards your goals.
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