Biology/Medicine Transitioning to ID

Well I’ve read a few threads about people who have degrees in non-ID fields wanting to pursue ID and had several questions of my own.

I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in ID (having watched the ABC Nightline report on IDEO’s shopping cart in HS) but because I got accepted into a 7 year med program, I was essentially attached at the hip to medicine right out of HS. Well I got my BA in Biology/Physiology and finished 2 years of medical school. However, I realize now (wish I had realized this sooner) that I don’t want to practice medicine but instead would like to work in the ID field (possibly medical devices).

I’m interested in the whole process of ID from the initial idea, identification of problem, research, brainstorming of solutions, modeling and prototyping, testing, and seeing the final product come to fruition. All that gets me excited and I constantly see different things around me and say to myself, “I could make this better or easier to use!”

I know I want to eventually apply to an ID graduate program (maybe 2 years from now) but having no portfolio (I threw away all my art projects at the end of my undergrad because at that time I thought I should just give up on my art/design aspirations and stick to medicine) I need to start working on some showable pieces. I have very basic skills in Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop and some CAD program from back in HS as well as some experience with woodwork and plastic molding (also from HS).

I’ve contacted several design firms in the Chicago area to ask about internship opportunities for someone like me with only a BA in Biology/Physiology and 2 years of medical school under my belt but having a passion for ID. I know my chances are probably slim of any design firms giving me a chance but figure it’d be nice to get some experience in what ID people actually do. If nothing design related comes up I can always fall back on working as a research assistant/tech and in my off time building a solid enough portfolio for ID grad school.

I actually have many questions but I guess I should first start off with the following. I got a reply from one of the design firms when I asked about internship opportunities:

“Thank you for your interest in ___. We are currently not seeking to hire however we may have an internship position available. Please submit your resume along with samples of your work for our review. Upon receipt we can better respond to your request.”

I have a resume ready but no samples of my artwork/portfolio (I really should not have thrown away anything). I’m just wondering what his expectations will be in terms of “samples of my work for review”. Is he expecting a full-blown portfolio? I can certainly draw a few sketches, scan them, and send them to him. However I have a feeling they may be subpar to his expectations (I did explain to him in my initial email that I had no background in ID and only a BA in Bio/Physio and 2 years of med school). Basically what it boils down to is that I have confidence in my physical drawing skills but I don’t think I have the necessary skills (at the moment) to touch up digitally what I draw or print it out on nice paper bound up in a portfolio-style booklet (I will have to draw something new since I don’t have anything presentable from my past art classes in undergrad).

If you got through all this thanks =) … you’re a trooper!

  • Lee

there’s a lot to consider.
You may be interested in biomedical engineering too, a very creative problem solving, hands-on type field, there are a few schools that offer this program and have collaborative studios with ID departments. (UC and CMU)
ID is overcrowded compared to medicine so it’s normal to expect a fair amount of rejection when getting started. Potential employers are going to be very interested in how your medical training can help them make better products so I think you’ll have no difficulty finding work.

no_spec: Thanks for the quick reply. I’m hesitant about applying to a BME program because I’m also interested the diversity of products I can work on if I go into ID field. I’m not sure how narrow the BME focus is on medical devices or the nitty gritty technical engineering (as opposed to being able to work on footwear/apparel for example in ID). Basically while I do like the idea of designing medical devices (I was actually surprised to find that some design firms specialize in it), I don’t want to limit myself too much because I like the idea of working on a variety of projects/products.

Also do you have any advice as to the email I got back asking about an internship? What do you think his expectations are for the “samples of your work”. Is it ok for me to spend some time to go through some brainstorming in terms of identifying a problem, possible solutions, and sketching out a design highlighting why a particular design’s feature make it an ideal solution? I can crank out something similar to this (not my work): Sketch Projects by Stephen Boynton at … but again, I don’t have the skills right now to touch it up digitally or provide any type of rendering or prototyping.

This may sound a little harsh, but why would anyone higher you as their intern if you can’t provide these skills?

It’s very impressive that you’ve graduated through a 7 year degree program in Biology and Medicine, but in terms of ID you’re still on the level of a high school student. It would probably be more beneficial for you to do some independent study on your own in terms of preparing a portfolio for an academic ID program. If you’re planning on working as a very interdisciplinary Biomedical/Industrial Design position then try finding a graduate program that suits that position more (Standford’s D-School seems very interested in hosting multidisciplinary students). If you want to go pure ID (and medical devices do fall under this category most of the time), you’ll have to take the same steps as high school students wishing to become industrial designers. In which case an internship without any academic background might not be as beneficial to you as you think.

I’m definitely rooting for you here! I was a Biology major before I went into ID (and still study it as a minor) so I have a soft-spot for situations like these. May I ask why, if you wanted to be in ID for so long, you didn’t work on any ID related independent projects during those 7 years?

In an attempt to not sound too patronizing, for your portfolio samples: I would work on one independent project (one possibly related to the firm you want the internship from or something you are very passionate about like medical devices), start brainstorming ideas for how to improve or create a new product, do a lot of research on how industry, manufacturing, and users of the product, sketch (by hand) numerous concepts and develop and produce more sketches on the stronger ones, and choose a final solution and show how it answers all the problems you addressed in your research. This is the basis of the design process that everyone goes through and firms will want to see you have strong skills in each step of this process.

hope that helps

Thanks for the advice Linda.

I know that my background is not as strong as someone with undergrad experience in design. I guess in my mind the best scenario would be showing a design firm my academic achievements, emphasizing my medical knowledge and passion for ID through physical/analog medium, and hoping that it’s enough for them to give me chance of getting some experience (however basic it may be) in the ID field and real-world workplace.

I’ve heard that a lot of ID grad programs consist of people who have little formal drawing/digital arts training (for ex I know that IIT has a MDes program where you can spend a year learning the basic foundational drawing/digital medium skills needed for the subsequent conceptual ID classes). That’s why I’m a little unsure of what some of these ID grad programs expect in terms of a portfolio (when applying to these programs) when these basic/foundational classes are offered upon acceptance and with so many non-art/design people applying.

Like I mentioned in my initial post, I can always fall back on doing lab work with my university for a year or two and in that time frame work independently on my portfolio (as well as preparing for my application to an ID grad program). Regardless of if I can get my foot into the ID door through an internship, I’ll be doing independent case-studies, drawing as much as I can, and trying to teach myself how to use the digital art programs needed to succeed (is it safe to assume that Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop are the main tools besides AutoCAD and any 3D rendering programs?). I would also be willing to volunteer my medical/research/drawing skills in my off-time (after my 9-5 research job or on the weekends). Do you think this is something that they might be willing to do (free labor from me for maybe a few hours a week )?

May I ask why, if you wanted to be in ID for so long, you didn’t work on any ID related independent projects during those 7 years?

Well I have worked on some projects that might be considered ID related. Last year I worked on an entrepreneurial competition that involved med, business, and law students. My particular team did research into the need to reduce hospital-acquired illness (causing death as well as being costly to the hospitals and thus patients) and developed a lab coat using some material science research that could reduce physician-to-patient transmission of harmful microorganisms (could be used in medical or lab setting). We had to do the work from the ground up all the way to business costs and marketing. However this project did not have a lot of what you (or at least I) would normally think of in terms of apparel ID with lots of sketches and a prototype. Most of the work was very research focused in terms of material/fabric, costs, and marketing. Honestly med school itself is pretty demanding that I’ve found that my hobbies are always on the backburner, and unfortunately much of my artistic/design aspirations from HS and even undergrad have been secondary to succeeding in medicine (not that they are mutually exclusive but it’s difficult to find a reasonable balance).

I’ve read your post, and here’s a question:

why don’t you become a consultant to ID’ers? You have experience and knowledge of stuff that many people are not even aware of. You already can differentiate yourself against many other jobseekers, by having a medical school qualification and wanting to do something other than being a doctor. You’d not only earn more, but you’ll be amazed at how many other opportunities you will have.

All this research and ideation work will come in later, after several years of experience.

The problem is I have very little “real clinical experience” since I’ve completed my first two years and part of my third year (first 2 years are almost purely academic learning normal physiology of the human body then pathology … 3rd and 4th years are clinical training … then beyond that is more of the all-clinical in the hospital type of experience). So unfortunately I don’t think I can offer the amount of consulting skills that a full-blown doctor who has several years of practical experience can offer. One thing is that although I have an interest specifically in medical devices, I also don’t want to limit myself to such a narrow field.

From what Linda said in her post and from my brief discussions with friends in related fields, I’m going to need to go to an undergrad ID program to get the necessary foundational skills (undergrad ID program vs grad ID program). Honestly I just want to be brainstorming, drawing, building, and creating things that are useful to people (and I just so happen to have a lot of medical knowledge to offer).

Thanks for reply though. I appreciate the feedback no matter how harsh it seems (since I know I’m not in the best of situations). I’m already doing some research and calling different ID programs.

While we all want to sit back and dream (sketch, ideate, doodle, render, model in CAD, etc), the business world doesn’t want to pay us to do that. I personally see you as having a very unique skill and don’t see any reason for you to succumb to going through ID undergrad. First off, there are FAR too many individuals practicing industrial design. Many without the talent and skills that businesses really need or desire. Secondly, you already have something that sets you apart from the rest. Focus on that. I could totally see a design firm such as Metaphase in St. Louis utilizing your skills and knowledge in development of yet another computer mouse or toothbrush.

I’m struggling to figure out how you can sell yourself to these companies. In my opinion, just don’t go down the road of becoming yet another industrial designer. There are far too many of us and too few positions. Before long, we’ll be like the graphic design industry. Blame it on cheap CAD programs and Photoshop for sheeple. Seems everyone these days is a graphic designer. Before long, everyone will think they are an industrial designer once they understand what the term actually means.

Anyhow, I’d really suggest not wasting your time with further education. You have a unique and valuable skill-set that’s simply different from a proper industry designer. Just need to find a company that appreciates and needs it. Again, it probably comes down to a firm that focuses more on interaction and medical design.

The thing is I doubt design firms have any real need for someone like me who purely works as a (medical) consultant [I’m not sure if this is what you’re suggesting I do]. I assume if they want some medical expertise they’ll simply consult with a doctor who has been practicing for awhile rather than use someone like me.

I definitely want to be involved in the groundwork from the beginning of an idea for a product all the way to the finished product. Knowing that, does that change your advice? I just don’t see myself as particularly valuable to a design firm if I have no ID schooling.

Is there any particular reason you mentioned Metaphase? I’ve been looking into design firms in the Chicago area like Insight (who seems to have a medical device branch) and BeyondDesign.