Sometimes biotech really feels like an industry in danger of being left behind.
Take last Friday afternoon for example. I was at a networking reception at the University of Washington, chatting with undergraduates from all kinds of engineering fields about the job market. People were finding jobs, but nothing much to brag about, until I bumped into a couple of juniors majoring in computer science. They were marveling about their good luck, telling me stories that sounded like something out of 1999.
Campus legend has it that one computer science student at UW recently secured a $100,000 annual starting salary, a $40,000 signing bonus, and about $200,000 worth of stock from Google. The average computer science undergraduate is said to be getting about $85K to start. Word is that all computer science seniors have job offers, and some have multiple offers from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Zynga, Facebook, Salesforce.com, and others, says Pratik Prasad, a UW junior. This is consistent with the stories I hear from tech CEOs in Seattle, who say they are engaged in trench warfare with rivals to get the best young science and engineering talent.
This has to sound like something from a galaxy far, far away to people in biotech. Big Pharma’s R&D engines are in such a state of crisis that some are publicly wondering whether pharma should quit doing R&D altogether. Smaller, supposedly more innovative biotech companies are starved for cash and running lean, relying on cheap outsourced labor every chance they get. Academic biology departments are feeling pressure from state and federal budget cuts. For those who stay in academia, good luck ever progressing beyond the starvation wages offered by the typical postdoctoral fellowship.
The sense I get from talking to biotech grad students is that while they love what they do, quite a few have serious doubts about their chosen career path. They clearly have nothing like the prospects of their friends across campus who might create the next killer app for the iPad. While many biotech company executives like to complain that it’s hard for them to find enough skilled labor, people with scientific and technical skills tell you a different story altogether about the life sciences job market, which was recently covered by the SF Public Press.
“There is a huge divide between engineering and life sciences,” says Matt O’Donnell, dean of the College of Engineering at UW, who oversees various disciplines like computer science & engineering, aerospace, electrical, mechanical, and bioengineering.
All of the young engineers get job offers, because their skills lead directly into product development that industry relies on, O’Donnell says. As for those studying the kinds of riskier, more exploratory fields that are the bedrock of modern biotech—things like molecular biology and genomics—students “have to work much harder” to find a job, O’Donnell says.
How weak is the demand for young biotechies? O’Donnell gave me a pretty sobering rundown on job placement stats on campus. The UW’s top-rated bioengineering department only takes about 50 to 60 new students per year, he says. The rule of thumb is that placement usually breaks down … Next Page »
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