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into thirds—with about one-third going on to medical school, one-third going to graduate school in biology, and one-third taking jobs in industry, he says. The department gets so many good applicants, it could easily fill 200 slots a year, but there’s really no way all the graduating students each year could get placed in good jobs, O’Donnell says.
If they did, he says, “We could easily saturate the market.”
It’s a really sad state of affairs that there’s such little demand for young biotech talent. Many of these students, who have their hearts set on unraveling the mysteries of how genes and cells work to create the wonders of life, need to adjust their expectations. It’s not realistic for many to think they can go on to get academic faculty gigs, or even traditional bench research jobs in pharma or biotech, O’Donnell says. Many biology PhDs need to transfer their skills into office jobs in pharma—like business development, law, patents, marketing, and communications, he says.
I know plenty of smart and capable biology PhDs who have made that kind of transition. It can be a smart move, and it can be a challenging and intellectually stimulating line of work that is worth considering. At least where I live in Seattle, O’Donnell and UW bioengineering professor Buddy Ratner deserve credit for recognizing those alternative paths, and helping their young engineering students prepare for the real world, by forming partnerships with the business school and forcing students to practice their softer skills, like public speaking. It’s an essential skill in business that all too often gets short shrift in academia.
Those are good things universities should do to make sure their students don’t get stuck working at Starbucks. But I still worry about the dead-end that many young biologists are running into, and what this means for the future of the industry. One of the fortunate young computer science majors at UW told me he thinks the job market for bioengineers will improve in 20 years, when much of the underlying mysteries of biology will be figured out. By then, more healthcare R&D will be addressable with engineering-based solutions that take less time and less money, and contain less risk than they do today, the student said.
I’m not so optimistic, for a simple reason. The pharma and biotech industry is providing much less support for basic research today, which provides the foundation for all those quick and elegant engineering solutions we hope to reap tomorrow. Without supporting basic research today and providing gainful career paths for the young people who can tackle these problems, it could take us a very long time to see the fruits of genomic-based personalized medicine.
But given the job prospects of the engineers of today, I’ll make one prediction. We may not get personalized medicine for a long, long time, but our future will be full of devices to keep us constantly connected, informed, and entertained.
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