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 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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