Magazine Article | May 13, 2011

Nontraditional Career Options For Ph.D. Life Scientists

Source: Life Science Leader
Cliff Mintz

By Cliff Mintz, - Contributing Editor

There is a growing realization among many American life sciences graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that a job as a tenure-track assistant professor at an academic institution or a research scientist at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company may no longer be viable options. This trend has largely been driven by cuts in research funding, fewer available tenure-track positions, and the outsourcing of R&D jobs by a growing number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

While unemployment has skyrocketed for Ph.D. life scientists during the past decade or so, most U.S. graduate programs continue to exclusively train students for lifelong careers as academic researchers. This is mainly because the faculty members who train graduate students and postdoctoral scientists have spent their entire careers in academia and know little about career alternatives for their students. Further, and perhaps more troubling, is that because most of these faculty members are tenured — they are guaranteed a “job for life” — there is little incentive for them to pay attention to trends in the life sciences job market. Finally, most tenured faculty members believe their primary role is to train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to be scientists, not prepare them for the job market.

At present, roughly 10% of American Ph.D. life scientists land tenure-track academic jobs after completing their training. This raises the question: “What types of jobs are the remaining 90% of Ph.D.-trained scientists able to land in today’s job market?” The short answer is, not many!

Further, most industrial life sciences R&D jobs now require prospective job candidates have prior industrial experience — something most academically trained scientists lack or can not easily obtain, which makes competing for these jobs extremely difficult.

Yet, most American Ph.D. training programs steadfastly refuse to allow their students to consider nontraditional career options in lieu of academic and R&D jobs. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but are likely founded in the misguided notion that nontraditional career training (or knowledge of it) will interfere with the ability of graduate students and postdocs to focus on “their research.” Because of this, many graduate training programs have intentionally chosen not to offer nontraditional career training options (or even provide career counseling services) for their students and postdoctoral scientists. Consequently, those graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who recognize that traditional career options may not be right for them are forced to explore nontraditional career opportunities alone and at their own peril. At many research institutions, graduate students must get their adviser’s permission to take courses outside of their areas of study, and it is not uncommon for some mentors to forbid them and postdoctoral fellows from participating in “unnecessary activities outside of the laboratory.”

Some Career Options To Consider
Like it or not, the ongoing scarcity of jobs and the uncertainty of gainful employment have forced many graduate students and postdoctoral scientists to begin exploring nontraditional career opportunities. Some of the better-known nontraditional career or alternate career options include additional training to obtain a medical, dental, nursing, or law degree (mostly patent and intellectual property law) or a master’s of business administration (MBA) degree. Other popular alternate careers for Ph.D.-trained scientists include management consulting, clinical research, and business/financial analysts. Some of the lesser-known nontraditional careers that Ph.D.-trained scientists may want to consider include:

  • Medical communications and medical/science writing
  • Biotechnology sales and marketing
  • Project management
  • Healthcare informatics technology
  • Competitive business intelligence
  • Government jobs in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Department of Defense (DOD) or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
  • Quality control and assurance
  • Regulatory affairs
  • Biomanufacturing
  • Teaching

Although many of these options are suitable choices for Ph.D.-trained scientists, most require additional schooling or training to enter the field. For example, during the past five years or more there has been a sharp rise in the demand for science and medical writers with advanced degrees. In the past, many science and medical writers possessed degrees in English or journalism and, despite their lack of formal science training, were able to write for medical communications agencies and life sciences companies. However, the growing complexity of modern science has resulted in an increased demand for Ph.D.-trained scientists who can write and render complex scientific ideas into easily understandable concepts.

Although most Ph.D.s possess the scientific background and knowledge to become medical writers, many lack the technical writing training and skills necessary for success. Not surprisingly, during the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of colleges, universities, and societies that offer training (online and classroom) and degrees in medical and science writing. A good place to start for those who may be interested in medical writing careers is the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA www.amwa.org).

Likewise, the demand for regulatory affairs and quality professionals has skyrocketed in the past decade. These two disciplines are highly industry specific and require training and experience that are typically not offered at most academic institutions. Luckily, regulatory and quality assurance/control training is much more widely available than it has been in the past. Many community colleges and professional societies like the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS, www.raps.org) and the Drug Information Association (DIA, www.diahome.org) offer online courses, certificates, and degrees in these disciplines. One way to enter the regulatory affairs and quality fields with minimal additional formal training (and also jumpstart a career) is to land an internship at a drug or devices company or at the FDA. These internships are frequently not well publicized or widely advertised, and they are extremely competitive and difficult to obtain. Consequently, scientists interested in these career paths must be extremely proactive and vigilant to secure them.

Other nontraditional careers that are growing in popularity include medical communications, public relations, and marketing. Outstanding written, oral, and public speaking skills are required for all of these jobs. Consequently, only Ph.D. scientists with well-honed, interpersonal communication skills ought to consider these career options.

The use of project managers in the life sciences industry is also becoming more commonplace. Project managers are responsible for ensuring projects are completed in a timely and cost-effective manner. While there are no formal training programs for life sciences project managers, many community colleges and the Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org) offer online courses, certificate programs, and other training opportunities.

A new and rapidly growing field is healthcare informatics technology (HIT). The exponential growth of this field has mainly been driven by the U.S. government’s push to digitize American medical and healthcare records during the next five years or so. Ph.D. scientists with backgrounds in bioinformatics, genomics, and database management are ideal candidates for HIT jobs. Because many HIT industry analysts are already predicting future personnel shortages, many community colleges and four-year institutions have developed online courses and certificate and master’s degree programs for HIT. Recent reports suggest that between 50,000 and 100,000 HIT jobs will be created in United States during the next three to five years.

The growing importance of biotechnology products has created an enormous need for persons who understand protein-based biomanufacturing and how to sell these products to healthcare professionals. In response to these shortages, many community colleges and four-year colleges and universities now offer biomanufacturing training courses and certificate and biomanufacturing degree programs. Again, landing a biomanufacturing internship may be the quickest route to a career in this field.

Unlike pharmaceutical sales representatives, biotechnology sales reps require a much stronger scientific background and an in-depth knowledge of molecular biology to be able to effectively sell often-complex protein-based drugs. Ph.D.-trained scientists who like to interact with others and do not have a moral or ethical aversion to “selling” would be ideal candidates for these sales jobs.
Finally, recent surveys indicate that the United States lags behind other nations in science education. This suggests that U.S. science education needs to improve for America to keep up with the rest of the world. To that end, Ph.D.s who enjoy teaching might want to consider teaching biology or biotechnology at a community college or high school. Ph.D.-trained scientists offer advantages over non-Ph.D. teachers because of their familiarity with the scientific method, collection of large data sets, and their subsequent analysis.

Fixing The Problem
While there is no easy solution to fix the growing lack of U.S. jobs for Ph.D. scientists, there are several ideas worth exploring. An important first step would be for college presidents, deans, chairpersons, and tenured faculty members to acknowledge there is an employment problem for newly minted Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scientists. This, in turn, may result in curricular changes at the graduate level that would allow students and postdoctoral scientists to actively participate in additional specialized training to acquire the requisite skills to pursue nontraditional career paths. If curricular changes turn out to be too labor intensive, expensive, or unconventional, then offering graduate students and postdoctoral scientists access to regularly scheduled nontraditional job seminars or holding annual on-site career fairs may be more appropriate. In contrast with the prevailing view that nontraditional career programs may interfere with graduate and postdoctoral training, it is likely the career insights offered by these programs may help expedite rather than hinder research progress.

What Does The Future Hold?
More importantly, life sciences companies can no longer afford to continue to take a hands-off approach to training if they expect the American workforce to be adequately prepared and trained to work for them. Historically, life sciences company executives have quietly asserted that they are not in the “education business,” and that career development and job training is in the purview of American colleges, universities, and technical schools. To complicate matters, most academic scientists do not understand the industrial drug development process or how to conduct research in a highly regulated laboratory environment. Consequently, it is disingenuous of these executives to expect academic scientists to adequately prepare their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for successful industrial careers. Improvements to the American life sciences workforce will only occur if there is a much closer working relationship between industry and academia and substantial financial investments are made by both parties to cooperatively develop new training programs and employment initiatives.

There is no question that traditional job opportunities for Ph.D.-trained life scientists are disappearing at an alarming rate. Despite this, a majority of life sciences graduate training programs steadfastly refuse to adjust their curricula to allow their students to more successfully compete for nontraditional jobs. Although this trend is troubling, it is not surprising. This is because there are no incentives or inducements for tenured faculty members to change how they train their students and postdocs. Most are out of touch with the current job market, and many believe that workforce preparation and career development training are not in their bailiwicks. Put simply, their job is to train scientists, not employees!

Eliminating tenure and replacing it with performance-based, five-year renewable contracts may force some of these faculty members to experience the uncertainty and terror of unemployment that many new Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scientists face today. Unfortunately, the likelihood of tenure being eliminated anytime soon is extremely remote. Unless systemic changes are made to the way in which graduate students and postdoctoral scientists are trained, it is likely that American Ph.D. life scientists will continue to face the prospect of long-term unemployment for the foreseeable future.