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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby Dave Jensen » Sun Feb 13, 2005 6:47 pm

There is talk again about "shortages" of scientists in the near future.

I'm wondering, do you think that we are headed towards a shortage of scientists in industries like biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc, or is this nonsense? In the past, these "shortage" comments have been brought up before, and they resulted in a lot of hoopla and dashed hopes. No, there didn't end up to be a true shortage at all, and it left a lot of people coming out of graduate school wondering where the jobs are.

Here's my view . . . There WILL be shortages of scientists in specific areas, but this is BECAUSE OF THE WAY THAT INDUSTRY HIRES, and it isn't caused by too few people coming out with advanced degrees.

Companies used to run ads that said "PhD Cell Biologist Needed". Now, they run ads that say "PhD Cell Biologist needed, 2-3 years experience with 200+ liter bioreactors and cell culture serum free media formulation background a must."

In other words, not only do we have the natural separation of dozens of life science niches, we have the ever-more-difficult requirements of industry to add to the screening process. This CREATES shortages! If we were to eliminate half of these fine details, companies could hire a good scientist who could LEARN those techniques, creating a far smoother transition from academia to industry, leading to far fewer shortages and a much more consistent scientific workforce.

What do you think?

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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby MPB » Sun Feb 13, 2005 9:38 pm


Shortage depends on your perspective. From the point of view of pharma/biotech companies (and their supporters in federal and state goverments), it's "obvious" that there is a shortage. These companies would like to hire skilled scientists and pay them as little as possible. [This is not some sort of anti-capitalist knock against them; this is what they should be doing.] The fact that they still have to pay well above the median US salary to recruit their scientists and technical support staff means that, from their perspective, there is a shortage of people trained to do these jobs.

From the point of view of younger academics, it's "obvious" that there is a glut. Most grad students and post docs, sooner or later, come to perform a pretty simple calculation: How many PhDs/post-docs does my department produce each year? How many tenure-track positions do they appoint? The former far outweighs the latter; thus, the glut. This is also supported by the figures that get tossed around to the effect that academic positions generate hundreds of resumes per spot.

I think the very fact that companies can advertise for such narrow criteria as you describe demonstrates that the isn't a true shortage. If there were, they would hire people with good scientific skills and train them to do use the specific instruments that they use. Even with these very narrowly defined skills, they must be receiving many resumes from people who have these skills or else they would not continue to run these ads.

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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby Kim » Sun Feb 13, 2005 11:01 pm

Shortage of nanotechnology scientists? How many jobs are there currently in nanotechnology? And how many companies are doing nanotechnology and looking to hire nanotechnolgists? How many do we really need? It is laughable to talk about the shortage of nanotechnologists.

A few years ago, the talk was the shortage of scientists in bioinformatics and genomics. Now companies are looking for job candidates with PhD in life science "AND" MS in computer science "WITH" industry experiences in designing and managing Oracle database. I have also seen job ad like: enzymologist PhD with industry experiences in extracting kinetic constants with mathematic models on "KINASE". While at the same time, another company is looking for a PhD enzymologist with industry experiences working on "PROTEASE".

I was told that there are usually more than 100 resumes for each position in a big biotech company. Of course, most of the resumes do not even fit the qualifications remotely. But at the end, there are usually still about 10 resumes that can fit the job. So the companies can afford to be really picky.

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"Relevant Experience" Required

Postby Harald » Mon Feb 14, 2005 4:00 am

On the one hand representatives of companies as well as politicians claim that there would be a shortage of scientists and engineers, on the other hand recent graduates have a hard time finding a job. This seems to be a contradiction, but there are reasons for this situation:

1) At university students learn about the basics of science, but they are not trained for a specific job. However, companies search for people who are trained for a specific job and have experience concerning their business. A recent graduate has not much experience, of course. Moreover, if a company uses a special kind of equipment or software, a new hire must have practical experience with exactly that.

2) The job market changes quickly, but a course of studies lasts several years. It's hard to predict wether a specialization is hot or not after graduation. When I graduated from university, computer scientists were in high demand and anyone who could switch on a PC could get a job as a programmer. When the new economy bubble burst, a lot of computer specialist got unemployed. When I graduated from high school, it was very difficult for life scientists to get a job in my country. Nowadays, genomics, bioinformatics and biotechnology are so high in demand that a specialization in this field is practically a job guarantee.
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"Relevant Experience" Required

Postby Kim » Mon Feb 14, 2005 4:29 am

Harald wrote:

"When I graduated from university, computer scientists were in high demand and anyone who could switch on a PC could get a job as a programmer... Nowadays, genomics, bioinformatics and biotechnology are so high in demand that a specialization in this field is practically a job guarantee."

If there is a real shortage, this is exactly what we should have observed in the job market, as Harald has correctly pointed out in the late 1990s for programmers. However, we have not seen the same phenomenon in the life science job market yet. The absence of the phenomenon put the shortage of life scientists in doubts.

By the way, the bubble of bioinformatics and genomics has busted at the same time as the dotcom burst. Many bioinformatics/genomics companies, like DoubleTwist, have not survived. Those that have survived, for exmaple, Celera and Incyte Genomics, have to diversify into other fields.
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"Relevant Experience" Required

Postby Kim » Mon Feb 14, 2005 8:02 am

I am very interested to hear what the biotech industry leaders and university officials have to say to solve their perceived problem of "shortage of scientists". They believe that they have a serious shortage problem. And they must desperately try to find a solution.

Are they suggesting more students? More students are not going to solve the problem, as Dave has pointed this out. If those who promote the idea of "shortage of scientists" cannot offer a solution, maybe there is no shortage after all.
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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby Lora » Mon Feb 14, 2005 8:49 am

My old director once ran a recruitment ad asking for a Ph.D. microbiologist who had worked with BSL-3 pathogens but also had a degree in architecture and experience designing HVAC systems, 10-15 years experience minimum. It had to be explained to him that experienced architects make much more money than life scientists. The poor HR girl who had to explain this to him was subsequently fired for "insubordination" because she suggested that perhaps in the future he may consider researching the applicant pool before demanding certain requirements.

By far the most common bizarre HR posting error I've seen is the requirement for 10 years of experience in a particular technology that has only existed for 5 years, has been on the market for less than one year, and is made by only one competitor of the hiring company. If your potential applicant pool consists of the twenty people in your competitor's R&D group and the five people that have quit/been fired from that group over the past few years, then I suppose HR will perceive that as a shortage.

Over the years I have become extremely cynical about these "shortages." Mostly because every time the workload doubles without a comparable salary raise, every time an artificial deadline is about to pass due to not enough staff on an enormous project, every time I'm asked to work weekends, it's never because of poor management skills in anticipating and planning projects: it's always a "shortage of qualified people."
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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby Kim » Mon Feb 14, 2005 9:09 am

I think over this a little bit more. I want to reconcile the difference in perceptions. Apparently both percetions are valid.

I think the statement that "there is a shortage of scientists" is very misleading and incorrect. There is not real shortage. Instead, the shorage is artificial. The accurate statement should be, for exmaple, "there is a shortage of PhD Cell Biologist with 2-3 years experience with 200+ liter bioreactors and cell culture serum free media formulation background".
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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby Doug » Mon Feb 14, 2005 9:44 am

Lora, that job description of a PhD microbiologist/architect sounds right out of Dilbert!
This sort of mismatch between job descriptions and actual skills happens in many (most? ALL?) lines of work. If you look at any job posting, it will ask for much more experience and many more skills than the bulk of the source pool could possibly have. In some cases, the hiring authority recognizes this; it's when this fact ISN'T recognized that problems might arise.
For instance, when the graphic arts was ramping up to a digitized format, every newspaper wanted graphic artists with 5+ year's experience with the graphics packages, AND they wanted these people to be able to make web pages, AND they wanted these amse people to do the copywriting for the ads! These are three very distinct job descriptions, yet the hiring people wanted it all.
Many supervisors have forgotten "jack of all trades, master of none" and now want "jack of all trades, master of all."
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Is there a shortage of scientists - or too many subspecialties?

Postby TF » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:31 am

Doug,

I agree totally. I have been looking at job/post-doc jobs for the last couple of months. Even the most entry level positions require lots of experience with like 5-6 specific skills. It SEEMS almost impossible that anyone would ever find a job.

But what is the reality of situation. Is it that companies post up the credentials for the ideal candidate, but more often than not have to settle for something less? Do companies use such elaborate job postings to scare away "morons" who might be intimidated by the requirements? The question I think boils down to what kind of people industry/biotech/etc is actually hiring in relation to layout of the job posting. Anyone have an idea? Does industry actually hire the "jack of all trades, expert in everything"? I almost find it hard to believe that there are nearly enough of these people to go around. I think it comes back to who you know and how good you can talk yourself up.
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