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Undergrad advice

Postby Luke » Sat Apr 01, 2006 5:35 pm

Hey everyone,

I found this forum a few days ago and have been reading through all the archives, and find it to be a great source of information. My question for you guys is very general and the answer will probably vary from person to person, but here goes.

I'm a junior undergraduate, and I've always planned on getting my PhD and working in drug development, either at a biotech or major drug company. However, after reading up a lot on the internet and talking to a few people, I have found that many people really regret getting their PhD and would do something else if they had a chance to do it again. The employment outlook, in particular, seems to be pretty bad - there are many more qualified PhDs than jobs available. I find the sheer number of people saying this somewhat discouraging, and am having major second thoughts.

However, at the same time, there is conflicting information. The "Jobs Rated Almanac", a well-known career guide, rated "Biologist" as their number one career out of 250. I continue to hear about how the "Biotech revolution" will continue to spur demand for new scientists for decades to come. So where's the truth? By reading stuff on the internet am I getting a skewed sample of testimonials from bitter biologists who are angry because they couldn't find their ideal job? Or is the media and career guides just flat wrong? Would you get your PhD if you had to do it again? If not, what would you do differently?

Thanks for helping an undergrad out.

Luke
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Undergrad advice

Postby D. John » Sat Apr 01, 2006 6:26 pm

Let me begin by saying, absolutely, positively, YES!! I wouldn't change anything at all. As a Ph.D. industrial scientist (R&D) who has run into many "walls" over the last 5 or 6 years, I am as qualified as virtually anyone else (in some cases, even more so)on this forum who has faced issues with biotech/pharma employment. Part of being a research scientist though is having the passion and desire to push through those "walls" and find a way to make it happen. If you want to really do science, and burn with a passion for science, nothing should keep you from pursuing it. I always say, if there is anything else in the world you would rather do, then do it....you just won't be successful in bench research if you're looking outside the window thinking about other places you'd rather be or other things you'd rather be doing. I think there are very few professions where success is tied so closely linked with passion...."fire in the belly". There are indeed jobs out there...many of which (some even my own company) go unfilled because people don't even apply; I think most unemployed people are too limited in their approach to finding a new job. When I;ve needed to find a new job, I pull out every single stop-----relentless, unmitigated no holds barred, knee-deep job search!!
My advice to you is to ask yourself one question....is this something I love to do? If the answer is "yes", then NEVER let anything or anyone hinder you.
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Undergrad advice

Postby Dave Jensen » Sat Apr 01, 2006 6:30 pm

Luke says, "The "Jobs Rated Almanac", a well-known career guide, rated "Biologist" as their number one career out of 250. I continue to hear about how the "Biotech revolution" will continue to spur demand for new scientists for decades to come. So where's the truth? By reading stuff on the internet am I getting a skewed sample of testimonials from bitter biologists who are angry because they couldn't find their ideal job? Or is the media and career guides just flat wrong? Would you get your PhD if you had to do it again? If not, what would you do differently?"

Great post, Luke, and I forecast that this will spin into quite a lengthy discussion. All of it, both positive responses and negative ones, will help you in your decision making process. So, in short, I'm glad you are here and that you asked this particular question.

Let me start by asking you this question. You've come across a lot of conflicting "evidence" in your search to find out if Biologist would be a good personal career choice. Do you think that there could be any situation in which ALL the advice you've read could be correct? In other words, a scenario where the future is very bright but the future is very dim all at the same time? Well, I believe you've hit on that particular parallel universe.

The Macro view is very positive, very optimistic. This is indeed the "Biotech Century" and the time is right for those who have a passion for biology to look at what it is that they can do with this passion in the entrepreneurial world of industrial biology. And even in academic biology, things are very exciting right now. So -- the big picture is quite beautiful, even though my personal belief is that the Jobs Rated Almanac is one of the most poorly researched career planning products on the market today. (In short, don't go anywhere near that book, as it is pure hype.)

But there is a "Micro" view of today's biology career, and tomorrow's prospects, that must be taken into consideration as well by any job seeker. That micro view is the current opinion, and experience, of hundreds or thousands of PhD's who have been very well trained in their individual disciplines and who have -- despite the best training and a lot of brainpower -- fallen into poor paying job choices that put them into what might be considered a "holding pattern." One of our frequent posters, Kelly, has coined the term "pipeliner" for this phenomenon. These angry and bitter voices are increasingly loud -- on a forum like this one, they can sometimes be seen to dominate the discussion. And I don't blame them for speaking up loudly and forcefully about their circumstances. After all, they've been promised that this is the time for them to thrive, and that biologist is the #1 job in the land, etc.

But the reality is that many of these people had no early intent, as you have, to go into the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry. They took up "interesting research" in an academic environment, with little or no thought given to what the employers would want to see in their CV at the end of the process. Most of them wanted to have a spot in an academic institution, perhaps replacing the "hundreds of aging professors who would be retiring in the 1990's and early 2000's . . . " (That was just another of the phony promises that we've made to scientists, leading to today's pipeline that is too-full of people who have been trained in "interesting" research topics that have no bearing on industrial R&D. To complicate matters, industry does very little retraining and prefers to hire only those who have the exact, pinpoint experience they need.)

How does this affect you? If you are truly interested and passionate about working for a biotechnology company or pharma concern, probably not much at all. You simply need to pick a topic of interest to industry, choose a lab that is "connected" to industry people, and start networking from your second year of graduate school. If you kept your science at a top-notch level, got a couple of publications and connections inside companies, you'd move right into your career without a hitch. Just don't get sidetracked by other plans -- such as taking an academic post, or staying in a postdoc for more than a couple or three years, etc.

Confusing? You bet. It's hard to imagine that there could be good careers out there, when there is all this gnashing of teeth and great concern on forums like this one. But I'll tell you one thing, you go to a meeting like the BIO meeting or any other big event, and there are tens of thousands of people there who are doing great and enjoying their success. While it may not be worthy of being job #1 in some guidebook, being a biologist in an industry environment can be a lot of fun -- and very rewarding. If you have the passion and interest, read as much as you can and talk to people on both sides of the fence of this issue. I'm sure you'll have no problem making a decision when a particular path seems to open in front of you.

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Undergrad advice

Postby P.C. » Sun Apr 02, 2006 8:19 am

I think Dave Jensen gave pretty good breakdown of what to do. I would emphasize getting into a program with strong industry ties, indentifying what your industry role would be early on in your training, and working on a project relevant to that industry role, which still may be very academically interesting.
Using hindsite I would comment that there are a lot of academic biochem and biology departments that are oblivious to needs of other that an academic tenure track career path. Unfortunately I believe it is predominant in the institutions, and hence you have so many bitter teeth knashers , like myself.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Postby Cory » Sun Apr 02, 2006 5:55 pm

There is one thing that I think should be emphasized from Dave Jensen's excellent response and that is that industry looks for pinpoint experience.

The problem, which has been discussed here, is that the exact needs of industry are fickle. Consider the recent history of hot areas like, combinatorial chemistry, molecular biology, bioinformatics. Current hot areas, might be *omics, process engineering. I can guarantee you that proteomics will not be hot five to ten years from now though it is very likely to have earned a stable place in the biotechnology industry. By the time it is stable, the hoardes of people that are trying to 'omicize' their research now will probably find it much more difficult to market themselves as the crest will have already fallen.

Anyway, my point is not to try and drive your education directly to one of these areas with the hope that it will still be viable when you exit grad school or your postdoc. Rather, you have to go for a macro view from the start of your graduate program and monitor the trends every couple of years. In addition, work very hard at trying to get a good feeling for what industry "team work" means. Graduate school and post docs don't offer any insight into this at all. Industry postdocs, though hard to find and often denigrated by academy, are good ways to get a firm understanding of what this means and how to operate in it.

Good luck, you're doing the right things and asking the right questions!

Regards,

Cory
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Undergrad advice

Postby Dave Jensen » Sun Apr 02, 2006 6:09 pm

Thanks Cory . . .Very good addition to the thread. I especially like your reminder of the fact that it is almost impossible to pick a "hot topic" and have it be hot when you get out of your graduate program. The best you can do is to make certain you are working in a lab that is "industry oriented," and then -- as Cory says -- keep track of what's hot, and what is not, on a regular basis.

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Undergrad advice

Postby Todd Graham » Sun Apr 02, 2006 6:55 pm

Excellent advice everyone. To tack on to what everyone else said, and to give you something to take home and do where you're at right now, is to actually try some research. You're at the one point in your life where doing something interesting isn't going to kill you. (On the flip side, you aren't going as deep into research as you would be in grad school.) Your best bet is to intern in industry. While there, you'll get a feel for what's going on, both on the bench and off it. You'll also get an idea of whether you like research or not. You'd be surprised how many people wait until they get into graduate school to start doing actual research, then find out they hate it. Finally, the networking contacts are worth their weight in gold, especially when it's time to hit the workplace.

Another tack, since it is late in the internship season, is to either work a summer in a lab or find out what research intership for credit programs they have in your school. Even though industry is the gold standard, you can still get a feel for what it's really like to be on the bench doing actual work instead of a canned project you see in lab classes. And this doesn't prevent you from talking to industry either. You just have to be willing to hit up the various forums that they may come across (though to be fair, if you aren't in a research university, those opportunities can be harder to come by). Either way, you'll get a feel for the real world of biology and whether you truly want to do it or not.
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Postby Luke » Sun Apr 02, 2006 6:58 pm

Thank you everyone for the excellent and thoughtful responses so far. I guess I have two follow up questions:

First, how to determine which schools/labs are well-connected to industry positions? The only attempt at ranking graduate programs that I am aware of is US News - and I know that their rankings are looked upon dubiously, at least in other fields. I'm sure that if I contact individual programs directly they are all going to tell me that they are well-connected. Should I aim for the traditional big names (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc)? I'm a good student with very good grades at UNC - Chapel Hill and I was accepted to some Ivies for undergrad, but I have heard that the top schools place the greatest emphasis on research experience for grad school. I am a double major and didn't decide for sure that I would go into biology until recently, and as a result I have only started doing research this semester (2nd semester Junior year). I aced the SAT in high school so I anticipate doing very well on the GRE, but I'm not confident that I would be accepted at one of the very top institutions when they compare my research experience to other undergrads who have been doing research since freshman year. If I want to work at Merck, Pfizer, or Genentech (for instance) do I need to focus on getting into a top five school - and what are the top schools?

Second, regarding the need to avoid "hot areas" that will be saturated in a few years. That is great advice, but how to actually follow it? Is there any way to "generalize" - or is this what a postdoc is for, to gain a variety of experiences? For instance, there is a program over at Duke that offers a degree in "Cancer Cell Biology". It seems to me that a degree like that will be in demand for some time to come - but I guess what really matters is whether anyone is hiring cancer cell biologists at the time when I am graduating. How do you determine where demand will be in 10 years? Are there some specialties that will always be in demand?

Finally, is anyone familiar with programs in Pharmaceutical Sciences? At UNC there is a PhD program in this field (through our pharmacy school), with sub-specialties in Molecular Pharmaceutics, Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products, Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy, and Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics. It sounds pretty similar to molecular biology, but maybe with a bit more emphasis on clinical drug development.

Again, thank you very much for the advice, and sorry for asking so many questions. I've talked with a few professors about these kind of questions, but I really appreciate being able to get an outside perspective.

Luke
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Postby Cory » Sun Apr 02, 2006 7:38 pm

Hi,

Responses to two of your questions.

One thing for sure is that if you are thinking about industry then is can be an advantage to go to a school in close proximity with lots of industry. Think, UCSF, UCSD, maybe Northwestern or UW at Madison (for midwest based Pharma), Duke, you get the idea. These locales will have lots of entrepeneurs that will have worked between academia and industry Thats probably the most important thing - this kind of co-location will give you a chance to build a network without so much concern for whether any particular institution has the strongest links to industry. Actaully, there are good reasons for keeping the line between academic work and industry work very clear while you are in grad school.

Name schools can open doors but my $0.02 is that the name is less important that who you work with and the quality of the work that you do.

Second, how to look at the macro view. One fine example is the transition from genome and molecular biology work to proteome and protein chemistry work. The irony is that protein biochemistry was regarded as a washed up field as genomics and molecular biology were exploding. Now, I expect that we are on the cusp of growing demand for protein chemists. This is a trend that comes right from biology DNA -> RNA -> Protein.


Keep an eye on nanotechnology over the next few years. Think about the headlines that you read about emerging technology and what underpins it. For example, with the growth in *omics and nanotechnolgy it strikes me that analytical chemistry is an underpinning requirement. Analytical chemistry is probably not nearly as sexy as proteomics is right now but I'm willing to bet that a well tranied analytical chemist with mass spec and protein chemistry experience will find very rewarding opportunities over the next 20 years unlike the late coming proteomicist. This is of course, is just a guess, but I think you probably see where I'm coming from.

Last, watch out for those sub-specialites unless they are absolutely core to your graduate program and have a long track record of success. I'd be thinking about sub-specialites when you are thinking about postdoc opportunities rather than grad school.

Regards,

Cory
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Postby Val » Sun Apr 02, 2006 8:23 pm

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