Training and Transitions


Credit: Minerva Studio/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM


There's not a lot of similarity between the world of the academic scientist and that of his or her industry counterpart, yet their training develops along similar--often identical--paths. First there is the undergraduate degree, followed by graduate school. After that, there may be a postdoc, which offers the often-final chance to choose between a career in academia or industry. Finally, there's the job market.

And yet, some people know they want to do industry research from the moment they start their education. Regardless of whether their degree of choice is a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate, the traditional academic path doesn't give them the specific skills that industry hiring managers are looking for. The "hands-on" technical skills prized by industry as well as the equally essential "soft" interpersonal skills are rarely taught in traditional science-training programs. That leaves industry-bound science trainees in a difficult position. How can they find out what skills they need? Where can they acquire those skills if they can't get them from years of formal education?

Fortunately, they have options. Today, scientists targeting industry can choose from a variety of specialized training courses, which can make a big difference in their "marketability" for jobs at biotechnology, pharmaceutical, medical device, and other firms offering scientific employment opportunities.

Training Designed for the Needs of Industry

"It is very hard to determine what it is that industry wants," complained one recent graduate of a Ph.D. program in the life sciences. "Very little of my education has any bearing on what I see in the ads from employers, and there is no campus recruiting at my school. When I visited the career center, I found it focused primarily on the undergraduates. They counseled me about my interviewing style and the way I should approach companies, but not much about the technical skill areas that corporations would be looking for."

Part of the problem is that few in academia have themselves mastered the skills that scientists working in industry need. Another part is that it can be hard to figure out precisely what skills are required.

Some regional biotechnology industry organizations, including some in San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston, have spent a lot of time and resources trying to answer these questions: What skills do employers need, and how can young scientists acquire them? The Massachusetts Biotech Council is one regional association that's working to develop training courses for industry jobs.

According to Cora-Beth Abel, vice president of the workforce group at the Mass Biotech Council, dubbed MassBioEd, just figuring out those skill requirements can be quite a chore. "We take a survey of our employers and then base decisions about workforce and education programs on what we've learned from that exercise," says Abel. The Biotech Learning Center, which Abel directs, then develops skills training based on identified member needs.

"For example, we've traditionally seen a demand for people with clinical experience, so we developed training and outreach to bring more prospects into jobs such as CRAs [Clinical Research Associates]. Our hands-on course entitled 'An Overview of Clinical Research' is one we've been offering for 10 years, designed and taught by industry experts. It provides an in-depth look for anyone who's interested in how new drugs get developed in a biotech company," says Abel. "Project management experience is another critical shortage. Biotech employers tell us that their people need this knowledge of how science and business fit together." For more information on MassBioEd's programs in clinical research, project management, and other areas such as biomanufacturing, see their Web site.

Mark Cafferty, director of workforce development at the San Diego-based regional trade organization BIOCOM, points to the University of California-San Diego's extension classes as examples of coursework geared to making the transition to industry smoother. "There's a great course entitled "Transition to Biotech: Everything They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School," says Cafferty. "The course is entirely industry-taught, and it has really opened a lot of doors for postdocs, graduate students, and even recent hires in companies."

Cafferty, who recently joined BIOCOM from another workforce development organization, also points to the UC Berkeley Extension, which offers courses covering bioinformatics, drug discovery and development, regulatory affairs, biotech manufacturing, quality assurance, and quality control. The University of California, San Diego, Extension also has a list of available bioscience courses.

Is the Coursework Built Into Degree Programs Enough?

The field of chemistry has always had a close association with industry employment. Joel Shulman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cincinnati wrote an article for Next Wave about the course "Teaching Doctoral Students About Industrial Careers." The article describes a course offered to students in or after their third year of the doctoral program, taught by an adjunct professor with 31 years of industrial experience. Another Next Wave article, from Tooling Up, describes Earl Wagener's industry course at Clemson. Both of these courses offered at the university level offer a glimpse into the real world of the industry chemist, complete with mock interviews and team exercises.

But despite a smattering of specialized coursework, company and university officials admit that the traditional science degree isn't focused on the skills that employers really look for. A. Stephen Dahms, director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, says that much of this is due to the gulf between industry expectations and what university faculty feel is important.

"A large number of elite universities do not direct sufficient attention to wet-bench laboratory experiences for a variety of reasons, including expense of time and equipment and the overall difficulty of convincing senior faculty to participate in laboratory instruction," says Dahms. "This results in undergraduates, especially biology majors, whose laboratory skills are woefully underdeveloped." But although there's a serious problem, there is also a solution. The inadequacy of wet-lab training has, he notes, led "a number of prescient community colleges" to conduct "a 'baccalaureate retread' business, allowing undertrained students to become competitive with students from more industry-responsive higher educational institutions."

The Community College Role in Specialized Training

In California, between 70% and 100% of the people who participate in the state's combined biotechnology courses or programs have already earned a bachelor's, master's, Ph.D., M.D., or veterinary degree.

"An informal poll indicates that most of them enrolled because they knew the courses were available, close, inexpensive, offered for working adults, and because they were unable to obtain a job without the hands-on skills that California employers need," says Mary Pat Huxley, who directs the state's community college programs.

Wendie Johnston runs the Biological Technologies Program at Pasadena City College, a well-recognized program that helps science graduates make the transition to industry. "The easiest way to transition a trainee to the biotech workplace is to train that person in a simulated environment, with all the rules and responsibilities that regulate work-site activities," says Johnston. "Biotech lab skills can be taught in a simulated industry environment with standard industry equipment and the usual rules and regulations. Staff meetings can replace lectures, and lab skills are taught in the context of production runs, applying a spectrum of industry competencies, including GLP [Good Laboratory Practices] or GMP [Good Manufacturing Practices] and compliance with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards."

In this course, which was developed by the Los Angeles/Orange County Biotech Center and implemented at Pasadena City College, the instructor becomes the lab director and the students become employees producing the intellectual property of the "company." Lab notebooks are maintained to industrial standards, and all work is done in the lab facility and documented on the day it is done.

"This type of training is not the usual format of most science courses, which are heavy on lecture and theory and that use traditional testing modes," says Johnston.

The Softer Side of Employment Skills

"You need to build a base of employment skills such as attitude and communication, creative and critical thinking skills, as well as adaptability and teamwork," says Celeste Carter, director of the Biotechnology Program at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. "These employment skills needs to be in place before you add on the technical abilities required by the biotechnology industry."

In 2002, MassBioEd took 300 interested job seekers with no biotech company experience and gave them special testing, knowing that a number of company internship positions were available to those who passed with flying colors. These 300 represented all degree levels and all ages between 28 and 55. According to Abel, the results were encouraging and surprising.

"We began with a demonstration of gowning up, and we lost a number of people who were not comfortable with this standard dress inside a regulated environment. Then the candidates were tested for 10th-grade skills in English and eighth-grade skills in math, which are the minimum requirements for understanding and following an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure]," says Abel. She went on to describe how the top 20 job seekers were selected after 80 had made the cut to this point.

"Here's where it got very illuminating," Abel says. "The correlation for the employers' top 20 list was amazing. Each of the companies chose the people they would rank as the best of this group, and each of these lists came back with the same 20 people identified. The finalists included a broad range of degreed individuals, but it was clear that they weren't selecting for technical skills."

The program managers expressed surprise that biotech companies appeared to have screened résumés and applicants' much "softer" skills. Abel remarks, "They were judging these people based on experience that reflected what they considered to be integrity, accountability, and teamwork skills--and not specialized biotech technical training. It certainly opened some eyes around here."

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