Job market outlook: Hot careers for 2006

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Industry analysts and human resources specialists predict which subjects and sectors will provide the best opportunities for life scientists next year — and give advice on how best to gain employment in those areas.

What prospects does the year 2006 hold for life scientists entering the job market or seeking new jobs? We asked that question of industry analysts, human resources personnel, placement officers, and other observers of the employment scene. For the most part, they give an upbeat verdict. “The general outlook is as promising as it has ever been,” says Matt Gardner, president of the Bay Area Bioscience Center (BayBio).

However, Gardner and other authorities point out that the profile of life science has changed significantly in recent years. The encouraging prospects owe much to the biopharmaceutical industry’s need to push promising drug candidates into clinical trials, thereby refilling declining drug pipelines. Biotechnology firms, rather than giant pharmaceutical companies, have begun to generate many new drugs, and hence provide job opportunities for life scientists. On the other hand, support for research by the National Institutes of Health has leveled off after a period of spectacular annual increases, a phenomenon that affects both government and academic research. At the same time, countries outside the United States have begun to cultivate their own biopharma industries, many of them competing directly with American firms.

In light of those trends, life scientists seeking jobs must perform the seemingly self-contradictory tasks of thinking in interdisciplinary ways while gaining narrowly specialized competences. “Companies need scientists with a broad background in several disciplines, but they have a broad need for scientists with special skills as well,” says Chris Jock, vice president and general manager of scientific staffing firm Kelly Scientific Resources. Bill Lindstaedt, director of the Career Center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), explains what that means to would-be employees. “Clinical researchers, toxicologists, and pharmaceutical chemists seem to be pretty popular right now,” he says. “The basic molecular biologist seeking jobs on the discovery side might be facing more competition.” In short, this isn’t your old professor’s world of life science.

Academic shortfalls

An issue associated with academic training will have a clear impact on the prospects for life scientists’ employment in the coming year. “Universities are not kicking out the numbers of people necessary to support the life science industry,” Jock says. “Industry is trying to get universities and colleges to craft programs to meet their particular needs.” Those efforts seem destined to fail, at least for a while. “Academics can’t distinguish between education and workforce development,” says A. Stephen Dahms, executive director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB). “Academic faculty members do what they do best: train people for the bench. But they do not understand the skill sets that are absolutely critical for drug development.”

Another factor might have a negative impact on life scientists’ attitudes toward careers in their field, particularly in government and industry in the United States. Recalls of Cox-2 inhibitor drugs during the past year have raised questions about the credibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) regulation of new drugs and suspicions that pharmaceutical companies have been overly eager to put fresh remedies on the market.

On the one hand, the recalls and related incidents could increase the availability of jobs. “The opportunity is there to get it right next time,” points out John Hodgson, director of Critical I Limited, a British based firm that helps clients in commercial and academic life science to mobilize innovations. “It may impel companies to be more thorough in the early stages of their testing. That will attract young researchers.” Steve Burrill, CEO of Burrill & Company, a merchant bank that concentrates on life sciences, sees another side of the coin. “On the negative side,” he says, “concerns about drug safety will make the FDA more cautious and might start to dry up some of the venture capital for biopharmaceuticals.”

Issue for idealists

Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research at the National Institutes of Health, points to one possible effect of the drug industry’s problems on idealistic young life scientists. “There are people who want to conduct their research without having to worry about whether it will lead to a marketable product in the short term,” he explains. “The problems with the pharmaceutical industry may make government research labs more attractive as places in which to do highly innovative, high-impact research.” So far, however, little evidence has emerged of reduced enthusiasm for pharmaceutical careers. “I haven’t seen any decline in applicants because they don’t want to get involved with the industry,” says Eleanor Babco, executive director of the Commission of Professionals in Science and Technology.

Projected figures warrant optimism about careers in life science in the United States. The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that 252,987 individuals will work as life scientists in 2012, up from 213,994 in 2002. During that period, employment of life scientists will grow at a rate three times as fast as the average for all jobs.

Some demographic regions have continuing and spectacular success in creating new jobs. “In the Bay Area we create a company every 10 to 14 days, characterized by a high number of Ph.D.s,” Gardner says. Europe’s life science industry also looks ready to revive. “We have data to show some contraction in the European biotech sector in the last couple of years, largely due to underfunding and mergers and acquisitions,” Hodgson says. “But the investment is increasing again, partly owing to government moves around the Lisbon agenda [a goal of spending 3 percent of gross domestic product on R&D to which member countries of the European Union agreed in 2000]. This suggests that life science jobs are on the up and up. To get to the Lisbon target by 2010 will need job increases in 2006.”

International factors

Other international factors offer less encouragement for life scientists seeking jobs in Europe and North America. “There are significant opportunities in outsourcing to China and India, particularly in respect to drug discovery, early development, and the preclinical and clinical sectors,” Burrill says. “I see big growth there, but perhaps some decline in Europe and North America. It may not be economic to develop a drug today in the U.S. and Europe, where the market size is about equal to the cost of development. But it may be economic to develop the same drug in India or China.”

Overseas nations have also begun to create their own biotechnology industries. “On a global scale there are more biotechs outside the United States than in it,” Burrill continues. “The field is growing in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba, the Benelux countries, India, China, Malaysia, and Korea.”

The internationalization of life science manifests itself in commitment to one of the hottest fields in present-day research: stem cells. Although the U.S. government puts stringent restrictions on funding for research on embryonic stem cells, individual states such as California have set up institutes to perform that work and general stem cell studies. “And around the world we’ll see stimuli to get involved in stem cell work,” Burrill predicts. “Lots of countries have made that a priority. The Koreans, Chinese, Singaporeans, and Russians are giving a lot of support to stem cell research.”

Stem cells will remain largely the province of academic researchers next year. But industry also looks forward to change, particularly in drug discovery. “Big pharma has been fairly resilient, with pharmaceutical firms continuing to hire for drug development. That’s going to continue, but at a slower pace,” Babco forecasts. “Most of the new drugs will come through biopharmaceuticals — drugs produced through biotechnology. That will involve not just discovery but also further development and manufacture.”

Interdisciplinary training

As that comment indicates, many of the most promising opportunities in pharmaceuticals will involve the post-discovery phases of drug creation. “Because everybody’s concerned about the amount of time and money it takes to produce a drug and get it to market, there will probably be a growth of jobs involved with getting drugs into clinical trials and drug safety,” Babco says. “Qualifications in regulatory affairs, validation, and quality control will be helpful.”

Practically, that means that life scientists must obtain more interdisciplinary training than they have in the past. “It’s not enough to have a Doctorate in cell biology or molecular biology,” Babco asserts. “You’ll need very specific experience in several areas. You have to have a very strong background in cell structure and cell biology but also a multidisciplinary feel.”

UCSF’s Lindstaedt agrees. “Having more than one field of training is important for postdocs,” he says. “The Ph.D. is all about getting depth; the postdoc should add some breadth to that depth.” UCSF has a strategy for achieving that. “Next year our Office of Postdoctoral Education will roll out two cross-training programs to promote interdisciplinary research,” Lindstaedt says. “One will help basic scientists understand the molecular basis of disease and the other is an emerging techniques course that will give them an understanding of how to do a technique and to see what its applications are.”

The same attitude pervades noncommercial institutions. “We are specifically focusing on two areas of interdisciplinary science,” NIH’s Gottesman says. “One is translational medicine: lab-based science with translation to human experience. We’re looking for people interested in doing basic research and applying it to human problems. The other is combining biology with the physical sciences — physics, engineering, math, and computer sciences. People who have skills in those areas will have little trouble getting jobs in the future.”

The term “interdisciplinary” doesn’t refer only to understanding of different fields of science. “Scientists have to be prepared to work cross-functionally, with business development people, for example,” Lindstaedt says. Adds Jock of Kelly Scientific: “You need a good understanding of the product development cycle, the ability to work in a multifunctional arena, and you need to be able to articulate in a business setting. This will help to guarantee funding of your project.”

Hot fields and subfields

What disciplinary fields and subfields will offer the greatest potential for employment in 2006 and beyond? “Certainly at the molecular level, research on signal pathways and chemistry are important,” Jock says. “Scientists need a broader understanding of the interface between chemistry and biology. You also throw in a good, healthy dose of informatics and bioinformatics, which companies use to make go—no go decisions on projects. Most biologists understand informatics, but not at the level that industry needs; that will be part of their ongoing education and training.”

While the American supply of informatics specialists has increased in recent years, their transatlantic cousins can hardly cope with demand for their services. “If there’s one overarching area that’s a hot field in Europe, it’s probably bioinformatics — particularly calculating the level of trust one can have in information,” Critical I’s Hodgson says. “What the field needs are people with a strong biology background overlaid with an understanding of informatics who can make sure that the natural fuzziness of biology is defined. You also need them to develop ways of making data from different sources talk to each other.”

Burrill sees the development of what he calls “theranostic drugs” — remedies targeted at specific populations of patients — as a critical factor in the future employment of life scientists. That work will demand individuals trained in certain key subdisciplines. “In addition to stem cells, the pharmacogenomics and pharmacogenetics arena is expected to be hot,” Burrill says. “Therapeutically, areas like memory and obesity are going to be significant spends. Diseases of the underdeveloped world are increasingly important. Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are still significant killers and have meaningful funding. And technologies for drug delivery will be important.” Babco points to another subfield relevant to modern drug development. “We’ll continue to have plenty of action in anything to do with proteomics, such as protein kinases, the control switches for many cellular functions,” she says.

In Europe, meanwhile, hot job opportunities will depend partly on geographic location. “Some Danish companies have had to move to Switzerland because of a shortage of chemists in Denmark,” Hodgson says. “In France, there’s a lack of clinical trial specialists.”

Institutional imperatives

Geography represents just one demographic influence on future job prospects. Institutional factors also play a role. In some areas, such as government and academe, opportunities will grow slowly, if at all. Other sectors, such as small biotechnology firms, anticipate marked increases in their need for life scientists.

“At NIH, we’re facing a period of relatively flat budgets,” Gottesman says. “But we’re well aware that it’s incredibly important for us to recruit new people into biology. Our intent is to continue to recruit at historical levels — 30 to 35 tenure-track positions per year.” Recruitment should also benefit from attempts to counter the perceived “graying” of the staffs of individual institutes. “There’s a real effort going on to identify new leadership to replace those who are retiring,” Gottesman continues.

Universities seem unlikely institutions for expanded job opportunities in the near future. “I don’t see the job market for academics improving greatly next year,” UCSF’s Lindstaedt says. “Not only do the big state universities have flat support from NIH; they also have a problem getting funds for more tenure-track positions.” However, academic institutions should benefit from the burgeoning interest in research on stem cells. “We expect to see a significant increase in spend in the stem cells arena, mostly in the academic sector,” Burrill says.

The biopharmaceutical industry will also increase its spending as it moves new drug candidates into development and clinical trials. “The assumption is that the industry will grow at a 10 percent annual clip in Northern California for the next few years,” says BayBio’s Gardner. That growth will provide job opportunities in companies of all sizes. “Very large companies say they’ll never have enough research associates and enough manufacturing associates,” Gardner continues. “Small companies are far more specific in their needs. They want people in product development, for example, and offer very targeted research positions.”

Education or work force development

But do graduate life scientists have the skills they need to survive and thrive in the corporate world? CSUPERB’s Dahms thinks not. “Academics are contributing to the workforce, but many of the necessary skill sets come with foreign nationals,” he says. “People with those skill sets have good science backgrounds but are well involved in the multiple steps that represent the environment in companies, particularly small r, large D companies.”

As Dahms sees it, students can’t pick up those skills in the typical two-hour course in industry that many life science departments offer. Instead, he says, “they have to bridge past the constraints set by their advisers to look at the offerings of colleges of engineering and of business, which have a good mode of thinking to guide students in the right direction.”

Dahms, who a is board member of the Council of Biotechnology Centers, a section of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, recommends another way in which life science graduates can bridge the constraints. “Take high end professional Master’s degrees,” he suggests. “These two-year programs have courses in project management, negotiation, and other skills. In essence, the programs have 40 percent to 50 percent of the same content as business school courses.” Babco agrees. “You need people who can interface among all the different specializations, including those relevant to business as well as science,” she says. “Professional Master’s degrees can be useful for project directors.”

The programs focus narrowly on such areas as management of drug development, reimbursement affairs, and regulatory affairs. “These are areas so incredibly on target that they have zero unemployment,” Dahms says. His comments on the courses stem from firsthand knowledge. “I head a Center for Biodevice Development at San Diego State University with a professional Master’s degree,” he explains. He adds one caution: Because professional Master’s programs remain fairly rare, students must work hard to find them. “Some of them do not market themselves extensively,” he says, “as they would be overwhelmed.”

Certificate programs

At a slightly lower level, undergraduate departments and community colleges offer certificate programs in specific areas of expertise. “The programs fit a demographic defined by skills and skill sets,” Gardner explains. “Those programs are full of students with Bachelor’s degrees. Qualified chemists and life scientists have to go back to take short sources in good lab practice, for example.”

The availability of courses geared to the skills and mindset that industry needs raises the issue of how far life scientists need to take their academic training. “I think there’s increased need in the industry for some of the more pedestrian skills, which may be lower even than Bachelor’s degrees,” Burrill says. Gardner agrees. “As some companies in this arena reach the mature organization stage, the profiles of their new hires are changing,” he says. “Genentech, for example, is reversing the stratification of its workforce, from 70 percent Master’s degrees and above to 70 percent Bachelor’s degrees and below.”

Plainly, many of the workers in the biopharmaceutical vineyard have no need of higher qualifications. “You certainly need a lot of people who will work the scientific machines,” Hodgson points out. “Not all of those will need to be as research minded as the Ph.D. or postdoc. There’s a lot of scope for people coming in at an earlier level who look to combine a basic science grounding with experience in business or development work.” Scientists without Ph.D.s also have opportunities for work beyond the laboratory. “We’ll be able to use specialists to communicate with lawmakers, the press, and the public,” Babco says. “They’ll have to communicate the value of new drugs; they don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to do that.”

Jock foresees an increasing stratification in the scientific workforce that might reduce the value of Master’s degrees — apart from the new professional versions. “There’s going to be a need for Bachelor’s qualified individuals with solid science training, but you’ll also need the Ph.D.s,” he says. “You’ll see a bimodal distribution, with Bachelor’s graduates trained in specific fields such as RNA interference or signaling pathways and the Ph.D.s who can be project leaders and investigators.”

Collegiality and communications

Scientific qualifications represent just one aspect of job applicants’ appeal. Employers in academe, government, and industry uniformly look for evidence of job seekers’ communications skills and collegiality. “People-to-people skills like these are absolutely essential skill sets, within the company and for dealing with federal agencies,” Dahms declares.

The ability to collaborate has become particularly critical. “You need both collegiality and communications skills, because industrial life science is a team act,” Hodgson says. “Equally important is flexibility both in thinking and the ability to switch from one project area to another.”

Government work provides some scope for isolated individual initiative. “Because there’s a lot more team science, people must be able to work in teams. We also need leadership skills, as teams need leaders,” NIH’s Gottesman explains. “That doesn’t rule out the brilliant lone investigator, though. There will still be opportunities for them in government labs and universities.”

Industry has much less time for solo scientists. “Being able to work in large groups where your result is pretty much important to the overall mission goal is important. You have to be a link in the chain rather than carving yourself out as a separate island,” Jock says. “That was less evident 10 to 15 years ago, but it has changed as the global economy has developed. You might have to interact with colleagues across the U.S. and across continents.”

Job seeking scientists must recognize the reality of globalization. “If we set up a company now, we are global from the time we start,” Burrill says. “We can license from anywhere in the world. Our intellectual property is a global issue. Capital is very fluid. Disease knows no borders. And the need to be Internet- and global communications—savvy is a much, much higher priority today than it was a few years ago.” Native English speakers have one advantage here. “English is the language of science and the language of business,” Burrill continues. “Regardless of where you are in the world, it’s important to be fluent in English.”

Speaking up

Whatever their first language, industrial scientists must be prepared to speak up for themselves and their projects. “You have to have the sensitivity necessary to maximize receptiveness to your ideas,” Jock continues. “You have to be somewhat of a salesman.” Hodgson echoes that point. “Industrial research is about getting to the next decision point,” he says. “Any call might terminate a project or an entire R&D program. The ability to fight your own corner is important.”

Lindstaedt points out several ways to do that. “Learn negotiation skills — being able to bring a group to an agreement,” he advises. “Also develop your ability to delegate tasks, to select good candidates in hiring, and then to motivate them to follow up on projects.”

Scientists planning to seek jobs in 2006 should also devote themselves to due diligence on potential employers. “Preparing yourself for a discussion about a company’s work, an openness to its assignments, and an understanding of how a commercial company works are all important,” Gardner says. “You can find enough information in public filings to be very well versed in a company’s affairs — its market, its competition, and its prospects. There’s no excuse for ignorance.”

Applicants need also recognize how corporations deal with their resumes. “Because companies are increasing the number of electronic resumes they receive through the Internet, it’s going to be important for applicants to research employers for the keywords they’ll need to get past the resume software,” Babco warns. “Candidates will have to do more homework to make sure that the software doesn’t bounce out their resumes.”

Gardner offers one final piece of advice to job seekers. “You could never do enough practicing and preparing for your interviews,” he advises. The jobs will be out there next year, but you’ll have to pursue them with vigor and enthusiasm.

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