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Careers & graduate programs for B.S. & M.S. scientists: Getting the most from a degree

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By doing some homework ahead of time, it's possible to select a career-oriented Bachelor's or Master's degree. In fact, some of today's professional Master's programs aim specifically at giving students experience in research labs or companies. In this article, experts from academia, industry, and government give advice for training and grabbing the best position.

In a world of specialization, scientists can benefit from aiming at a specific expertise. Now more than ever, that targeting applies to Bachelor's and Master's programs. Scientists can find specialized degrees in many fields that open doors to exciting career paths. According to Ginger L. Gregory, head of human resources at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, "We have B.S.- and M.S.-level positions across all of the disease areas we research, especially for scientists working at the bench." She adds, "Within both biology and chemistry, we are employing scientists in many exciting positions." That access to jobs exists in many fields, as the following report reveals.

In terms of degrees, some of the experts interviewed here focus on the new family of professional Master's degrees. For example, Suzanne Ortega, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at the University of Washington, says, "First of all, I'd do homework on professional science Master's programs." According the professional science Master's website (, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation participated in launching such degrees at 45 institutions, and each program works with industry. "These programs are pretty exciting," Ortega says, "and they are closely linked to careers through internship experience and projects with corporate and government employers." She believes that this kind of experience makes a smooth transition from school to a job. "You've already done many of the things that employers expect," Ortega says. That specialization during a degree appeals to several of the experts interviewed for this article. For instance, Curtis Suttle, professor of earth and ocean sciences, microbiology and immunology, and botany, plus associate dean of science at The University of British Columbia, says, "Find an M.S. program that is really geared toward a profession."

Other scientists in academia also mentioned the value of hands-on experience. "All lab skills are very important," says Manickam Sugumaran, professor and chair of the Biology Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Just any laboratory experience, though, will not do. "People with skills in and knowledge of up-to-date techniques have an edge over other candidates," he says. Some industry experts confirm the value of experience when it comes to getting hired. Michelle Salas, senior staffing specialist at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, says, "A prospective employee really stands out with an internship related to industry."

Other skills also make a difference. "At the M.S. level," Sugumaran says, "you should have some leadership qualities or at least be able to work in a group." Working together, though, is not enough. "You should also be able to work independently and take a project to completion," he says.

Careful Selecting

Some in academia, however, do not see the Master's degree as growing. "In some ways," says Lon Kaufman, professor of biological sciences and vice provost for undergraduate affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, "the M.S. degree is dying. It takes a lot of academic input and there is not much payoff to an institution." For anyone set on a Master's program, though, Kaufman offers strong advice: "Find a very active one." In particular, he means finding a program with close ties to industry. He says, "Get in a program that integrates with local business and runs internships with organizations. Then, a student gets a practical degree."

The value of an M.S. degree, however, varies from place to place. "In Canada, there is more inherent value perceived in a Master's degree," says Suttle. "Here the Master's degree is a really valuable one in a student's career path in academic or industrial research. It provides an opportunity to move in many different directions."

Before really getting started in a Master's program, a student should spend some time deciding what kind of degree to pursue. Some degrees focus primarily on course work; the more traditional Master's includes research and a thesis; and the newer approach mentioned by Ortega—the professional Master's degree—aims at preparing students for more specific careers, such as bioinformatics, biotechnology, environmental geoscience, forensic chemistry, industrial mathematics, and many other options. "Your educational experience will be completely different depending on which approach you select," says Ortega. "I don't have a huge preference for one over the other," she says, "but people need to be clear about where their greatest interests are and find a program that's a good fit."

Also, Ortega suggests that potential students check out some statistics of a program before entering it. "What proportion of the students who start complete the program with a degree in hand?" She asks. "How long does it usually take to complete the degree?" Those figures give prospective students some feel for how a program works. Also, a student should want to know how well graduates do. Ortega says, "Make sure that you know what proportion of the graduates have jobs within three to six months of completing the program." Then she adds, "If the people running the program can't tell you that, then they're not doing their job."

Industrial Opportunities

At Millennium, B.S.- and M.S.-level scientists can earn positions across all areas. Salas says, "We especially hire these types of scientists in R&D." This includes scientists working in analytical development, biology, formulations, medicinal chemistry, and so on. In some cases, a scientist with a Bachelor's or Master's can even advance to a doctoral-level position at Millennium. "It will depend on each person," says Salas, "but over the years—if they put in their equivalent of industry experience—they can get in those positions." She adds, "Our scientists like the lack of a glass ceiling here."

Other companies also use B.S.- and M.S.-level scientists in a wide range of areas. For example, Matt Krause, director of human resources at CV Therapeutics, says, "Our research programs include multiple, cutting-edge cardiovascular product candidates in various stages of clinical trials and preclinical programs, all of which rely heavily on the contributions from our many B.S.- and M.S.-level scientists." He adds, "We have professionals who hold B.S. and M.S. degrees throughout the entire company—from basic science to business development and sales." Currently, CV Therapeutics really wants scientists who have experience with small molecules, especially if it includes expertise with models of cardiology. Krause says that those people "often stand out as individuals who can jump right in and do the work." CV Therapeutics also offers opportunities for Bachelor's and Master's scientists to advance. Krause says, "We have had people go from the bench into sales, and some who have gone from the bench to project management."

At some companies, getting hired depends on showing experience and skill in teamwork. "We are looking to hire the best of the best," says Gregory of Novartis, "and we want scientists who have worked on projects in team environments." She adds that it helps to have come from a lab with strong scientists doing cutting-edge research. "That is very attractive to us," she says. Once a scientist gets hired at Novartis, the company even offers a career ladder dedicated to scientists with a B.S. or M.S., which is called the technical career ladder. Gregory says, "You can advance if you perform well, and we support movement up the ladder with training and mentoring."

Even with the right training and experience, a prospective employee must perform well during a job interview. To do that, Salas says, "Showing experience is important, but interpersonal skills are almost as important. So be prepared to talk about experiences with collaborations or team situations." She adds, "Give examples of your decision-making abilities and show how you can juggle priorities."

Pursuing Public Health

Scientists can also choose a career in public service. In particular, public health offers lots of opportunities. At the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Denise Koo, director of the career development division in the office of work force and career development, says, "We definitely can employ people at the M.S. level in biology, chemistry, informatics, and computer science." She adds, "We have fewer opportunities at the B.S. level, but you can get in at the entry level in a range of positions, including bench research and informatics."

Public health jobs also exist at state and local levels. For example, state and local health departments hire many scientists with a Master's degree in epidemiology. And for those with a Master's degree in a laboratory science, Koo says, "State and local public health labs need staff for diagnostics." She adds that public health laboratories serve as a resource for clinical labs or hospitals. "These cutting-edge operations do specialized testing, especially for diseases of public health importance," Koo says.

Scientists at the CDC also do lots of testing and research. Koo says, "We use molecular techniques quite a bit." For example, scientists at the CDC use molecular techniques to genotype strains of disease. "There is so much Salmonella in this country," says Koo. "If two people with Salmonella have the same, rare molecular fingerprint, you might wonder if something out there is causing problems."

Anyone considering a career in public health, though, should focus on the word public. "We have a responsibility to the public," says Koo, "and the importance and the excitement of this work more than balances out what can be less competitive salaries." Public health scientists often aspire to socially relevant work, such as identifying the cause of an outbreak or developing a new diagnostic tool for monitoring the health of the population. Koo started in college as a biochemist and spent several summers working in a lab. Then she decided to pursue epidemiology and an M.D. "I wanted to see things from a public health perspective," she says.

Although Koo earned an advanced degree, it is possible to move up in the ranks at the CDC without one. "Often," she says, "the folks in charge are at the Ph.D.-level, but M.S.-level folks can get to a pretty high level, especially in the management side of the house." Making that sort of climb, though, requires good people skills and management skills. Koo adds, "With the right skill set, someone with a B.S. can go somewhat far too, but for senior leadeship positions more often at least an M.S. is required."

As in industry, part of the right skill set for success in government involves being a good team player. "Public health is so multidisciplinary," says Koo. "We need people who strongly value the contributions of others." To prosper in such an environment, a scientist must recognize that science alone does not influence policy, such as availability of a vaccine. "Scientific methods and results must be extremely rigorous and clearly communicated," says Koo, "and it is especially important when the health of a community is at stake."

In some ways, considering a career in public health might require a new perspective for some scientists. "Some folks think of science as only about research," says Koo. "My point is that science research just for research's sake is not really enough." She knows that science can also contribute to social well-being. "We do exciting, real life science that impacts the health of the people," she says. "This is particularly important in the setting of outbreaks and other public health emergencies, where we might work round the clock to determine the cause." In addition, Koo believes that her colleagues see the value in their work. "We all love what we do and consider it a privilege to provide service to the public and their health needs," she says.

More Than a Degree

Lots of scientists come to companies and the government with degrees from prestigious schools. The question is: How can a prospective employee look the best? That can come from not just the degree but what a student did while earning it. For example, Ortega of the University of Washington says, "The more experience you get in managing people—working in teams and building teams—the more desirable you will be to industry."

Just having the diploma—no matter where it's from—is not enough to look like the best candidate for most jobs. At The University of British Columbia, Suttle says, "I always stress getting a paper published or presenting results at a meeting. It shows that you can reach a professional level in your research, be organized, and carry work through to the end."

Others in academia also see the value of publishing your work. "When you go for an interview," says Sugumaran of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, "people look for publications in prominent journals, and that speaks for itself." He adds, "I expect my Master's students to publish." To Sugumaran, publishing is not just a good idea; instead, he sees it as crucial. "Until your work is published in a peer reviewed journal, it is almost like it has not been done," he says.

Top Degrees

To get the benefit of the experts' experience, some of them were asked what degree they would pursue today. Kaufman of the University of Illinois at Chicago sees a couple ways that he might go if he was looking at an M.S. program today. He says that he would consider several fields: biotechnology, chemistry, chemical engineering, or microbiology. "These degrees would prepare you for jobs that are pretty well available in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies," he says.

To Kaufman, though, the key is learning about technology. He mentions that biotechnology could be applied to forensics and that electronics and computer science can be used in many fields. "The message is technology," Kaufman says. "That is where you want to go, because equipment is the answer in the future."

Thinking about a chance to do it all over, Sugumaran says, "I would pursue biotechnology, mainly because I love it." He started his career as an organic chemistry major, and then he switched to biochemistry. He says, "Genomic and proteomic work makes tremendous opportunities for people to advance themselves in biotechnology or any kind of biomedical science." He adds, "The field is wide open."

Others see integration as more interesting than equipment. Ortega says, "I'm a social scientist and given a chance to do it all again, I'd still be a social scientist." Going back though, she would take a closer look at the business side. She says, "I'd really want to know a lot about the labor force, employment, recruiting, and professional development for employees."

Some of the most exciting opportunities, according to Suttle, lie at the interfaces of technologies. He points out opportunities where biology meets computer science or statistics. "These combinations of knowledge," he says, "let you deal with bioinformatics or biocomputing—very exciting areas." He adds that people with these skills can be very difficult to find.

Suttle also sees other areas that could be valuable for investigating these days. "A B.S. or M.S. that is very hot," he says, "is in mineral exploration. There is an expected shortage of thousands of people in this area over the next decade." Suttle says that even with just a B.S. in geosciences, he sees students "get snatched up immediately."

Speaking of the B.S., Suttle adds, "People don't think there are lots of opportunities with a B.S. alone, but there are." The number of opportunities, though, depend on experience. At The University of British Columbia, Bachelor's students can participate in cooperative programs in which they spend an extra year earning a B.S. because they do work terms in industry. "We have several hundred students in this program," Suttle says. "It has been incredibly successful in microbiology, computer science, physics, and really most of our scientific disciplines." These students work in industry around the world as well as gaining hands-on experience in university research labs. "I'd advise people to look very seriously at such programs," he says. "These opportunities let a student get a degree and perform some work in that field—all at the same time."

In preparing for this interview, Suttle looked over the data for employment of students from his university. For students who earned a Bachelor's degree, many about 55 percent in the life sciences and around 90 percent in computer science—were working in jobs related to that field

Just Be Sure

For anyone who wants to go to academics, get a doctoral degree. "You would be terminally frustrated with an M.S. and trying to work in an academic setting," says Kaufman. He also adds that students should not get an M.S. as a test run toward getting a Ph.D. "You can't ride a bike to learn to drive a car," he says, "and an M.S. and Ph.D. are just as different." Instead select a B.S. or M.S. as the final degree only if it can take you where you want to go.

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