June 2010

Nontraditional Career Options for Life Scientists


There is a growing realization among many American life sciences graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that a job as a tenure track assistant professor or research scientist at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company may no longer be a viable option. This trend largely has been driven by cuts in research funding, fewer tenure track positions and the outsourcing of research and development jobs to Asia, Eastern Europe and South America by a growing number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Because most graduate programs continue to emphasize, and almost exclusively focus on, training for traditional academic and industrial research careers, newly minted doctorates and postdocs are finding it nearly impossible to find jobs. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, many doctoral-trained American life scientists now are facing the prospect of long-term unemployment. Thus, many graduate students and postdocs are beginning to explore, on their own, nontraditional career opportunities to find gainful employment in the life sciences.

Some of the more traditional alternate career options include medical, dental or nursing school and other medically related fields; law school (mostly related to patent and intellectual property law); business school or management consulting. While most of these options are a good fit for doctoral-trained life scientists, they typically require additional schooling and training and may be out of reach for those who cannot afford to wait any longer to find a job to support themselves and their families. With this in mind, I list below some lesser-known alternate career options that may represent viable choices for many doctoral-trained life scientists. Also, I indicate which of the choices may require additional training or related work experience:

• Technical writing (science or medical)
• Business analysis (for venture capitalists or banking firms)
• Biotechnology sales
• Health informatics
• Medical communications and conference planning
• Competitive industrial intelligence
• U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigator/reviewer/inspector opportunities
• Nontraditional government jobs in the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
• Quality control and assurance (may require additional training)
• Regulatory affairs (may require more training)
• Pharmaceutical/biotechnology marketing (may require sales experience)
• Business development (may require sales or previous business experience)

It is important to note that, while the above career options may be suitable for many doctoral scientists, the requirements for success in some may not be readily apparent. For example, over the past five years or more, there has been a sharp rise in the demand for medical writers with advanced science degrees. However, while most doctoral-trained life scientists have the scientific credentials to become medical writers, the caveat is that you have to love to write! Typical medical writers spend 40 or more hours a week writing. So, if you don’t like to write, medical or science writing may not be the right career option for you.

Another related field that warrants mention is medical communications. Medical communication professionals spend most of their working hours talking to, and interacting with, people. In other words, you have to be a “people person” if you want to excel in this career. Consequently, if you are not very social or overly communicative, then medical communications may not be right for you. The point I am trying to make is that before you decide on a particular career path, it is important to determine whether or not you possess the appropriate traits, behaviors and skills to master the choice.

One new and rapidly growing field is healthcare informatics technology (HIT). The exponential growth of the HIT field mainly has been driven by the Obama administration’s push to digitize all American medical and healthcare records over the next five years. Doctoral-trained life scientists with a background in bioinformatics, genomics and database management are ideal candidates for HIT jobs. Because many industry analysts already are predicting future personnel shortages for many HIT jobs, many community colleges and four-year institutions even have developed certificate and masters’ degree HIT programs.

Other life sciences disciplines that are experiencing greater-than-normal demand include regulatory affairs and quality control and assurance. However, it is important to point out that both of these career options require specialized training and, likely, some hands-on work experience. A good way to enter the regulatory affairs and quality control fields with minimal additional formal training is to land an internship at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company or at the FDA. More and more companies and government agencies are beginning to offer internship opportunities to qualified individuals. Unfortunately, many of these internships are not well publicized or widely advertised. Consequently, you will have to do a little work to find them!

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In conclusion, there is no question that traditional job opportunities for doctoral-trained life scientists are fewer in number and that they continue to disappear at alarming rates. Despite this troubling trend, most life sciences graduate programs steadfastly refuse to change or adjust their training programs to enable their graduates and postdoctoral fellows to compete for non-traditional life sciences job opportunities. Unless systemic changes are implemented at the graduate training level, it is likely that doctoral life scientists who receive traditional training will continue to face long-term unemployment well into the 21st century.

Clifford S. Mintz (cliff@biocrowd.com) is a freelance writer, blogger and speaker at career fairs and professional meetings.

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