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Thinking Laterally: Examining the Flexible Career Path in Life Sciences

This guest post is from the BiotechBlog Intern,  Fintan Burke. Fintan is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. Do you have a response to Fintan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

For many, the PhD is not what it once was.

A problem academic institutions and industries are now facing is addressing the “massification” of PhD graduates; too many people are earning qualifications for roles that do not exist. A report from the Danish think tank DRUID reporting on post-doctorate career behaviour from a research orientated college found that job security is uncertain at best. Those who stay in the realm of academic/public research have their training valued and are promoted internally, but suffer from having a narrower scope of training for what has become a market of fixed term, non permanent positions.

These frustrations are echoed in the US. A 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education article notes this behaviour is beginning to drive people away from seeking positions in science. The Nature article “Indentured Labour” paints a poor picture: tenure-track positions remained at a constant level in the twenty years it took for the number of doctoral degrees awarded to double. People receiving their first National Institute of Health (NIH) grants are now in their early forties compared to those in their mid-30s being awarded grants in the 1970s. In short, the traditional academic career path is bottlenecking at an increasingly fast pace.

Anne Forde of Cambridge University’s careers service initially started out as a researcher in German Cancer Research Center before making the move to journalism, writing and later editing the Science Careers magazine. She says students are becoming increasingly aware of the realities of the modern job market.

“The research councils in the UK estimates that maybe only 1 in 10 PhDs students will end up in a long term 10 year academic post, so it’s not a minority issue to look at careers outside academia. So there is a lot of interest in looking at a broader career options because there are very few people who could say that they would be guaranteed a long term independent post in academia. We’ve always had a service for PhD students but there is an increasingly high demand for information and for guidance about careers outside the classic academic careers.”

“They probably aren’t aware of how complex the career choices or trajectories are or how much it isn’t a guarantee. And there’s a lot of mixed messages; the government is saying we need more scientist PhDs and we need more engineers for the economy, but the reality for somebody who is a PhD graduate is that the job market is still challenging. Unemployment rates for PhDs are in these cases low, but that doesn’t mean people are getting exactly the jobs they want at the right time and I think most students have to put in the effort to get the type of career they want. It’s difficult to get the message across that it’s not quite that straightforward; it is an area that needs, I think, addressing.”

The lateral move in life sciences is certainly not new, but signs of its encouragement are growing. A recent UK government report highlighted the “valley of death” phenomena that can occur between academia and industry; new applications have a more staggered path towards reaching industry due to the lack of expertise available for bridging such applications to market.

Perhaps this is down to the simple fact the passions and attitudes of researchers may simply not compel them to take up a business role. Deciding on such a drastic career change, where an entire new skill and knowledge set is required – alongside extra time commitments – can appear daunting to even the most experienced researcher. Fortunately, organisations such as ecosvc.com exist which go towards educating scientists to properly engage in turning their patents into financially sound business proposals. Even traditional research funding bodies are offering assistance to new companies, such as the NIH’s Commercialisation Assistance Program and the dedicated Biomedical Catalyst Scheme.

This movement between science and industry is a two way street. John Boyle left his managerial position in the pharmaceutical industry for what he terms as the “satisfying chaos” of academic research. Unlike researchers moving to business, immersing himself in “diverse, cutting-edge research problems” had tremendous appeal. Moving back to research also revealed to him surprising inefficiencies – seeing that people were expected to self-organise for research groups was “frustrating”, though his experience in management helped when given the responsibility for handling multiple, constantly changing projects. He also admits, however, that enforcing business-like process to the accepted research routine was met with more inefficiency and often hostility.

Finally, numerous examples exist of those whose experience initially lay in the ivory towers of business and academia going into other, tertiary science careers. As Anne Forde explains, the move into these initially unconventional fields has lost the negative stigma at the postgraduate level. “Traditionally they put a lot of their own funding into training PhDs and post-docs to be good at academic research. I think faced with the reality of how the academic job market is the majority of lecturers I have met do realise that many of their PhD students will have to look outside academia. They’re, in many cases, supportive of that and they try and help facilitate their student’s career transitions and often they have peers in other professions themselves.” This is once again reflected at an institutional level, with fellowships at the American Association for the Advancement of Science encouraging scientists who choose to go into science policy and communication and communication internship programs at the National Cancer Institute, to name but two.

About the author:

Fintan Burke is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. His main fields of interest include biomedical therapies and recombinant organisms.  Fintan may be contacted at fintan.burke2@mail.dcu.ie .

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