Life science Ph.D.s as industrial strength technicians?

"Why won't biotech companies hire people with Ph.D.s to be technicians?"

"I already have a Ph.D., how do I find a job?"

These were some of the questions that commenters left after my earlier posts (here, here and here) on biotechnology workforce shortages.

Unfortunately, for these students and post-docs, the shortfall of employees in the biotech industry is largely a shortfall of technicians. It is a sad thing that promoting science careers can have the unintended consequence of creating a surplus of unhappy post-docs and even more unhappy graduate students. Perversely, many of the efforts to expand and improve science education often don't reach the students who'd be happy to be technicians. Both groups get misled by the incorrect notion that science jobs require a Ph.D.

I'll tackle the job searching question in a later post, for now, let's focus on why it is that having a Ph.D. could make job searching harder.

My own experience
This wasn't for a technician job, but a few years ago, I was in the position of hiring someone to help me on an education project. I interviewed four people and had some of them present seminars to our company to tell us about their work and why they were interested in working for us. Surprisingly, only one person had read anything about my project and really wanted to work on it. It was pretty clear from talking to the other people who applied that they viewed this position as a foot in the door and really wanted to do something else. One guy was even obnoxious about it and acted like the job was totally beneath him and I wasn't doing the right kinds of things anyway!

I was stunned after that interview and truly mystified about why anyone would expect me to hire them to do a job that they didn't want!

I remember that experience and I think this is part of the problem that people with Ph.D.s have with finding technician jobs in industry. Attitude matters. No one wants to hire you to do a job that you don't want.

That doesn't mean that you can't get hired, but it does mean that you must do your homework and learn something about what the jobs entail before you waste your time and energy getting rejected for jobs that aren't a good match and you don't want to do anyway. (How do you do that? That's another post.)

Voices from industry
I spent many years helping students find jobs and I just returned from a meeting (Educating Biotechnicians for Future Industry Needs - sponsored by National Science Foundation and American Association of Community Colleges) where we heard many people from the biotech industry discuss job skills and qualities that they would like to see. I'm drawing on those comments in this section. Lora, commenter number 4, described the situation best, but I'm also going to take a shot at it. I do not mean to offend and I am not trying to insult anyone, because I know you, my readers, would never match these types of descriptions, but these are the sorts of things that I've heard industry representatives say:

Why do we like community college graduates?

  • "low turnover rate"
  • "able to follow protocols as written, multiple times"
  • "good attitude"
  • "good work ethic"
  • "salary is often commensurate with education, i.e. we can pay them less"
  • "good hands-on skills"

Why don't we like to hire PhD's for technician positions in industry?

  • "have a higher turnover rate" (in other words, it costs too much)
  • "expect a higher salary" (Pay scales are often tied to education level, it's just not that easy to pay someone less than their education level demands and with a Ph.D., you'd start at the top of the pay scale for that job.)
  • "they get bored too quickly"
  • "not able to follow protocols repeatedly" (see above)
  • "some fail to understand that work involves an 8 hour day"
  • "some have an entitlement attitude"(I certainly encountered that when I was interviewing people)

These are some of the reasons that I've heard. Criticisms like attitude and work ethic feel rather personal and insulting when you know those people have never met you! Perhaps those generalizations are a bit unfair. As far as turn-over rates and job satisfaction, some companies have collected and studied the data and make hiring decisions on the basis of those data. Genentech is famous for this. If the people in industry think you'd be bored making buffers or culturing cells 8 hours a day, even if they don't know you could do this in your sleep (maybe that's what they're afraid of), they've got data on their side to show that you probably won't want to do this for very long.

On the other hand, I also know a few people who have Ph.D.s or other advanced degrees who work as technicians, staff scientists, or lab managers in academic labs. Those kinds of jobs are a lot like being a post doc but with better pay and better benefits. I also know people with Ph.D.s who manage core laboratories. They don't always get the respect they should, but they do get to collaborate on lots of different kinds of projects and take weekends off.

Perhaps, it boils down to this. There are valid reasons why companies don't generally hire Ph.D.s for technician jobs. Companies want to hire people for jobs if those people view the jobs as something less than an optimal position. They want to hire people who will be happy in the positions that they have to offer. It's not going to be a good match unless they find people who want those jobs and plan to stay.


More like this

"some fail to understand that work involves an 8 hour day"

Yikes! Most "mainstream" jobs for Ph.D.s involve more than an 8-hour day! Academic schedules might be more flexible with regard to ETA and ETD, but how many postdocs or assistant profs regularly work less than 8 hours a day?

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 29 May 2008 #permalink

The "8 hour work day" criticism is astounding, and no doubt comes from upper management types who work banking hours for a living ... and have at most a Masters degree. As a graduate student, I worked 80 hour work weeks on a regular basis, all the while getting paid less annually than the technicians who worked 40 hour work weeks. To this day, even though I have a full-time job as a researcher, I work over the 40 hours I'm expected to. Yes, I don't understand an "8 hour work day" ... for me it's typically 10 or more, and weekends!

Well, if you take 8 hours and you start subtracting time for lunch, an hour for coffee, an hour for attending a seminar, the time for chatting with people, and an hour for reading papers...

People who are straight out of graduate school don't always understand that's what's left is something less than 8.

I remember lots of graduate students who spent many hours "in the lab" but not really working.

Anyway, I'm just conveying what I heard.

I don't doubt that this is what you've heard. I just think it's patent nonsense. Everyone takes time off for lunch, which is why where I work ... if you have a half hour lunch, you're at work for 8.5 hours (you don't get paid for lunch). As for seminars and reading papers ... if that is what your work demands of you, that's what you get paid for. I give my technician (who has a M.S. degree) tasks which involve him reading current literature from time to time. I consider that work (I personally don't read the current literature on microbial diversity purely because I find it fun, I do it primarily because it's part of my job) and as such I certainly wouldn't dock him for it. YMMV.

Let's translate "why we like cc techs and not Ph.D's" to simple English: PhD's are less abusable.

That's generally true, and generally in the interest of the managers. Someone with an associates degree can be paid less, will expect to do the minimum required at any set of given hours with no flexibility (work 8 hour days), will not expect to be spoken to as an equal (entitlement), and will not question orders as given (follow protocols repeatedly). It makes sense, in terms of management. It may not give the best productivity, but it sure does make it easy to manage someone with limited options, which is often more important than having productive employees (and is a hell of a lot more fun).

But let's not take people's words at face value --- that would be unnecessarily naive, no?

If you get a PhD and want a good private sector job, throw in an extra two years and get your MBA as well. If you would have had sense, you would have skipped the PhD and just gotten the MBA in the first place.

This is an incredibly depressing post.
I like benchwork.
I've also been told I'm not independent enough to be a good scientist in the fashion that most positions which require a PhD involve.
I've also been told I'd make a lousy tech. I think they were referring to attitude, though more of a problem with authority than with entitlement per se.
Now I find out that even if I would have made a good tech, there's a fair chance people will assume all kinds of not-so-great things about me and not give me the chance. What is a failed academic to do?*

*Please note, this is a serious question, but answers involving MBA degrees will not be considered.

I don't the situation is hopeless, but I've been writing about technician positions in industry - like in process work, manufacturing, drug development, screening, etc.

There are other types of jobs.

I will write about other options in later posts.

Joek "If you get a PhD and want a good private sector job, throw in an extra two years and get your MBA as well. If you would have had sense, you would have skipped the PhD and just gotten the MBA in the first place."

I would not advise skipping the PhD, because it is still highly respected in industry. It is especially powerful when combined with an MBA, even seductive. It also gives you more job flexibility. But we are not talking about technician jobs here - getting an MBA is not filling the technician pipeline. Neither should be getting a PhD be filling a TECHNICIAN pipeline.

If industries are looking to community colleges - that should be a pretty clear hint as to what they expect. This is "factory piece work" - not "I am being paid to think" work. Technician jobs are even frustrating for those of us with bachelor's degrees.

People don't go get an MBA to work the register at Walmart. Neither should you get a PhD to become a lab tech.

GD: Very good points. If you love the science, it may be an emotional good investment to get the Ph.D. on top of the MBA; as a purely economic transaction, I'd just go with the MBA -- those 5+ years you lose can be lucrative, even if you could improve your trade value with that time. Remember, it's the 5 years at the end of your career that you lose plus the interest on the 5 at the beginning, not the 5 at the beginning as capital.

In a coarser way, I was getting at the same point -- private industry technician work is usually factory work, and they are looking for people who are willing to be treated as factory workers. It makes sense, from a management viewpoint, even if a more educated individual could be marginally more productive, they are massively more difficult to manage. I'd rather have 20 people working slowly, but who are easy to treat as "human resources", than 10+5 better people doing the same work, but for that +5 I have to treat them as "human beings" rather than "human resources" --- interchangeable units of work. On top of that, one of the bennies of management of factory work is that you get to treat other people as "human resources" --- no one will 'fess up to it, but anyone who's ever worked in that environment knows that there's an irrational, emotional component.

It's the same reason that in software engineering, for most jobs they don't want masters and PhD level engineers -- you lose points as "over-qualified". Ie, you're a pain in the ass who won't do what we tell you. It's even the case that being a 4.0 undergrad student will lose you jobs, as an attitude risk.

WRT the eight-hour day:

Here's what a tech day looks like:
7am (yes, really, 7am)--Log in to computer, check schedule which someone else has created and which could easily be unworkable. Rework schedule and submit to the scientist/engineer in charge of the project for approval. Any urgent, live-or-die emails? No? Then get your rear end in a lab coat and in the lab.
7:30am--Start multitasking. In an industrial research lab, that means putting the media in the incubator to warm for later tasks, starting as many gels as possible (generally a number between 4 and 10), printing out the results of the equipment that ran overnight, and picking clones from three or four plates' worth of bugs. Mix more media to replace the stuff you're going to use today, so that it can be autoclaved or filtered in the afternoon.
11:30--Half hour lunch. Which will be at your desk, checking and replying to semi-urgent emails.
12--Back to the lab. Now you're maintaining the cultures you prepped media for in the morning, mixing buffers per SOP, sterilizing media and washing glassware.
4pm--Lab meeting, wherein you will be given the proposed list of tasks for tomorrow and told the latest news on who is being fired, who will be transferred and who is going on maternity leave. You'll be expected to cover for them all, by the way.

My eight-hour day as an industrial scientist:
8am--Log in to computer, read all emails thoroughly, including the attached articles. Oooh, a new project is coming to us next week, I had better re-set my automated Ovid search to get articles delivered to my desktop. Briefly stop by ICanHasCheezburger for LOLs.
9am--Start about two gels. Put some media, pre-made by my tech ;) in the incubator to warm. Hmm, I should tell Tech to make me some more Western buffer. Write some ideas in notebook. Hey, good morning, PI, can I try this new idea? I saw a new kit that I think will work great for a follow-up on our latest JBC paper. I can? Great! I'll get Tech to start on the media formulations next week!
12--Lunch. Spent casually perusing the latest edition of the science journal of your choice and responding to critical emails like, "Didja hear that Other Scientist is having a party this weekend?"
1pm--Troubleshooting my latest construct. I wonder why this didn't work the way I thought it would? Could it be that Big Famous Academic is wrong, or didn't do enough replicates? I should call him and ask, to be nice, before I publish that his results are irreproducible. Let's play with the bioinformatics software for an hour and see what happens.
3pm--Tea break. Sit in cushy lounge area with colleagues and play chess while BS-ing about projects that don't work right.
3:30--Set up the automation to carry out an experiment for me. Finish the Western I started in the morning and discuss the results with the PI.
5pm--Gosh, I'm the last person here. I work hard.

It's not that I spend my day not working. It's not that the PI spends his day not working. It's that the pace of doing thinking-type work is a lot different qualitatively than tech-ing. If the Senior VP sees me chatting with my colleagues over chess, he thinks, "Aha, Lora and Colleague are collaborating to develop new IP for the company! Hooray! Promotions for both of them!" and if he sees a couple of techs chatting with other techs, he thinks, "Those lazy buggers aren't earning their keep!"

That sounds right to me. Thanks for adding this, I don't think it's easy for people in graduate school or post-docs to get this kind of information.

Any tips for CC Biotech A.S. graduates who want to work a minimum of 60 hour weeks (and would prefer 70+ hour weeks 6 or 7 days a week with infrequent vacations)? What would be the best way to bring up my desire to work long hours to an employer and not seem as though I'm overtime-money oriented?

Also, without going back to school (I've tried universities and am done with that thankyouverymuch), do pathways exist from a technician job to an exploratory science job (even on the side, as I'd have no trouble doing tech work if I was also allowed to do investigatory science with the lab equipment)?

Robert: I don't think there's any way that anyone (except for a child) can stop you from working as many hours a week as you like. Whether you get paid for that work, of course, is another story.

If you want to do more exploratory science, look for jobs in academics or at small biotech companies. The smaller the lab, the more hats you'll get to wear and the more opportunities you'll have to try different things. Also consider emerging areas and jobs in government and National Labs. The National Renewable Energy lab seems like a pretty active place right now.

Thanks for the recommendations Sandra. My A.S. culminating internship just started, but that'll be over by the end of August. I'll start looking for jobs in the field I'm interested in a couple of weeks (fingers crossed). :)