Career pathways in biotechnology

Students in the United States take many convoluted and unnecessarily complicated paths when it comes to finding careers in biotechnology. If Universities and community colleges worked together, an alternative path could benefit all parties; students, schools, industry, and the community.

The image below illustrates the current paths and the approximate time that each one takes.


I was at two meetings recently, one in Arizona and the Bio-Link workshop in Berkeley, where we spent time discussing the paths to careers in the biotech industry. You might think, if you consider the number of years in school to be important, that path D would be the most common path. But you would be wrong. Many of the students that might go straight to community college programs and directly into the workforce either opt for path A and end up on path B or somewhere along the line they miss out altogether and never think to consider that biotechnology or other science-related areas could lead to a good career.

I'm not sure what to do about science in the high schools, beyond trying to find better ways to educate, recruit, and support science teachers and fund science courses; but I do have some suggestions for colleges. First, though, lets consider why we have so many pathways and discuss some of the challenges with the pathways as they currently exist.

Path A High School -> University -> job
Many of our readers, other faculty, and other bloggers here and here have pointed out that it's not the mission of Universities to prepare students for jobs. I think that's fine. Okay. Unfortunately, many high school students seem to miss seeing that information in the advertising brochures.

There are exceptions to this rule. In comment 18, Larry Rohde described a wonderful-sounding program at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. I also know some private colleges that work with their students to help them find career paths afterward.

Still, I think it's fair to generalize a bit, with the understanding that there are exceptions.

A big difference between community colleges and universities is that the community colleges are responsive to the interests and needs of the broader community. Universities do not do job training. We all accept that. Community colleges do. When the biotech industry in Seattle asked Seattle Central Community College to consider starting a program to train students to work in the biotech industry, the college surveyed the local companies and decided it would be worthwhile. We even set up an advisory board so that we could be sure we were teaching the skills that would be useful for students to know and understand the needs of the local industry.

Did the University of Washington teach students about SOPs and GMPs? No, but SCCC and Shoreline CC did, right along with media and solution preparation, cloning, sequencing, PCR, protein purification, immunochemistry, HPLC, western blotting, data processing, and cell culture. Consequently, path D offered an alternative that would quickly prepare students to go out and get jobs.

Path B High School -> University -> Community College - > job
To my surprise and (yes, I admit) delight, about half of our students turned out to be on path B. They had degrees from departments like Zoology or other departments that were saving money by cutting their lab courses and they came to us for a year to fill in the gaps. I've heard people say that many of the University of California schools are doing the same thing. It's sad but as I said, we all understand that Universities and community colleges have different goals and their missions are not the same. I didn't mind. The students were great. But I didn't think that the students should have had to spend an extra year in college. I think if we could have had some kind of collaboration agreement with the UW, those students could have taken our lab classes as seniors and finished in four years rather than 5 or 6.

Path C High School -> Community College -> University -> job
About a quarter of our students opted for this pathway but it wasn't an easy path. In order to have a two-year program, we had to substitute some pre-nursing courses for courses that would satisfy the UW's requirements for biology or microbiology majors. Unfortunately, this meant that if students wanted to major in a life science field, they had to take 3 years of courses at our community college. This wasn't a great option, since they still had to finish 60 credits at the UW. This path was hard for both the community college because of scheduling conflicts and the students because they had to find a way to meet requirements at both schools.

Path D High School -> Community College -> job
This path would be fine, but we found that very few students followed it. We found that most of the high school biotech programs tended to graduate students who went straight on to Universities or private colleges. Those students were not likely to choose community college as an alternative. If we did get students straight from high school, we lost them once they became acquainted with the challenges of following path C.

Path E. My proposal.
Given that:

  1. Universities do not wish to do job-training and community colleges do,
  2. Universities are cutting lab courses,
  3. Many students would like help and preparation for finding jobs after college,
  4. Community colleges have the equipment, staff, connections, and expertise to prepare students for jobs after college.

I propose that the Universities and the community colleges each give up some turf and work together. If the community colleges and universities were to put students interests foremost they could find a way to help those students who want to be prepared for jobs in biotech, without requiring students to spend 5-6 years in college trying to satisfy diverse and conflicting program requirements.

Perhaps we could have more blended paths like the one I drew below.


How could this work? Joint enrollment? Or better transfer options?
Joint enrollment is one option. In this scenario, students could be enrolled at either school but would take the biotech lab courses at the community college. Both groups of students would receive credit that could apply towards a biotech major at the University. This option does present some problems since tuition costs are usually much less at a community college. However, this kind of system would allow Universities to expand their course offerings without having to find dedicated lab space, buy new equipment, and hire more instructors. Community colleges could give up some turf, too. They could meet the Universities half way to allow students to take some of their non-science courses at the Universities.

At the heart of the matter is the question of transferring credits. If the Universities were to accept community college biotech lab courses for a biotech major, then students wouldn't have to spend an extra year or two working to fill in course requirements at either institutions. This would allow students to get a four-year degree, which many students want, and give them access to the job preparation expertise at the community colleges.

More like this

I suppose I am out of step (imangine that). I am a university Professor of Biology (Emeritus), but I have always thought it does not make sense to educate students in such a way that they cannot get a job where they can apply their education. I think a student worker or graduate student whom I supervise learns job related things.

I was in my office talking with one of my graduate students when my student worker came in and said, "Now that I am graduating, I need a job." I wrote a number on a note pad and gave it to her. "Ask for Lana (ex student) and tell her I sent you." My grad student remarked with some surprise,"I didn't know you ran a placement service." I responded, "Of course I do." I have also been heavily involved in an MS Environmental Studies Program which was specificaly job oriented.

I try to educate my students in such a way that they get important and responsible jobs. Otherwise, they would not be able to hire me as a consultant.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

When I was in college, there wasn't a biotech industry and most of my classmates were pre-med so there wasn't an emphasis on finding jobs. There weren't any and we all knew it.

Later, when I was in graduate school and one of the lab instructors wanted to add techniques to her course like Western blots and gels, I remember there were faculty who actually complained, saying that would make her lab course "too vocational."

Today, there are students who major in life-science related courses with the idea of getting a job in biotech. But I don't think that many Universities have figured this out or accept that they have a responsibility to help. I think many still have the idea that "hands-on" skills, like pipetting, media and solution preparation, running fermentors, gels, or instruments, are a kind of vocational training. And they are not interested in vocational training.

Hmm. I don't know that they view these skills as too vocational per se, unless they view themselves exclusively as producers of grad students in some sort of bizarre Ponzi scheme-like social Darwinistic coffee klatch. Well, maybe they do see themselves that way, who knows. I am sure at least that they consider petty things such as the fate of their students post-graduation to be at best disinteresting and at worst a foolish whinge of the petit bourgeoisie.

The only thing I have to say about The Mission of universities in general is that they need to GET a mission. As near as I can tell, they are the last of the medieval guild systems--which died not unrighteously. If they aren't sure what their position is in our modern-day economy, then they need to figure it out posthaste, because no government agency is going to increase their funding any time soon. Now, community colleges and industries, should they partner up in a meaningful way, can well be in a position to relegate universities back to their original medieval position. That is, a sort of dumping-ground for elites to send their younger and lazier children.

Be that as it may, they do seem to regard these skills as essential for grad students and, curiously, engineers. So bugger if I know why they don't want to teach them.

The real reason that I find universities don't want to transfer credits of whatever sort is:
1. elitism. They tend to disavow this as a matter of course, but if you get the department folks who sit on the Admissions Board good and drunk, they will be happy to tell you how community colleges are for morons, because obviously if the students had two neurons to rub together they'd be in a real school. I'm not saying I agree with that, I'm saying this is what they tell me when I ask them why one of my techs has to re-take a whole year. If they've only had two beers, they say, "well, we've got to protect our reputation" or some variation on that theme.
2. "You'll do as we say. Because, that's why."
3. "We want another year's tuition out of you." This is what admissions admins tend to say, in so many words.

Here is my proposal, which is a bit long-term:
Community colleges + industry partner up to create new BA/BSc/MS/PhD accredited schools that DO have a mission of creating, sustaining, and supplying jobs. I know for a fact that you can do GLP-quality science extremely effectively when you have MONEY, something that many universities don't seem to grasp. And by far the biggest purse is the national economy itself.

Some years ago, I had a lab assistant, a biology graduate of a major research university, who told me, "I have never been in a lab before." We educated her and put her out in the work force where she did well. I understand that that research university now requires some lab course.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

There are variations between Universities and the programs within Universities in terms of lab requirements.

Some programs like Microbiology tend to be pretty good because they give students lots of lab courses and hands on practice. Others, do not and some Universities are cutting the number of lab courses that they offer or require.

The main problem is that many Universities are not properly equipped to let students do experiments from start to finish. They don't have the facilities, staffing, or time to let students make their own buffers or media, or do cell culture. As a consequence, students come to class and the materials are all pre-made and ready to go.

Real labs aren't like that and so University students are often ill-equipped when it's time for them to look for work in a real lab.

Also, there aren't many University lab courses that include some of the skills that are needed in industry. How many lab courses can you name that have students follow GMPs or learn how to work in clean room?

This is why many students end up taking lab courses at community college.

The main problem is that many Universities are not properly equipped to let students do experiments from start to finish. They don't have the facilities, staffing, or time to let students make their own buffers or media, or do cell culture. As a consequence, students come to class and the materials are all pre-made and ready to go.

Dunno if I agree with that 100%. They are equipped for it, they choose not to do it. It's a very simple thing to let undergrads learn media prep and cell culture and run a smallish experiment their senior year--the university declares media prep a "work-study," funds it with federal and state $$, and has undergrads do it for minimum wage instead of hiring expensive techs. Saves department $$, doesn't require professors to teach it: just hire a more senior tech with lots of experience to manage them, you're all set. My teeny-tiny undergrad college did it just fine, and they had about 1700 students total and practically no major grants.

One of the senior classes was "senior seminar," wherein you had to do a smallish experiment and present it at a meeting or publish a manuscript, and you also had to do a poster. The faculty each came up with small-scale experiments, we had a week in fall semester of our senior years to decide first and second choices of what we wanted to do. These smallish experiments were then used to generate pilot data for grant applications. It was quite nice, really, because it also solved the Crappy Advising issue, whereupon if your adviser was a douche, you could have someone more compatible be your project adviser and get some good mentoring that way.

cGMP is tough. That's the sort of thing that would have to be cross-listed with pre-law or something. Although I am definitely in favor of students getting a huge broad range of experience, because I know far too many people who got all the way through college (and sometimes grad school) without knowing exactly what they wanted out of life. This is important, because as a tech you're going to hit a promote-able and salary ceiling relatively early. If you're not cool with maxing out your career five years post-graduation, you need to have some notion of what else you might like to do.

Thanks Lora,

You've brought up some interesting ideas that bear further discussion.

I think the senior project/seminar/independent research project represents the ideal in science education and a goal that many instructors would like to see met in all forms of higher education. It seems that smaller colleges, like the one you attended, are in a much better position to accomplish this goal in general than Universities.

As far as "work study," work study is a form of financial aid where the government pays most of the student's salary. This is okay for some students but many students are not eligible for work study and there are additional reasons, that I will write about later, why this idea won't work on a larger scale.

cGMP wasn't a problem for us in our community college lab classes and familiarity with cGMP was very beneficial for our graduates. I'll write more about this in a later post.

i am doing my engineering in B-tech(biotechology)and i want to know there r how many career oportunity?
and information of them can u please help me out?

By mahesh sulakhe (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink


I will write more about career opportunities, but I have to qualify this. My knowledge is only of the US, I can't speak to the job situation in other countries.