Investments in genomics helped create a slew of new jobs, though many of them are outside the traditional academic path many PhD scientists pursue. The $3.8 billion put into mapping the human genome between 1988 and 2003 helped support approximately 310,000 jobs that produced $20 billion in personal income in 2010 alone, according to a May 2011 Battelle Technology Partnership Practice report. The report, generated with support from the Life Technologies Foundation, lauded investments in the Human Genome Project as some of the US government's greatest in terms of their return.
Indeed, Battelle research leader Marty Grueber says each genomics job stimulated the creation of an additional five jobs indirectly related to the field in 2010. "It's a pretty substantial impact," he says.
The growing genomics space has only just matured into adolescence in the last 10 years, says Biotechnology Industry Organization spokesman George Goodno. "The genomics revolution has spawned an entirely new industry sector," he adds. "It created entirely new jobs that were not here a decade ago."
Investments in research to decode the human genome supported the creation of more than a quarter-million genomics and related jobs. But where, exactly, are those jobs?
"As it stands right now, the largest driver of jobs in the genomics space is in the industrial realm," Grueber says. "It surpasses the academic R&D aspect by a fairly substantial amount; we're looking on the order of about 80 percent of the jobs are in the industrial [realm], including the piece of the pharmaceutical industry we capture in the genomics space."
Medical College of Wisconsin's John Lombardo has counseled academic scientists on careers and related issues for more than 20 years. In that time, he has witnessed the academic job market crumble. When it comes to traditional academic research, "so many people have jumped into that sector that there's an oversupply of them, internationally," he says. "It used to be that half of PhD scientists — or maybe even more — would get academic research positions. Now it's less than 20 percent, and I don't see that stopping."
Joan Lakoski, associate vice chancellor for science education outreach at the University of Pittsburgh, says life scientists are increasingly desired by employers outside of academia, however.
"Over the past decade, the options for what one can do with training in the life sciences has broadened," Lakoski says. "There are so many more options than one faced decades ago. That's because the value of training in STEM fields, and in particular in biomedical research, has become more broadly valued — not just in the academic sector, but in the industry and government sectors."
The recent economic recession hit some sectors harder than others, and the life sciences workforce was by no means spared. BIO's Goodno says that during the downturn, "the biotech industry lost less jobs and recovered faster than any other technology sector. We had a smaller dip and came back faster."
Still, as the global economy begins to show signs of improvement, many highly skilled life scientists are out of work. All the while, universities continue to produce PhDs and postdocs who are eager to find a job. It remains to be seen, exactly, how the life sciences workforce will rebound from the recession.
"The life sciences are in this kind of bumpy time where we're not quite sure where the [economic] models will evolve, but they're evolving as we do it. We're kind of all in this roller coaster together," Pittsburgh's Lakoski says.
Lakoski, though, remains optimistic for laid-off workers and new graduates. "Outside of academia, there are plenty of life science jobs — that's the good news," she says. "But the individual has to go out and seek them."
Shifts within academia
The ivory tower is also changing. Universities are hiring disproportionately fewer tenure-track faculty than there are qualified candidates, and many institutions have recently come under fire, accused of inadequately preparing their graduates for the realities of the labor market. Because of this, academic administrations have all but been forced to make adjustments to their agendas. In the meantime, PhDs and postdocs have taken matters into their own hands, exploring industry, government, and other career options on their own.
"In academia, we're looking beyond faculty positions, now, to look at the essential roles of individuals trained in the life sciences directing core facilities and providing services," Lakoski says. Meanwhile, she adds, "we see students beginning their graduate training or postdocs who have taken a fellowship position with us begin to have different career goals of what they'll do long-term."
Slowly, but surely, academia has taken action to address students' shifting needs, with several institutions now offering additional degree and certificate programs to train their scientists in management, entrepreneurship, and other essential skills.
For Lakoski, "the proof of the pudding is the growth in the number of postdoc offices in the country," she says, particularly in the last few years. Among services offered by most postdoc affairs offices are career development and training guidance.
Still, Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan says academia is the most likely employer for graduating PhD scientists as most plan to take a postdoc, either to extend their training or prolong an academic job search in an all-but-abysmal market. "An overwhelming percent [of graduating PhDs] who have plans, plan to take a postdoc," Stephan says. "It's our perception that a lot of early[-career] people are just trying to hang on in postdoc positions. Everybody's waiting for better economic conditions, so it's going to create a big backlog of people who hope to get a job when things get better."
Postdoctoral appointments aside, Stephan expects the academic hiring picture to remain bleak for some time. While endowments are on the upswing for private universities, "it's hard to see public universities hiring a lot — things have simply not gotten better yet," she says. At private and public institutions alike, "a lot of people who thought they were going to retire postponed, because they got used to thinking they were worth a great deal more from their 401s" before the recession hit, Stephan adds.
As academics stay longer in their jobs, "academia is getting older," adds Alan Johnson, managing director of the South Australia-based firm Research Management Services International. At the same time, funding has become sparse, and is being allocated differently than it has been in the past. "In the life sciences in particular, we're talking big experiments, lots of maintenance money. And [there is] very much more a government focus on practical outcomes, not necessarily basic research outcomes," Johnson says.
Overall, he says, "the downsizing of available places and available funding ... means that jobs available for life science graduates in the traditional life sciences are contracting, and will probably contract in the future."
This dearth of traditional academic research jobs has pressured PhD students to consider alternate career options sooner. Early on, "it's very important that life science graduates either make a decision to keep going in that area [academia] — but the road's going to be a bit tough and they've got to be really, really good — or to use the skills they've developed in their PhD to follow another career path, and there are dozens," Johnson says.
Government: steady, but not fail-safe
One such alternate path led more than 100,000 biological, agricultural, and other life scientists to find employment in federal, state, or local governments, according to National Science Foundation data collected in 2006. That same year, biomedical scientists held 35,000 positions in the federal government and 30,000 at the state or local levels.
Wisconsin's Lombardo says PhD scientists are desired by government at all levels. "The military has many uses for life scientists [in] non-combat roles," he adds. "In all sectors of the military there are some wonderful jobs, and [life scientists] can go in as officers."
Life scientists are also in demand in other government-related positions, like those in science policy or political consulting, Lombardo says. "Depending on how government grows, there's quite a bit of opportunity there," he adds.
Georgia State's Stephan is somewhat less optimistic about growth opportunities in the government sector, however. Year after year, she says, "it does appear that the same percent of people go to work in government, regardless."
Plus, she adds, as the inflation-adjusted NIH budget declines, government hiring is unlikely to pick up. "Unless the US Congress totally changes its mind, neither government nor academe is going to be hiring a lot," Stephan says.
Because it is not tied to government funding to the degree that the academic research market is, Stephan says the private sector shows most opportunity for growth in the US.
"I think industry would be the most promising," Stephan says. "But it's not extraordinarily promising," she adds.
The inconstancy of industry
With their propensity for large-scale mergers and acquisitions, both biotech and pharma are notoriously volatile employers. When tough economic times met those pre-existing tendencies, industry was especially shaken up. Several high-profile firms laid off hundreds of workers worldwide in cost-cutting measures in the last year alone.
Still, Allison Swartz-Greenfield is optimistic about the industrial hiring activities she has seen in the last few years. A recruiter with the life science search firm Klein Hersh International, Swartz-Greenfield says "the job market looks very promising right now. There are a lot of opportunities out there outside of academia, and that really stands from small startup biotech companies to established midsize biotech companies and also to large pharma."
Drake University's Pramod Mahajan, who heads up the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists' pharmacogenomics focus group, says the global recession changed the life science job market in a few ways. Chief among them, he says, is that it has caused the industry to fail to meet economic growth expectations. "Back in the early 2000s, the projections were that the biotechnology industry in general would grow at a very healthy 6 to 8 percent annually," Mahajan says. "I don't think that's quite true. With the economy taking a nosedive, those projections have fallen short."
Despite "all the layoffs going on across the industry," Mahajan says there have been, and will continue to be, "pockets of growth" across biotech and pharma alike.
Areas of growth
Battelle's Grueber says that "in the context of genomics, biotech companies have obviously grown dramatically since '93, and [occupy] the largest piece of total employment, and still look to be growing fairly strongly." To his mind, "biotech will continue to grow, especially as they start moving beyond biomedical [R&D] and continue into agricultural genomics and different areas — those areas are going to continue to see investment and job growth."
Another such growth area spurred by the so-called genomics revolution is "a whole new cadre of companies who are what we would call toolkit companies," says BIO's Peter Pellerito, interim vice president of state government relations and alliance development. Much like contract research organizations, toolkit companies "provide important services to mainline biotech companies to keep their research and development moving forward, without having to directly hire more people," he says. "There are an increasing number of them in the last five years."
Similarly, Pellerito points to synthetic biology and biomaterials development as burgeoning fields that he says "even five years ago we had no comprehension of."
Pittsburgh's Lakoski further expects that "computational and computer science-based fields are going to continue to be hot. I see individuals training in those fields being in high demand," she says.
Drake's Mahajan expects changes in pharma. Rather than small-molecule development, "the pharma industry in now heading more towards biotherapeutics — more specific, more targeted drugs," he says.
However, Grueber says that "the biologics space is probably one of the more difficult to predict where it's headed. Whether or not there is a massive future growth there, I don't know for sure."
What both Grueber and Mahajan are confident of is massive growth potential in the molecular diagnostics space. "Healthcare requirements globally are going to continue to push the genomic testing to continue to grow," Grueber says. "The testing market is going to continue to expand in this genomics space, and there will be significant job growth there."
In the next few years, "the companion diagnostics industry it going to take off," Mahajan adds. "Depending on which particular number you follow, there's anywhere between a $2 [billion] to $4 billion industry being projected by 2015."
As drug and diagnostic development goes, "pharmacogenomics has played — and will continue to play — a very important role," Mahajan says. For that reason, within pharma, "I think there's tremendous opportunity in the future for scientists trained in genomics," he adds.
New employers emerge
Across academia, government, and industry, Lakoski says life scientists are "seeing growth right now in international collaborations." Though interdisciplinary science was an expected outcome of the genomics revolution, "none of us could have predicted that it would accelerate this quickly," she adds.
Indeed, Wisconsin's Lombardo says growth in collaborations continues to be difficult to predict. "There are these hybrid types of organizations coming along — they're quasi-government, quasi-business, quasi-academic — and they're trying to do clinical and translational science," he says. "They're trying to bring things from basic science to practical use much faster. These kinds of hybrid organizations are a reflection of the need to find a way to do it differently; no one knows how to predict this, but scientists have to be a part."
BIO's Pellerito says both academia and industry now strive to foster innovation "not only [in] the research platforms and the ability to make something, but then to actually be able to put it into the marketplace, where ultimately it is of value to people and to the environment."
For this reason, "individuals who can talk across boundaries of fields are really hot," Lakoski says. "Basic scientists who understand how clinical research works have no difficulties finding jobs, and vice versa."
What employers want
At the same time, however, Klein Hersh's Swartz-Greenfield says industry employers are increasingly interested in hiring individuals with highly targeted skill sets. "Companies are being very specific with what they're looking for and, as a result, having a targeted postdoc, specific experience in an area will be very beneficial for someone trying to find that next opportunity in industry," she says. "Folks who are trying to get jobs in industry straight out of a PhD are having a much more difficult time."
Industry employers also seek motivated self-starters. "Especially when it comes to the smaller companies," Swartz-Greenfield adds. "They are looking for individuals who are hard workers, and are willing to step in and prove themselves — it's not going to be the type of thing where it's a 9-to-5 when it's your first industry opportunity."
It's that dedication, she adds, that bolsters employer-employee confidence. Scientists who wish to work in industry must show potential employers "that they want to make this move for the long term, they're willing to work as many hours as it takes, whatever it might be," she says.
Beyond dedication, scientists who seek jobs outside of academia must adapt to changing environments. In the past three years, Swartz-Greenfield placed three postdocs from the same immunology lab with three diverse clients. "One went to a startup company, one went to an established major biotech and the third went to a large pharma," she says.
Research Management Services International's Johnson says it is important to realize that companies desire "good, highly trained PhDs who are not necessarily going to work in their areas of specialization."
Drake's Mahajan says that scientists must also adapt to changing technologies. "Gone are the days where you could just have one skill or one particular area of research that would carry you through your career," he says, adding that now, "flexibility is critical for your success."
Part of being flexible means learning when to let go. "Be passionate about something, but if the money's not going to be there, if it's an area [where] you try a grant a couple of times and it's not going anywhere, then you look to see where the activity is and try to move there," Johnson says.
"The individuals that I see struggle, [and] have no room for growth or promotion — both in academia and on the outside — are the individuals that get too myopic in their focus," Pittsburgh's Lakoski adds.
Wisconsin's Lombardo stresses networking. "If you stay connected to what's happening — keep reading in your field, talk to people — you can find places for your expertise," he says. It is essential that scientists seeking jobs learn to discuss their research and goals succinctly, he adds. "In 15 or 30 seconds saying, 'Here's how I identify professionally, here's what I do well, and here's what I look to contribute in the future,'" Lombardo says. "Scientists who can talk that way are heads and shoulders above their competitors for getting any kind of job."
In the end, Lakoski says it all comes down to ownership. "The most important thing for any young scientist to cultivate in themselves is that they need to own their career and not wait for things to happen to them," she says.
Looking ahead, Lombardo says he is "upbeat about the employability of scientists, but not in the traditional sense. I'm still very, very optimistic about their ability to do important work and to make real contributions, but it'll just be packaged differently, and difficult to predict."
While the post-recession shape of the life science workforce remains to be seen, Lombardo says PhDs have staying power in any economy. "Scientists — with their skills and the need for them — if they are flexible in their thinking, they are going to find jobs," he says. "Good jobs."