Save Money, Hire Masters

Figure 1A workforce crisis brewing in biotech will cost companies valuable time and money unless managers wise up and change their ways. Forecasters point to looming shortages of qualified staffers for bench lab and other emerging biotech jobs caused by a one-two punch: the turnaround economy and long-held hiring prejudices that favor academic research scientists.Poised for growth, many biotech companies are shifting focus from discovery to bringing their products to market. In turn, the job mar

Joanna Krotz
Feb 1, 2004
<p>Figure 1</p>

A workforce crisis brewing in biotech will cost companies valuable time and money unless managers wise up and change their ways. Forecasters point to looming shortages of qualified staffers for bench lab and other emerging biotech jobs caused by a one-two punch: the turnaround economy and long-held hiring prejudices that favor academic research scientists.

Poised for growth, many biotech companies are shifting focus from discovery to bringing their products to market. In turn, the job market is expected to light up. "Biotech jobs will grow by 3 million between 2000 and 2010, with double-digit increases in jobs such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, biological technicians, and scientists," assistant labor secretary Emily Stover DeRocco said recently in a speech to industry insiders. That may sound a tad optimistic, but the 200,000-strong biotech workforce has been growing 12% to 14% annually over the past four years, according to the US Department of...

MASTER'S REVISITED

A master's degree in the sciences has long been considered the consolation prize, an admission that the doctorate is out of reach. But as the academic labor market shrinks and industry needs dominate, the value of spending a half-decade or more pursuing a doctorate is questionable if an academic career is not planned, according to a recent paper, "Current Trends in Master's Education," by Judith Glazer-Raymo, professor of education at Long Island University, NY.

Like an MBA, the master's degree in science is becoming a professional credential rather than a flag of failure. For instance, Diane Wong began working at Pfizer after earning an MS degree in 2001 from the University of Buffalo's School of Pharmacy. As an associate scientist, she works hands-on in the lab. "I don't know if I want a doctorate yet or not," says Wong, because the effort would take her out of the lab and into management. "I don't like being in an office."

The most dramatic evolution is the professional science master's degree (PSM; http://sciencemasters.com). Created in 1997 and partly bankrolled by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the program is available at universities and is open to people with bachelor of science degrees, though postgrads and industry veterans also enroll. The two-year course marries science and math disciplines, usually with business training. Graduates have "one foot in the lab and the other in the office," says Sheila Tobias, who, as Sloan's coordinator for the project, crisscrosses the country advocating for PSMs. Each university program is developed in cooperation with an area's industry leaders, ensuring that students are trained to meet local needs.

At the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif., "Our program tracks to the management side of the house," says Elaine Turner, director of career services. One of the oldest PSM programs, Keck sends its graduates to positions in clinical research at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif.; business development and bioinformatics management at Eli Lilly and Co. in Singapore; and regulatory affairs management at Corus Pharma in Seattle. Other programs emphasize computer science or senior researcher lab skills.

Besides costing less than PhDs, and often hired for similar work, PSM employees attract industry enthusiasts because of clear bottom-line benefits. Phil Tuchin-sky, an industry advisor for Michigan State University's PSM program, is "passionate" about its potential. Tuchinsky, who has a doctorate in math, is technical expert in the Research and Advanced Engineering division at Ford Motor Company. He explains that mathematical modeling and advanced analytics provide powerful tools for understanding the flood of transactional data in some of Ford's large business operations, such as marketing, sales, and warranty management. "The anticipated volume of work can't be handled by PhD researchers like me," he says.

PSM graduates would be more appropriate, both for their work skills and also their ability to fit into the business culture. Tuchinsky sees the MBA-style professional and leadership training included in PSM programs as a definite career advantage. Relying on PSM grads for data mining at Ford, he says, would "translate into many millions of dollars in savings and efficiencies."

Similarly, at the IBM Life Sciences Unit in Cambridge, Mass., a division that acts as a bridge between product sales and client research facilities, emerging solutions executive Kirk Jordan thinks PSMs offer key commercial benefits. "They have a depth of knowledge in a particular area for immediate needs and the breadth of knowledge to quickly move into other areas when business needs change."

NUMBERS RISING

Currently, about 900 students are enrolled in 70 PSM degree programs in 30 universities in 18 states. The trickle of graduates, only 230 to date, has met with notable success: Three out of five PSM graduates work in industry. At Pennsylvania State University, director Loida Escote-Carlson says four of the program's 10 graduates have landed jobs: "One is a research scientist at Johnson & Johnson, another began as an intern and was later hired at Glaxo-SmithKline, and the 2002 grad is working in R&D at Alltech."

Still, odds are good that you haven't heard much about PSMs. Programs are small and, with a local focus, operate under the national radar. Most got underway in 2000, after the academic approval process and just as the economy sank. The first crop of PSMs graduated only last year.

The flexibility of the PSM program is both its strength and its weakness. PSMs are responsive to regional industry, giving graduates better chances at internships and jobs. But, the credential confuses potential employers. Graduates of five different programs are likely to have five different profiles. "The role of the master's is still playing out," says Grant Black, who focuses on the economics of science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Graduates may be skilled on the research track and work as midlevel lab researchers overseeing technicians, or they may be more suited for business, working as cross-discipline liaisons. When interviewing PSM job candidates, employers should ask pointed questions about coursework, hands-on lab experience, internships, and other pertinent background to make sure they're hiring people who have the appropriate skills.

At many companies, it's still "harder for a person without a doctorate to go up the ladder," acknowledges Pfizer's Wong. But clearly, change is coming. The shift, says NACME's Chubin, may be "one program and a few students at a time," but it is building. Over the next several years, it will be up to PIs and corporate employers to decide how well they leverage these new training advantages and options.

Joanna Krotz jkrotz@muse2muse.com is a freelance writer in New York City.

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