Biotech Careers: Smart Choices

You don't need a Ph.D to profit from this hot job field, but don't settle for a menial bachelor's-degree position, either.

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character got one word of career advice: plastics. If I were giving that advice in 2008, the word would be biotech.

Biotech hasn't yet lived up to the hype. But I believe we've reached the tipping point: Hundreds of biotech drugs are finally in the pipeline and the biotech industry has grown to $462 billion, up 3% in Q2 of 2008 according to Burrill & Co, a leading biotech financing firm.

Swipe to scroll horizontally

People entering the field now may now finally be in a position to fulfil biotech's long-standing promise: creating a new generation of individualized treatments to prevent devastations from autism to Alzheimer's, cancer to heart disease, retardation to depression.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

But where are the good jobs?

At the doctoral level

If your goal is to lead such research, Dave Jensen, moderator of the AAAS ScienceCareers forum and principal in the biotech recruiting firm CareerTrax, urges students to "avoid getting sucked into a professor's research area unless it's clearly fundable." Instead, stake out a research area that is heavily funded and likely to stay that way: For example, you might build on a respected new approach to preventing or curing a major disease. That way, even if you can't land a research professorship, you have a solid shot at a substantive R&D position in industry or for the government.

Caveat: Before obtaining a research professorship, you may need to take a modest-paying two-to-six-year post-doctoral appointment.

It's also quite possible that despite all that, you won't land a professorship. But you will be well-qualified for a rewarding position in industry as a research scientist, leading a company's manufacturing effort or in regulatory affairs -- which many employees find more interesting than you might think, says Craig Rice, former senior director of manufacturing and of strategic planning at Genentech.

No doctorate?

Bachelor's-degree jobs are sometimes touted as a more time-effective route into a good biotech career, but I've heard too many stories of those people ending up with mind-numbing jobs for dismal wages. Toby Freedman, author of Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development and principal in the biotech recruiting firm Synapsis agrees: "Bench work is repetitive, and you're working with toxic chemicals."

Here are some options that may not require a doctorate yet many people find more rewarding than bench work:

  • Biomedical Policy Analyst. A master's degree, for example, the M.A. in Biomedical Policy & Ethics at George Washington University, should qualify you for important jobs in the government, non-profit and for-profit sectors.
  • Medical Affairs Specialist. MBAs, nurses, and pharmacists as well as M.D.s and Ph.Ds who are good communicators and have a social side are often happy in this under-the-radar career. You may manage clinical trials, conduct seminars to inform scientists and physicians about new discoveries or provide technical support to customers.Judy Heyboer, HR consultant to the biotech industry and former vice president of human resources at Genentech, particularly touts a niche within medical affairs: clinical resource management. Your job is to write protocols for clinical trials, manage the data as it comes in, and then write reports on how effective the drug is. Heyboer says, "It's a great career: You're closer than anyone except doctors to the patient, to learning what a drug actually does and to how to present the data most effectively."
  • Community College Instructor. A new report from a coalition of business groups asserts that the U.S. will need hundreds of thousands more graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees by 2015. Just as in fields like acting, screenwriting, and voiceover, the surest route to making money is in training wannabes. My recommendation: get a Professional Sciences Master's degree and try to land a permanent teaching gig at a community college or, if you're lucky, at a four-year teaching-oriented college. If you have the knack for making complicated material easy and fun, those jobs are often enjoyable and, if you can get a tenure-track position, offer great benefits and unbeatable job security.

Not a science person?

Government agencies and biotech companies employ people who don't have science degrees. Sure, it helps if you've at least taken a community college course on biotech basics, but, according to Jensen, you may not need more than that to land a good job in accounting, finance or human resources, for example.

Heyboer says that an MBA can land you many good jobs in the biotech industry, although Jensen thinks that you'll have better options if you also have a science undergraduate degree and/or a little experience in a biotech company. Freedman agrees: "That combination qualifies you for positions in which you're immersed in the science but without the boredom of the bench, for example: project management, marketing, business development or analyst for a venture capital firm, where you review proposals from start-ups wanting investors."

Are you a lawyer looking for a niche more exciting than slip-and-fall litigation? Biotech law, especially if you specialize in intellectual property, can expose you to more cutting-edge discoveries than most medical researchers see in a lifetime.

Who's hiring?


Learn about your career options, connect with others in the field and stay atop the latest biotech news and job offerings:

It's tough to land a professorship. Much more hiring is done by companies, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston and Southern California.

Opportunities exist in large and small firms. Dr. Kevin Foley, director of in-vivo pharmacology at Synta Pharmaceuticals says that each has advantages: "Big companies employ many people with successful experience developing drugs. They can provide an excellent learning experience. In small companies, we often don't have the resources or specialists to do what's needed." That's where your learning comes in. For the company to survive, you're forced to do things you're not expert in. Says Jensen, "At a small company, you can get 10 years of experience in two."

Government is a good and often overlooked employer. On average, government jobs offer more stable, less-profit-driven and pressure-packed work than those in the private sector. For job listings, check out the federal employment site and individual agency sites, such as The National Institutes of Health, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security and, of course, the Food and Drug Administration.

Another under-the-radar option: contract research organizations. Biotech companies outsource much of their testing to these firms, for example, Covance, Parexel and Quintiles.

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,