Private Sector Demand for Biologists with Doctorates

Biology students working on advanced degrees are looking for excitement and good salaries in the private sector after they graduate. With fewer long-term jobs at universities, they're finding more opportunities outside academia to put their doctorates to good use.

"The uncertainty of the academic track is making the private sector more appealing," says Elizabeth Marincola. Marincola is with the American Society for Cell Biology. "I also think the private sector has gotten exciting, because so many breakthroughs have happened in the private sector."

The private sector hires biologists to do research in fields such as drug development, biotechnology and food processing.

A new field called bioinformatics combines biology and the computational sciences, such as mathematics, statistics and computer science. Bioinformatics is primarily concerned with analyzing data related to human genes.

In 2004, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), surveyed life sciences scientists on different elements of their careers. About two-thirds of the respondents worked in academia, and 15 percent worked in industry.

According to the survey results, the median salaries were in academia were $76,000, versus $88,000 outside academia.

The difference in wages inside versus outside academia is consistent with Marincola's experience. "If you take a PhD-level position in industry, you're likely to be paid significantly more than taking a position as a post-doc in academics," she says.

"When you get a permanent position in academics, it's probably still lower."

Starting salaries in the private sector for those with biology PhDs range from $55,000 US to $65,000 US. This is according to Jerry Lareau, president of a recruiting firm in New York state. His firm finds employees for companies in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and life sciences fields.

"There is strong and continuing demand," says Lareau. Biotechnology firms in particular are eager to hire biologists with PhDs.

A lot of biologists are needed in the area of gene research. "People who go into these sectors have a PhD in biology or biochemistry or molecular biology, and they're all closely related in what they focus on," Lareau says.

Biologists in the private sector might be offered additional incentives. "If they're at a relatively young firm, they might be getting stock options, and they'll probably have a bonus plan," says Lareau.

It's not just newly minted PhDs heading into the private sector. Those who have worked for a while at universities are also drawn to the private sector. And it's not just higher pay that's tempting them.

"The most frequent answer is, 'I'm getting tired of writing grant proposals,'" says Lareau. "These are the guys that are successful enough to get [funding], but not so successful that they can have people sit there and write the proposals for them."

Lareau says some of his clients get tired of the politics of university life. A university can feel very confining and limiting to some. In the private sector, on the other hand, "there's much more freedom, so people don't feel locked up for life."

Bruce Sells has also observed this trend. He's the executive director of the Canadian Federation of Biological Societies. "Individuals graduating with their PhD aren't nearly as inclined to aspire to academic positions as they would have been, say, 10 or 15 years ago," he says.

One reason universities are less attractive is that many have been underfunded, Sells says. So, labs and equipment have deteriorated. Also, there are fewer faculty, so pressure on individuals has increased.

"They're expected to teach at a high level of capability," says Sells. "They are expected to be involved with students and with committees within universities. And they are expected also to do research at an international level. So, the pressures are really on within universities."

Over the past 15 or 20 years, corporations such as drug companies have developed the opportunity for researchers to do more than just product development.

"They've been encouraged to keep up their science [do independent research] and to publish," Sells says.

"And the industrial infrastructure is so much superior that if you really want to do research, and if you're interested in the applications of research, then it's not a bad option. So, that's one of the reasons there has been a redirection, a rerouting, of people into industry."

Sells, like other experts, says biotechnology is the hot area for biologists. "And I think biotechnology, certainly, is here to stay for quite a while," he says. "The developments in molecular biology will certainly see to that."

The academic route might regain some of its appeal in the coming years. As baby boomer professors retire, secure and high-paying tenure-track jobs should open up. Also, the National Institute for Health, which grants research funds to universities, is planning to increase the pay scale for post-doctoral positions over the next few years.

One additional factor is the economy. "With growth of the economy, [the private sector] goes up," explains Marincola. "Of course, the downside of that is, when the economy starts tanking, then you're vulnerable to layoffs."

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