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HOME > Jobs > Advice for the biology major

Advice for the biology major


I have been asked over the years to advise many young minds as they make their way through college. The problem as I see it from my position in biotech research is that few if any college biology major programs actually prepare students for the day to day tasks that they will be part of the normal work routine. One example would be to make and pH a solution. In the cookbook world of chemistry labs, most solutions are pre-made by the teaching assistant. When the fresh graduate enters the workforce the majority of them have not even weighed, dissolved and brought a solution to the proper pH, not to mention doing more complex tasks such as PCR or even isolation of DNA and RNA. Hopefully the suggestions below are not rambling and will prove useful for someone considering a major in biology. Although it is focused on the biology major I think the advice is applicable to most any life sciences degree track.

While you are in school

The first question you need to ask yourself as a biology major is what classes to take. Concentrate on classes that are around your area of interest and specifically if there are any opportunities for mentored research or independent studies as this is where you will learn the most applicable skills. If you don't know what area is of interest don't hesitate to try something! My first couple of years in college I helped out in chemistry for non-science majors lab and also worked on projects banding hawks, falcons, and owls. I ended up being a chemistry major, but the experience with birds of prey was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it.

Internship, internship, internship

I cannot stress enough the importance of someone with a biology major looking for an internship during the summer months. Most universities and many companies have undergraduate internship research programs. Look for an internship at a company or university that is near where you will be for the summer and is something that you find interesting. Many of these programs pay little or sometimes nothing if you have to volunteer but they are certainly worth it in the long run as you have come a long way in setting yourself above your peers who did nothing during the summer months. Also, don't be shy about looking for an internship your first summer out of college or even between high school and college. These may be more difficult to find than later term internships but I feel it is quite useful since you would like to know quickly if you will not like a particular area.

Should I get an advanced degree?

More than probably any other profession, your career advancement beyond a certain point is hampered by not having a Ph.D. That being said it is much easier for an experienced technician with a B.S. or and M.S. to find a job than an experienced Ph.D. It is really dependent on determining your career goals. If you want to advance beyond a certain point to direct a laboratory at a university or company, it may be necessary. If you are happy being a junior scientist and don't want the responsibility of directing a project or management of people, then you will probably be ok with a B.S. or M.S. I will always remember one thing I was told in interviews for graduate school: "A Ph.D. is not a meal ticket."

Personally, I think there is way too much emphasis on having an advanced degree for laboratory scientists but I am certainly in the minority in the industry. I have met many Ph.D.'s that I would not even let split my cultured cells and conversely many scientists with a B.S. that were extremely bright and authored multiple papers and patents. But make no mistake about it, certainly in academia and in most industrial positions there is a limit to how far up you can go with a B.S. or M.S. degree.

Academic research

Most research in an academic setting is hypothesis driven research. This being said, the NIH has recently stressed the importance of applied research in an academic setting. Most in the field consider changing this culture in academic circles to be a slow process at best. One advantage of academic applied research is that most research institutions pass through a small percentage of revenue that they receive from licensing of a patent back to the inventor of the technology. This pass through could be substantial if your invention is licensed and is used in a product.

Research in academia is highly dependent on government grants and thus publishing your results in peer reviewed journals and obtaining grant funding is really the major goals. If you are looking to establish an academic research program I would say that the number one most important thing you can learn is how to write properly. You will spend the majority of your time either writing papers or grants, so I would suggest taking some technical writing classes and also asking your mentor for samples of grants that were funded.

Industrial research

Most research in an industrial setting is research directed towards the development of a therapeutic or a diagnostic. The laboratory methods are very similar to that used in academic research, however the approach is quite different. The questions can range from basic discovery to mechanisms of action, dosing regimen, toxicity, and efficacy in a model system for therapeutics and assay development to determination of accuracy and reproducibility for diagnostics. While there is a certain satisfaction in publishing in academia, it is also nice to be involved in a team working towards the evaluation of a product prior to clinical evaluation.

Industrial drug, biologics, and diagnostics development

There are many options in development work for the biology major. These include regulatory, quality control, production, project management, and clinical trial monitoring.

As the complexity of the drug and diagnostic evaluation process becomes greater one of the hottest job growth areas in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals is in regulatory affairs. This job description applies to anyone who ensures regulatory compliance and prepares submissions as well as those whose main job function is clinical affairs or quality assurance. Someone with a job in regulatory affairs is required to be current with regulatory policies and procedures as well as maintain an understanding of the scientific and technical background of products. For more information check out the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (http://www.raps.org).

Another potential area for employment in industry is quality control (QC). In order to obtain products of high quality nothing must enter a manufacturing process without first having passed several tests, sometimes referred to as product release testing. This testing continues during the manufacturing cycle and is sometimes referred to as in-process control, and is then repeated on the finished product. Individuals in this line of work would develop and perform assays to fully characterize a product prior to release as a commercial product. Every lot received from a manufacturer must be independently qualified prior to use in manufacturing. This sounds straight forward but sometimes development of validated assays can be a challenge as can tracking down cause of a QC failure.

Production or manufacturing is an area of potential employment for the biology major. Development of large scale processes from bench scale processes can sometimes be a challenge. Commonly the procedure that works in a microfuge tube must be changed substantially when scaled up to 10, 100, or 1000 liters. Manipulation of the production process to fit these scales without substantially changing the end product requires quite a bit of knowledge of the basic process and the issues of production. If you are considering this area, you may want to take a few chemical engineering classes.

Project management is essential to the operation of any biotech or pharmaceutical business. Project managers develop plans and manage all aspects of a project to deliver within budget and on schedule. This often requires the coordination of research, development, regulatory, and manufacturing arms of a company to come up with a coherent plan and timeline. If you are considering project management, a few business classes would probably be helpful.

Clinical trial monitors are an important part of the development process. Once a trial is scheduled to begin a monitor may conduct a site initiation visit for the purpose of training site personnel about the protocol and study procedures. Monitoring visits will then be conducted periodically to evaluate the accuracy of the data and the compliance of the site with the documentation, methods and procedures involved in the clinical study. These jobs are typically in contract research organizations (CROs) and you will likely be handling multiple sites, so a lot of travel is usually involved in this job.

Alternative careers

I am commonly asked "what if I don't want to do science any more". Three options for the biology major are patent agent, sales, or business development.

A recognized Bachelor's degree in biology will make you a category A applicant for the patent bar. You will find requirements and instruction on how to apply, application and undertaking forms, registration examination questions and credit card payment form and instructions at http://www.uspto.gov/ip/boards/oed/exam/. A patent agent does not need a law degree, however you may want to consider working towards that if you choose this route of alternative employment, since patent challenges are common and only patent attorneys can handle patent litigation. The exam is administered by Thomas Prometric (http://www.prometric.com). A patent agent needs strong writing skills, a knowledge of patent law, and an active imagination. The last may be a surprise to some of you, but on many occasions I have seen a good patent agent come up with uses for a technology or discovery that the inventor did not contemplate.

Several of my friends are now in sales of either drug products, diagnostics, or research tools. These sales positions require someone who likes to meet and talk with people and is very organized and efficient. Most of them also require an enormous amount of travel. This is especially true in selling diagnostics or research tools as your area will likely cover several states. Having a normal home life in one of these positions can be a major challenge, so make sure your understand the number of days that are required to be in the field prior to accepting any sales position. If you are interested in this area, then business classes in addition to your science load would be recommended.

Business development involves the development of strategic partnerships and alliances for your employer. For example, a small biotech licensing or co-developing a promising drug with a larger, more established company. Positions in business development require good communication skills and an understanding of the business and the legal aspects of drug and diagnostics development. Particularly the ability to critically evaluate contracts would be helpful in this position as the majority of work in closing a deal is involved in negotiation of the term sheet and legal documents that follow. A few courses in contract law would be helpful for anyone considering a business development position.

In conclusion

Hopefully this article has been helpful to some of you in determining what to do with your potential biology degree. My last bit of advice is to be pragmatic and take a look at what the job market is in a particular area that you intend to focus on and make sure you understand the risks prior to committing to it. If you have any suggestions and comments on this article please don't hesitate to contact the webmaster at webmaster@thelabrat.com.

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