Tales and Musings From A Life Sciences Job Seeker: The PhD Industry Career Gap

Posted in Career Advice

Ryan Raver, PhD author of the Grad Student Way blog and formerly of the University of Wisconsin_Madison (my alma mater) posted a piece on his blog about his personal discoveries and revelations about searching for an industrial life sciences jobs.  In my opinion, Ryan’s piece is one of the best that I have read to date that provides a reality-based road map for recently-minted PhDs who want to eschew a postdoc and enter the life sciences industry (he is now working for Sigma in St. Louis, MO)

Ryan has allowed me to reproduce his brilliant piece on BioJobBlog.  Also, I recommend that you visit his blog which is choc full of great ideas and strategies for graduate students considering careers outside of academia.

5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training

November 14, 2013 by 

The PhD Industry Career Gap

We already know that the PhD Market is saturated, and articles that “promote awareness” or point out the PhD-Industry Gap are a dime a dozen. What’s missing from the equation are the solutions.  The reality is that the first job that you obtain directly out of graduate school is the most crucial. It is also the most difficult. Therefore you need to be aware of all of your possible options.

The odds are against you. You look like a science person. You want to go into industry but they look at you as an academic with only one marketable skill: bench science.

The doom and gloom articles aren’t going to help you get anywhere. And frankly, I think we are all just tired of reading them.  Many experienced working professionals are aware of what the market looks like, but as long as they are employed, who wants to think about what they could have faced?

The newly minted PhD is experiencing the hardships right now and searching for answers. The reality is that many just don’t know how to provide real practical solutions and the attitude is that “hard work” will get you to where you need to be. And it’s “good luck” to you because you are entirely on your own.

If you could rewind and go back a few years maybe you wish you knew all this sooner rather than later. Maybe you finally decided to join the 85% club and face reality (only 15% will land a tenure-track position within 5 years). But you need to put the past behind you and move on.

The bottom line is that if you have the right personality, drive, leadership, and strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work well in a team environment, then breaking into a field of your choice is very feasible. You just need the know-how. This ‘right personality’ will be valuable as you work in a team and develop your needed skill set(s) that will carry with you into your future career. Although there is a glut of capable job seekers, do not let this discourage you.

Before we dive deeper, you need to understand that there is no set career path, and everyone’s career path is UNIQUE. Many working professionals stumble into their current career path by accident, chance, change of interests/goals, life situation, or series of occurrences. But hopefully with the advice given, you will find your calling.

If you ask, let’s say an experienced manager in industry, how they got to where they are today-many will tell you that they did not plan on jumping into their field directly from their PhD. That’s because the majority of PhDs don’t really do any career planning. You’ll jump into the postdoc only to leave after you spent X amount of years figuring out what you truly want to do. During graduate school, the focus is on getting the PhD and the attitude is that things will just unfold and work themselves out. This can continue throughout the postdoc position(s).

There is a sense of entitlement among PhD’s. Their ego takes ahold of them. “I worked this hard, therefore I deserve this position or X amount of salary.”  Guess what? You have to pay your dues just like everyone else.  The PhD doesn’t guarantee you the job, and although you may have published a Nature paper, it doesn’t add any value to a company or client (and when you hand your business card to a customer, they see your name, company, your position title, letters next to your name, and nothing else). The real question is can you work well in a team? Can you communicate effectively without putting yourself above others? Once you realize there is a bigger picture than just YOU and how you are just a piece of the puzzle, than you will finally start to see the benefits.  Be someone who under-promises and over-delivers.

There is also a backwards strategy that many PhDs take on during their career search. They focus on the position and match that up to the company. The problem with this is that it takes the focus off how you can add value to a company. It becomes more about you. The point is that if the position that you obtain within the company will add the most value based on your strengths and contributions, then it is the best fit. Therefore, when doing your job searchfocus on the company first, how you can add value, then backtrack to find the correct position. This means you should have multiple roles in mind that play on your strengths and not just one. If you haven’t figured this out yet, here is what you missed earlier.

When it comes to a resume or cover letter, there is too much emphasis placed on these two items. They are simply a tool to get you an interview and nothing else. Once you reach that interview stage, you need to get over what is written on your resume and focus on the value that you can add to a company. Not brag about what you did with your thesis work. No one really cares to hear about your thesis anymore.  A PhD is a training program to help you develop as a scientist and launch your career.

If you are banging your head against the wall that’s probably because you aren’t doing it right. Or you just lack the marketable skills to crossover (which is discussed later in this article). Or it could be a combination of both.

To quote Donald Asher who is author of Cracking the Hidden Job Market, “You get a job by talking to people: You don’t get a job by having a great resume, a good interview look, a firm handshake, or a solid education. You get a job because you get in front of somebody and they decide to add you to the payroll. Most job seekers look for jobs by talking to computer software. It’s faster to talk to people. People are more likely to pass you along than computers are. Computers are picky. People are helpful.”

You can beat the odds. Frankly, you have to beat the odds.

“The United States quit creating jobs more than a decade ago. Then the Great Recession hit, which I date from September 14, 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed. This smacked down workers even more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1999 and 2009 the U.S. economy created only 121,000 new jobs, a growth rate of .01 percent/year. A decade to create 121,000 net new jobs! It takes 125,000 new jobs per month  to keep up with the population growth alone. It will take considerable time to create enough jobs to absorb the 30 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged and off the market.”

The economy is exacerbating anxieties. A survey done in 2012 in Nature shows the concerns of many scientists around the world as the global recession squeezes research budgets. The shortfall in grant funding is nothing new, but many will soon realize that industry offers many attractive ‘alternative’ career options.  On the bright side, the unemployment rate for PhD’s is below 4%. But getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are immune to economic hardships or the struggles of finding a job.

Half of PhD candidates in the life science and engineering field still requireseven years or more to complete their degree. If you have invested all this time and have decided to finish, don’t you want to see a return on your investment without ‘giving up’ even more years of your life? In other words, if you don’t plan on staying in academia, why are you spending 5+ years as a postdoc?

So the question becomes, how can you beat the odds? What can you do NOW as a PhD student or postdoc that will give you the marketable skills to crossover? And when you gain these marketable skills, how can you couple this with NETWORKING so that you are tapping into the “hidden job market”?

Solutions to Beat The Odds

Now that you are aware of the problems and what you will be faced with or are going through, there needs to be solutions that give you an edge.

If you haven’t already, make sure you read the article: “The missing piece to changing the university culture.” The biggest challenge that we are faced with today as PhD students is a culture change:

70% of life science PhDs pursue a postdoc after graduation (based on 2010 data) which means that PhDs are unsure of their careers and/or unequipped for a nonacademic career. 40% of graduate students are indifferent or unsatisfied with their graduate school experience. Current PhD programs will continue to train primarily for an academic career. But this is a ‘false hope,’ and you may be in your mid-30’s until you’ve come to realize this and decided to make a change. It is time that Universities, faculty, and professors stop looking the other way when it comes to fixing the problem.

The Biotechnology and Life Science Advising (BALSA) group was founded in 2010 by a group of dissatisfied postdocs and graduate students. The result is that through their collaborative efforts, they have developed a model where post-docs and graduate students work with startups in the form of 6 to 8 week consulting projects. The result? BALSA has worked with 37 companies and 53 projects. Graduate students and postdocs are coming out with real world business experience.

Even researchers with NO prior business knowledge are making valuable contributions to both early and late stage companies. As a PhD student or postdoc, you are trained to analyze and think critically. The best part is that BALSA’s partnership with Washington University in Saint Louis and the Office of Technology Management has provided Universities and Principal Investigators as a means to commercialize their work.

Although BALSA’s efforts look promising, we are still left with the question as to whether these efforts can be expanded on a national level. Also, are they sustainable? Will Universities and Professors push more for the adoption of these efforts? Only time will tell.

The bottom line is that you aren’t going to sit around and wait for BALSA to come along to your University. So in the meantime, you have to go create these opportunities on your own. BALSA may give you hands-on experience (via projects) with industry challenges, business concepts, competitive intelligence and market analysis, technology due diligence, regulatory affairs, project management, and licensing/business plan development. Does this sound like a checklist of wishful thinking? Well, there is nothing stopping you from gaining some or a combination of these skills and experience during your time as a graduate student/postdoc.

So here are the top 5 solutions to gain valuable skills outside of your academic training and beat the odds once you get your PhD:

1)      Consider Consulting

There are many consulting opportunities available for scientists. These many options span freelance work, working for a consulting firm or even starting your own consulting company. Whichever that may be, I would highly recommend doing freelance consulting work during your PhD. This could shuttle you into a management consulting position upon graduation.

Find a unique skill set that you are good at and offer your services to a company. If you need an example, check out how a graphic illustrator/scientific visual communicator went freelance during and out of graduate school.

Another example is self-taught SEO or social media marketing consulting. Many companies (including start-ups) are blogging and doing digital marketing, and learning the ropes of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If you are already running a professional blog (all PhD students should!), you have already learned how to effectively run social media and marketing campaigns, and chances are you could do part-time work offering your services. You are also developing your technical writing skills in addition to sharing scientific ideas and making worldwide network contacts.

**Management consulting can be an excellent way to put your analytical and scientific training to use while you develop your business expertise. If you have the passion to innovate, drive change, and help companies be more successful, it might be the career choice for you. You will learn how to lead teams, manage people, and take on challenging and interesting problems. The connections that you make with top business professionals will also open doors to future career opportunities. And, your hard work and efforts could also have a huge impact on the future direction of the company.

Further Reading:

http://www.branchingpoints.com/one-branch-ahead/phd-to-consulting/

http://www.phdcareerguide.com/consulting.html

http://www.phd2consulting.com/

2)      Consider doing a summer internship during your PhD studies or during your postdoc

As mentioned in a previous article, the most practical solution for many is to obtain a paid internship (ideally) during your time in graduate school. Internships are CRUCIAL and I cannot stress enough that graduate students and post-docs should take a summer off (or balance the internship 50% and graduate school 50%) and obtain industry experience. That way you will come out with real-world industry experience and some marketable skills. You need to negotiate and leverage this in any way that you can.

A lot of companies are willing to try you out for a short 3 months. That initial spark will come from their interest in you via informational interviews (see below). Chances are if they like you at the end of the internship, you might also have an offer waiting for you upon graduation at that same company.

The first step to land an internship position is to do informational interviews and start networking. You can read more about informational interviews here. Read: How To Network and Add Value to Yourself and Others to get a good starting point. Just because internship positions aren’t posted doesn’t mean they can’t be created or they don’t exist. Ask around and you’ll be surprised what you will find.

Internships also boost Postdocs’ skills and really add to their marketability. The challenge as any might imagine, is getting your PI to agree.

3)      Consider auditing or taking business classes, participating in workshops, or leading/organizing business events on campus.

If you are a science person, then take a business class and start networking with business professors and MBA students. If not business, find a secondary interest and step out of your comfort zone. Get involved in patent law, tech transfer, computer programming, or entrepreneurial classes. This will come down solely to you and your interests. Many business professors will allow you to sit in their class even if you aren’t taking the class for credit. Entrepreneurial management classes for example, will expose you to writing business plans and doing SWOT analysis, and growing local starts-ups via group projects.

4)      Start a side business, professional blog, develop a product, or find like-minded individuals preferably with an entrepreneurial mindset or business drive.

5)      Network every week. Then network some more.

Step 1: Network to obtain an internship and gain the marketable skills that you need

Step 2: Network to obtain a job post-PhD

Did you catch that? You need to network to create opportunities. Then you network to create more opportunities beyond that. During or after PhD, it doesn’t matter. If you lack marketable skills, you’ll need to network to obtain them or find out what those specific skills are. Even with internship experience under you belt, you will need to network beyond the PhD to land an industry position. Obviously, it is MUCH easier to use the power of networking when you already have the marketable skills to find an industry job versus networking from scratch (i.e. skipping Step 1 and jumping right into Step 2). But whatever stage you are in, it is never too late to start. There is no stopping when it comes to networking and the truth is that it is a lifelong process and requires continual effort.

PhD graduate students and postdocs simply don’t network enough. How can you understand the needs of a company if you don’t speak to people? How can you know the industry, the market, and the customer? Chances are a startup company in your area has a need. What value can you add to fulfill that need?  This ties into #2 above.

There are many more examples. The reality is that it is not impossible to create opportunities, take on an internship, do consulting, and/or run a professional blog during your PhD and come out with a huge leg up upon graduation. Those that do #1-#5 or a combination thereof will stand out from the crowd and will most likely beat out other PhD students who focused on nothing else but getting their degree. Chances are you will land a job in industry and work in a fulfilling career. Gaining the marketable skills to crossover is no easy task, but with hard work, patience, and the right connections anything is possible.

Keep pushing and you will see good things come your way.

Email me with any questions. Future article will be on how to transition into Product Management, Marketing, or Sales.


Further Reading:

Internships Boost Postdocs’ Skills, Worldliness, and Marketability

The PhD Industry Gap

Life after the PhD: Re-Train Your Brain

3 Things PhDs Leaving Academia Should Know About Business

Taking Charge of Your Career

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Seeking!!!!!!!!!

Internship Nation: A Critical Look at College Internships

Posted in BioJobBuzz

Ross Perlin has written a book entitled “Intern Nation How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” that takes a critical look at the role of internships in today’s job market. Perlin, a former unpaid intern himself, contends that American companies are taking advantage of college students who believe that internships, paid or otherwise, are the only way to land a job in today’s economy. He estimates that each year 1 to 2 million persons take “resume burnishing” internships to increase the likelihood of downstream employment.

Recent estimates made by the College Employment Research Institutes suggest that as many as three quarters of approximately 10 million American students at four year colleges and universities will complete at least one internship before they graduate. Internships can be found almost everywhere a college student looks for them including; Fortune 500 companies to Disneyworld to Capital Hill to Silicon Valley to Main Street Experiences can range from fetching coffee to cleaning toilets to more substantive activities but almost always at little or no pay. Perlin noted that the number of internships that are “school-like, full-time dedicated training programs is vanishingly few.” Further, he astutely observes that the internship craze has taken on a life of its own and is supported by on-campus career centers, online middlemen and many employers looking for free entry-level workers.

While Perlin sees the value of structured and paid internships he rightfully excoriates academic career centers for offering unpaid internship opportunities to their students. To wit, he wrote: “An overwhelming majority of colleges and universities, as well as some high schools, endorse and promote unpaid internships without a second thought, provide lucrative academic credits that employers wishfully hope will indemnify their firms, and justify it all with high minded rhetoric about situated learning and experiential education” he wrote. Further, he is incredulous that some employers “require not only that their charges work for free, but that they also obtain academic credit, which usually means paying (tuition and fees) to work for free.”

There is no question that college internships once gave students who took advantage of them a “leg up” on the competition. However, the sheer number of available internships has relegated them to little more than a box to check on a job application. In other words, internships are quickly becoming a requirement rather than an option. Moreover, according to Perlin, prospective employers are becoming increasingly aware that “these experiences (internships) can mean just about anything: your parents are well connected, your school required it, your barely showed up at the office. ”That, if you were counting on your experience as an intern to make a difference between gainful employment or not, it may be time to rethink your strategy.”

Because the life sciences companies are almost always behind their non-scientific counterparts, most internships offered by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies continue to be paid, structured and training-minded. With this in mind, many of my former students (primarily those who were motivated and good at networking) were able to transform internship experiences into full-time employment. However, internships have unfortunately replaced many industrial postdoctoral training programs: which may be good for graduate students but not so good for PhDs looking for industrial postdocs to transition from academia to the private sector.

Despite the growing criticism and problems with internships, I still think they are a viable approach for students and postdocs to acquire the “prior industrial experience” that is now necessary for academic scientists seeking job opportunities in the life sciences industry. Needless to say, once the life sciences industry “catches on” to the ways that internships can be manipulated and leveraged to their advantage, they will no longer be the “tickets to employment” at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that they once were.

Until next time….

Good Luck and Keep the Faith!!!!!!!!!

 

Commentary: Unpaid Internships

Posted in Career Advice

By now, most BioJobBlog readers are aware that internships (paid or otherwise) have become a prerequisite at many companies to secure a full time employment. While I think internships are a great idea to jumpstart a career, not all internships are created equal or worth it. Put simply, it is up to the prospective intern to determine whether or not the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Nevertheless, according to a report by the College Employment Research Institute three-quarters of the 10 million American students enrolled at four year colleges and universities will work as an intern before graduating. 

The increasing popularity of internships has been mainly promulgated by American colleges and universities who—according to Ross Perlin the author of “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges”—have become “cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom failing to inform young people of their rights or protect them from the miserly calculus of employers.” While Mr. Perlin’s comment may sound a little critical—especially to those who have either worked as unpaid interns or are slated to work as one this summer—he has a point both legally and morally. To wit, the United States Department of Labor says that an intern for a for-profit company may work without pay only when the program: 1) is similar to one offered in a vocational school; 2) benefits the student; 3) does not displace a regular employee and 4) does not entitle the student to a job. Further, the employer must derive “no immediate advantage” from the student’s work and both sides must agree that the student is not entitled to wages.

Interestingly, in an attempt get around the regulations, many fortune 500 firms and other companies have cut deals with some colleges and universities to offer its students equivalent college credit for the internship experience.  “Not so fast” says the Labor Department; “academic credit alone does not guarantee that the employer is in compliance.” To overcome this objection, some colleges have actually asked interns to pay for the credits, thereby justifying an unpaid internship experience. While this may legitimate in some cases, Mr. Perlin laments:

“Charging tuition for students to work in unpaid positions might be justifiable in some cases—if the college plays a central role in securing the internship and making it a substantive academic experience. But more often, internships are a cheap way for universities to provide credit—cheaper than paying for faculty members, classrooms and equipment.”

In support of this, a recent survey of more than 700 colleges and universities found that 95 percent allowed the posting of unpaid internships in campus career centers and on college websites! And, only 30 percent required their students obtain credit for the unpaid internship experience. The remainder, according to Mr. Perlin: “evidently, were willing to overlook potential violations of US labor laws.”

An easy fix for the unpaid internship crisis would be for colleges not to publicize (or post) unpaid for-profit company internships. Further, many colleges and universities should eliminate the internship requirement for graduation. Finally, colleges and universities should stop charging students to work without pay—that is simply un-American!

Coincidentally, the unpaid internship trend coincides with other disturbing economic and labor trends like the growing numbers of adjunct professors, contract and temporary workers and freelancers who live paycheck to paycheck. Moreover, the growing push for unpaid internships eerily coincides with recent attempts by state governments to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Both are attempts to weaken organized labor and labor laws in this country. For those of you who may not know, it was the labor movement that abolished child labor, established a 40 hour work week, guaranteed overtime pay and provided workers with two weeks vacation each year. 

Finally, colleges and universities and for-profit US companies that exploit college students as unpaid interns ought to be morally ashamed of themselves. College tuition is already expensive enough and most companies have the financial resources to pay their interns minimum wage. If a company can’t afford an intern’s nominal salary maybe that company shouldn’t be in business.  To that I say, whatever happened to the quintessentially American ideal—“fair wages for honest work?”

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!

 

A Jobseeker's Guide for Finding Life Sciences Internships

Posted in Career Advice

Internships are rapidly becoming a “must have” item for scientists who are interested in landing jobs at pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical devices companies. Further, these days, internships are considered by to be a legitimate substitute for the “previous industrial experience” requirements that most entry level scientists must have to be hired.

Most companies offer internships because it allows them to evaluate a person’s ability and possible employability without having to pay a high salary or provide them with benefits. In essence, a company is test driving a potential new hire before it decides to buy. To that end, if an intern doesn’t pass muster or fit in with the prevailing corporate environment, then the company is not obliged to do anything except to thank him/her for a job well done and move on to the next intern! 

Unfortunately, while many life sciences companies think internship experience is a great idea, there is no dedicated repository or database for life sciences internship opportunities. Further, many companies that have formal internship programs don’t highly promote or advertise them (this makes no sense to me but then again I am not running a life sciences company).

To address the growing popularity of internships, a couple of websites, Internships.com and the Internqueen.com have appeared in recent years. These sites list and promote internship opportunities and help to match internship seekers with the right company. Also, both sites offer tips and insights for those seeking internship opportunities. Although neither of website is dedicated to internship possibilities for life scientists, Internships.com is actively trying to build its capability and reach for the life sciences industry.

For more detailed information about internships an article by Phyllis Korkki, author of the NY Times “The Search” column entitled The Internship as Inside Track” is worth a quick read.

Finally, please check out Internships.com and let me know what you think. Also, tell them that BioJobBlog sent you!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!!

 

Looking for a Life Sciences Internship? Internships.com May Help

Posted in BioJobBuzz

A common lament from that I frequently hear from graduate students and postdoctoral scientists  at career development meetings is the need for "prior industry experience" to qualify and be considered for an industrial science job. Invariably, someone asks: “How in the world am I supposed to get industrial experience if nobody is willing to hire me as an industrial scientist?” Prior to the financial meltdown, I frequently advised PhD-trained scientists seeking industrial jobs to consider positions in smaller, local biotechnology companies.

While the pay, visibility and status is likely to be less than that of employees at major pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, spending a year or more at a smaller company still qualifies as industrial experience. This, in turn, opens the door for new opportunities at larger, more established life sciences companies; which tend to offer more career options for industrial scientists. However, over the past three years or so, over 200,000 pharmaceutical employees have lost their jobs and many biotechnology companies are on the verge of bankruptcy. Consequently, entry level positions at smaller local biotechnology companies are gradually disappearing as job possibilities for newly-minted graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Interestingly, the financial crisis and high unemployment rates have elevated the once lowly corporate internship to “must have status” for job seekers who are interested in landing entry level positions at many life sciences companies.  While corporate life sciences internships are in high demand, they are typically not well publicized and frequently limited to students enrolled in certificate and degree programs. Put simply, corporate life sciences internships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, which are in high demand, are extremely difficult to find!

For the past several years, I wanted to create a website devoted to internship opportunities for life sciences graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To that end, I approached several life sciences search engine companies and a couple of placement firms but was unable to convince them of the value and need for such as site. About a week ago, I came across a website called Internships.com that is exclusively devoted to “all things internship.” While the site is still in beta and the number of life sciences internship opportunities is limited, I think that it has enormous potential for graduate students and postdoctoral scientists who may be seeking industrial internship opportunities.

In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, I have no relationship, financial or otherwise, with Internships.com. I just think it is a great idea and hope that the folks behind Internships.com are successful!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Internship Hunting!!!!!!!!

 

Internships: To Pay or Not to Pay Is the Question

Posted in BioJobBuzz

There is a growing controversy over the rules governing whether internships offered by employers should be paid or unpaid. Many wage and hour regulators maintain that interns must be paid when their work is of “immediate advantage” to the employer. In this case, the interns should be considered employees and must be paid at least minimum wage. However, as the number of internships continues to rise, an increasing number of interns have complained of being placed in unpaid positions doing largely unskilled or menial work. Most labor experts agree that this provides an immediate financial advantage to an employer because the intern is doing unpaid work that is typically performed by a paid employee. 

Because of the growing popularity of internships, the federal government has established six criteria to determine whether or not internships can be unpaid. These include that the internship must resemble instruction or training given in a vocational skill or academic institution and that the intern does not displace or replace a paid employee and that the employer does not gain an immediate advantage from the intern’s work and activities. In other words, if an intern’s experience is mainly educational or beneficial to the intern the internship does not have to be a paid one. To confound the issue, the California labor department recently issued new guidelines on whether or not internships should be paid, with the new rules giving employers more latitude not to pay them

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the new rules stipulate that interns need not always be paid when they do some of the same work as company employees. The new guidelines suggest that interns could do occasional work done by regular employees as long as it “does not unreasonably replace or impede the education objective for the intern and effectively displace regular workers.” I suspect that other states will follow suit and redefine their criteria for unpaid internships.

Don’t be surprised if you see a spike in the number of unpaid internships offered for the summer of 2010 and beyond.

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!

 

Biocareer Development: The Truth About Internships

Posted in BioJobBuzz

The recent economic downturn, coupled with the growing competition for jobs at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, has markedly increased the importance of internships as pre-requisites to gainful permanent employment. In the past, life sciences companies were willing to take a risk on promising new employees who did not possess any previous work experience. However, the glut of life scientists on today’s job market has empowered prospective life science employers to adopt a “let’s-try-them-out-before-we-hire-them” approach to employment. Like it or not, this is the way business is done these days.

While many life sciences companies continue to compensate their interns, an article in this past Saturday’s New York Times suggested that there is a growing number of organizations that are failing to pay their interns. This has caused federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor. Many regulators say that violations are widespread, but that it is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.

According to the article, in 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, up from 9 percent in 1992. This means hundreds of thousands of students hold internships each year; some experts estimate that one-fourth to one-half are unpaid. Further, there are data to suggest that unpaid internships have been skyrocketing in recent years; mainly fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience for their résumés. For example, a career development expert at Stanford University noted that “employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.” Other universities report similar trends.

While the primary goal of internships is to educate and prepare students for future jobs in their chosen fields of endeavor, some employers tend to view even paid interns as free labor and: asking them to do perform unskilled, menial tasks rather than pay hourly workers to perform them. Nevertheless, there is no question that spending a summer or semester as an intern at a life sciences company seriously increases the likelihood of permanent employment (either at that company or one of its competitors). After all, the internship experience (whether or not you performed any relevant work) qualifies as previous industrial experience. And, as many recent jobseekers will tell you, “previous industrial experience” is an absolute requirement these days to land a permanent job at a life sciences company. 

In the past, I unabashedly recommended that students who want to land jobs at life sciences companies consider taking an unpaid internship if a paid one wasn’t possible. However, I am no longer certain that this approach may continue to be viable or valuable one. To that end, working as an unpaid, life sciences intern taking lunch orders, fetching coffee, copying journal articles or conducting PubMed sources for the VP of R&D may not be helpful to you or a prospective new employer.  With this in mind, I suggest that before agreeing to a life science internship (paid or otherwise) that you ask for a job description and a list of your responsibilities and functions. If a company is unwilling or unable to provide you with this information, I highly recommend that you move on to the next possibility. After all, nothing is life is free!

Until next time….

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!