January 31, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
Howard University, College of Medicine
California Polytechnic State University- San Luis Obispo
University at Albany, State University of New York
University of Akron
University of Central Missouri
Howard University, College of Medicine
Dr. Janine Ziermann: The pandemic disrupted the entire world for almost a year now, which impacts everyone. Graduate students will be impacted due to delayed graduations, and missing opportunities for internships, practical research, or in person collaborations. However, the pandemic forced graduate students to become hyperflexible in both coursework and research. Students rapidly learned to adapt to new technology, which created useful skills that will benefit them in future academic careers. Moving towards research focused careers, it highly depends how productive the labs were, where the students did their thesis.
While worldwide labs were forced to shut down, some researchers had sufficient data to keep publishing. Others were in institutions where research on a smaller scale was still possible. Unfortunately, most research projects were negatively impacted to some degree, some even stopping completely due to the lack of lab access, specimens being destroyed or university closure for non-essential personnel. We have students in our program who have continued to publish papers during the pandemic from research data completed prior. We also have graduate students who are planning to defend in 2021 and might have to wait until the Summer rather than Spring because of the pandemic delaying final experiments and dissertation completion. This may impact future applications to PhDs, postdocs, or faculty positions.
Dr. Janine Ziermann: The trend to be hyperflexible was already starting before the pandemic and became even more emphasized during the pandemic. Future workforce, both academic and research, will be required to think on their feet, learn to adapt immediately when unforeseen events occur, and be able to navigate a multitude of programs (teaching, collaboration, analyses, etc.). Being constantly aware of trends in teaching is a plus for all that apply for positions at universities.
Current and future graduate students have already proven to be resilient, a key skill that must continue. Clear communication is more important than ever with the increasing number of international students in graduate programs and international research collaborators necessary to complete vital areas of research for publications, grants, presentations, etc. Overall, graduate students should note what things they liked and disliked during their time in their respective program courses. They can then choose to keep some aspects and modify others when they are hired as faculty members, research post-docs, or research faculty in the next stages of their careers.
Dr. Janine Ziermann: Good teaching evaluations or teaching experiences as a Teaching Assistant (if possible), published research, experience in a variety of methods (teaching and research) or any combination of these skills are always welcome. Grades alone are not a guarantee for success anymore. Fine-tuning specific skills, both in teaching and research, is important for any future position.
Robin Forbes-Lorman: Overall yes, but I believe Ripon college graduates are at no disadvantage. We have found ways to teach well and give students similar experiences. These graduates will be able to be flexible and adaptable, they have needed to take ownership for their learning- these are all good things.
Robin Forbes-Lorman: Quantitative reasoning, information processing. How to ask good questions and get an evidence-based answer (i.e. weed though the vast amount of information).
Robin Forbes-Lorman: Authentic problem solving in groups, as is done in our Catalyst 300 course. See Catalyst curriculum here- Ripon
Real writing and scholarship, which also occurs with faculty and Ripon (e.g. publishing peer review studies). For example, I recently published a paper with an undergraduate as first author.
Benjamin Grady Ph.D.: Much like every other facet of society, the global pandemic has, and will continue to impact college graduates. In the short term, the job market certainly looks different with priorities having changed. What the global pandemic has highlighted is the importance of careers relating to scientific research and medical and health care. Recent vaccine development relied on years of previous molecular research to understand immune response, transcription, and gene expression.
Benjamin Grady Ph.D.: I believe upcoming college graduates will still need to show the ability to solve problems, cooperate, and communicate effectively. Adaptability has allowed us to navigate many changes in the way we have operated over the past year. Graduates that possess diverse educational and service backgrounds are more likely to demonstrate the ability to adapt to changing conditions in the workplace.
Benjamin Grady Ph.D.: As I mentioned previously, demonstrating a broad range of experiences, skills, and abilities seems attractive to employers. College is more than just being present in the classroom and earning grades. In the field of biology, having hands-on research experience as an undergraduate really sticks out on resumes and CV's. Oftentimes these research experiences can open doors to admission into graduate programs or landing a job in the laboratory research field. Involvement in student groups, clubs, and other campus organizations can also make a difference when being evaluated for job opportunities and admission into advanced programs.
California Polytechnic State University- San Luis Obispo
Department of Biological SciencesWebsite
Pat Fidopiastis Ph.D.: My research on the association between a beneficial marine bacterium and a species of squid ground to a halt during the pandemic. However, it took very little effort to convert my molecular-oriented lab to the headquarters for SARS CoV2 wastewater surveillance at my university. In order to pull this off, additional skill sets needed to be developed quickly. For example, my graduate student needed to learn how to operate wastewater auto samplers and follow more rigorous safety protocols. By making this switch, money became available for salaries, equipment, and supplies, allowing me to continue to operate my lab. My own experience is playing out across the entire biotech industry. The pandemic has forced companies to come up with strategies for becoming more nimble to handle rapidly changing circumstances.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic has invigorated vaccine and drug development (including repurposing older drugs), rapid diagnostic tools, gene editing in disease treatment and prevention, nucleic acid sequencing, immune therapy, and bioinformatics among other pursuits. Companies with expertise in these technologies and the ability to quickly adapt them to emerging problems will always be among the winners. For example, Johnson and Johnson developed a vaccine platform for Ebola that was seamlessly adapted for use against SARS CoV2. As a result, they were able to quickly bring their vaccine to Phase 3 clinical trials and secure a promised payday of 1 billion dollars for a safe and effective vaccine.
Pat Fidopiastis Ph.D.: I would strongly encourage students in any field of biology to gain as much molecular biology experience as possible. Experience with basic DNA techniques is fairly common in undergraduate classes. In addition, most undergraduate institutions have a general microbiology course that allows students to develop the basics of aseptic technique and handling bacteria. However, even in a lab-heavy teaching institution like mine (Cal Poly), it is typical for students to graduate without any hands-on experience with quantitative PCR methods, nucleic acid sequencing, RNA and protein techniques, animal viruses, or cell culture. These skills will give biotech-oriented students an advantage when applying for jobs after graduation.
When most research at Cal Poly was suspended, I was still able to offer students the valuable opportunity to analyze large bacterial 16S rRNA metagenomic databases. To analyze these massive DNA sequence datasets, students needed to learn how to use software such as geneious, mothur, QIIME, BEAST, etc. Our ability to generate a tidal wave of nucleic and amino acid sequence data has far outpaced our ability to analyze these data. Thus, people with a strong background in bioinformatics are highly valuable. As an added bonus, these are skills that can be applied remotely!
Biotech companies such as Illumina and ThermoFisher and governmental agencies such as the NIH offer internships in molecular biology, genomics, and bioinformatics, so I always encourage my students to apply. I've formed a partnership with two local biotech companies that provide us with collaborative research projects, supplies, and funding in exchange for a pipeline of job-ready, talented students. Even if a student is planning a career in academia, I encourage them to seek opportunities in biotech in order to experience the difference in how the two worlds operate. In addition to biotech options, I strongly encourage students to contact researchers at Universities near their home town to look for research opportunities.
Pat Fidopiastis Ph.D.: In my experience, keeping an open-mind and being confident was crucial to my success. When I was a third-year undergraduate, my mind was made up that I would be a medical doctor. But, I discovered a passion for microbiology research and realized that this could dovetail nicely with my desire to be in health professions. I secured a research position in a clinical lab working with gonorrhea. However, after a few months the PI abruptly informed me that he was retiring. I was directed to another lab that focused on gut microbial ecology of herbivorous fishes. This hardly sounded appealing, but it was my only option for microbiology research at my institution so I begrudgingly joined that lab.
I focused my efforts on developing molecular tools to study fish gut microbes, at a time when PCR was a brand new tool and commercial DNA extraction kits didn't exist. The first time I looked at a fluorescence-stained specimen of gut contents under the microscope and saw a constellation of microbial shapes, sizes, and arrangements, I was hooked. My other passion is physical activity, especially water sports like swimming and surfing. I somehow managed to stumble on a field of microbiology that allowed me to spend some days in the lab, and others on a research vessel, free-diving off the coast to collect fish for my research. Aside from nurturing two of my passions, I never imagined that I was on the forefront of one of the greatest scientific revolutions of all time- the explosion of interest in gut microbial consortia and development of the molecular tools to study them!
This research opened my eyes to the importance of "good bacteria" and their role in the health of their animal and plant hosts. After completing a master's in the field of fish gut microbiology, for my Ph.D. research, I moved on to the "simpler" binary association between the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri and the squid Euprymna scolopes. Listening in on the conversation between V. fischeri and the squid was much easier than the cacophony of the fish gut association. I quickly learned that this was an elegant system for understanding the role of beneficial bacteria in host development and ecology. However, my ability to be open-minded was challenged yet again when my advisor abruptly announced that were were moving from LA to Honolulu. I thought my life was perfect in LA so I didn't want to leave.
I weighed options of joining a new lab, but there were no other beneficial microbe-host interactions labs to smoothly transition to. Once again, I was pulled out of my comfort zone to a completely new life that I did not ask for. Once I stopped digging in my heels and accepted the way things were, Hawaii became home and provided some of the happiest memories of my life. Taking chances, embracing what life throws at you, and having the confidence to make the most of whatever situation you're in are perhaps the most valuable pearls of wisdom I can bestow on students that seek my advice.
University at Albany, State University of New York
Department of Biomedical SciencesWebsite
Douglas Conklin Ph.D.: Tough to tell how much of this will translate into opportunity trends. I think everyone now has a renewed appreciation for those occupations that address the susceptibilities that humans have. Medicine, nursing, epidemiology, immunology and biomanufacturing are likely to increase in strength as fields. It's possible that there will be an increased need for individuals with experience in workplace safety analysis and management especially as relates to infectious diseases in the workplace. I also expect that there will be decentralization of some job types as working remotely has become the norm in many places.
Douglas Conklin Ph.D.: The main skill that always stands out is research experience. Taking what you've learned in the classroom and applying it to a real-world problem is invaluable - and it's never too early to start. Research skills are highly transferable. Experience with thinking that is both objective and creative is useful in many fields - not just biology research. A recent study by the National Institute of Health concluded that obtaining an advanced degree in a research-based field is worth $1 million in additional earnings over your career - whether you stay in research or not. Being able to identify, understand and solve problems are skills that all organizations want their team members to have.
Douglas Conklin Ph.D.: The good news is that there seem to be more and more positions in biological fields every year. There are opportunities in many locations. I often counsel students I know to think about the possibility of needing a plan B when considering where to work. Moving to an area of the country that has a concentration of organizations in your field will mean that you won't have to move if you want to change jobs - or are forced to do so. Since many people's lives get more complicated as they get older - spouses, children, other family - working in a part of the country that has a concentration of organizations in your field may make it less disruptive in the future. It often makes it easier to network with people in your field if they work down the street.
School of Arts, Science & BusinessWebsite
John Dubé Ph.D.: I think the job market for students with a graduate degree in biology is very promising. With a Master's degree, students can teach at the Community College level as either adjunct instructors or full-time instructors, they could also teach at larger institutions, like Chatham, as adjuncts for lecture courses or laboratory sections. There are jobs in the pharmaceutical industry as technicians or junior scientists. Other industry jobs include work in ecology, software engineering, bioinformatics. Finally, there are positions in healthcare that overlap many of the potential jobs I've already listed.
One of the biggest trends is the capacity to work remotely and to obtain specific skills (i.e., data management).
John Dubé Ph.D.: In terms of resumes, students need to demonstrate the soft skills. How did they use networking skills in school or at a job? How do they communicate effective, verbally and in writing? In what ways did their coursework or job help with critical thinking? Teamwork, a positive attitude, and leadership skills are also critically important. I also think that employers will want them to have the technical skill necessary to transition into a position (e.g., Zoom, Teams, word processing, spreadsheet management, and others specific to the particular field).
John Dubé Ph.D.: I think one of the positive aspects of the pandemic is that location is starting to not matter as much. There is a ton of remote work happening right now and I don't see that dramatically changing. There are other fields where, yes, location matters. There does seem to be growth in the south and southwest areas of the country, and most of the larger cities continue to have pretty high turnover making the job market favorable.
University of Akron
Department of BiologyWebsite
Dr. Randall J Mitchell: You will never have all the background needed for any particular position, but having a wide variety of experience and a record of responsibility and completion will help demonstrate that you can learn on the job. Any experience of any kind can be important for that demonstration. It's obviously nice if the experience is related to your desired job, but sometimes that's hard to do - build up to it in any way you can, and try to develop connections and network. Some of the best experiences come from being in the right place at the right time, and that is more likely if you are in a lot of different activities and get to know people. For field and environmental types, volunteer or paid work with park districts, time outdoors, and experience with identifying plants can make a big difference. Experience writing reports and presenting projects is important. And as an aside - grades aren't that important here. Focus on what you learn and what you can do, not just on getting good scores. Some of the best learning comes in the hardest things for you, so don't avoid hard classes that will be valuable.
Dr. Randall J Mitchell: Writing clearly, demonstrating (and developing) responsibility, and anything even distantly related to your desired career is helpful. If you can do this for pay, that's obviously helpful and convenient, but you probably will need to do volunteer work, at least in part. For field and environmental biology students, get out hiking, fishing, hunting, botanizing, and managing the property. The more field experience you can get, the better. Use this time to sample and try as many options that interest you as possible. Figure out what makes you happy and what you are good at. Or, you may need to use that time to make some money so you'll have a cushion once you return to school.
Dr. Randall J Mitchell: Coding and/or using software (even just a spreadsheet) is important. Photo and image software abilities are useful too. For field and environmental biology students, GIS (geographic information Systems - computer maps) can make a big difference in making you a desirable hire (if nothing else, get good with google earth pro, which is free and pretty powerful!). I think that drone skills and remote sensing/image analysis will be of increasing importance. Abilities with radio tagging and GPS tagging can be a help too in the right situation. DNA and environmental DNA skills also have a role and will be of increasing importance.
University of Central Missouri
School of Natural SciencesWebsite
Dr. Scott Lankford Ph.D.: The healthcare fields are experiencing high demand still, so I would predict a strong job market to continue in that sector. We also continue to see demand for graduates in technology and research-related careers, so I do not expect a decreased need for graduates in the sciences. If anything, the pandemic has either delayed or derailed some students on their path to the job market, so there might be increased initial competition, once everyone gets back on track.
Dr. Scott Lankford Ph.D.: A student can achieve many co-curricular experiences in a gap year that would add tremendous value to their degree. In the sciences, these include getting a job related to your area of interest to build critical experiences that can inform your future career direction, enrolling in small certificate programs to obtain credentials verifying specialized skills relevant to your desired career, and taking advantage of internship or research experiences that are still available. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been impacted by the pandemic, but they are still out there.
Dr. Scott Lankford Ph.D.: Never stop networking in your discipline. The apparent impact of this is increased future opportunity, which causes people, happy with their situation, to focus inwardly on their organization. However, these networking experiences not only improve your professional capacity, but they sometimes lead to positive changes in your organization overall.
Department of Biological and Environmental SciencesWebsite
Dr. Jodi Lancaster Ph.D.: Graduates should be excited about the wide range of opportunities available! Recent graduates often need to obtain a few years of experience in the field beyond college to increase their record of competency with common laboratory technique. Recent graduates are mostly eligible for research technician I or laboratory scientist I positions. Graduates should expect to continue learning and developing their skills at the bench and in written and oral communication. Ask your employer whether they have a program to support you in earning a Master's degree.
Dr. Jodi Lancaster Ph.D.: Wow, this is challenging to answer because the pace of change in biotechnology is so rapid. I expect we will see increased efficiencies in standard biotechnology techniques such as PCR, RT-PCR, and qPCR. The need to analyze vast data sets is already becoming necessary (i.e., use of data mining software, R programming, etc.). Assuming the mRNA-based COVID19 vaccines are successful, there may be opportunities to reformulate some current vaccines with a lower efficacy.
Dr. Jodi Lancaster Ph.D.: Students need to be realistic about starting salaries immediately post-graduation, mostly, depending upon their experience in biotechnology techniques and research. There are plenty of jobs available. Almost 100% of Etown's Biotechnology graduates are employed in their field of interest. Salaries increase as individuals gain more experience and education. Earning an MS degree increases salary prospects. What I've observed in our graduates is that after a few years of working in the biotechnology field, they can easily make lateral and vertical job changes that increase salary.
Department of Biological SciencesWebsite
Shailesh Lal: The recent advancement in vaccine technology from three different pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, has completely altered the trending job market of this ongoing pandemic. Vaccines with more than 95% of predicted vaccination efficacy and their availability in the next few weeks have lit up a light at the end of the tunnel. Although the next several months are going to be deadly, according to CDC prediction, the availability of vaccination is likely to bring the pandemic to its knees by April-June next year. Accordingly, the economy will be bound in all sectors of life outside the norms of the essential workers. The job growth for bioengineers, particularly in biomedical engineering, is projected to grow by ~5% between 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the average projected for all other occupations in other fields of engineering.
Shailesh Lal: Of course, online education and long distance teleconferencing are predicted to have a dramatic impact on everyday life after the pandemic. As Bill Gates recently said, 50% of the corporation related travel will be replaced permanently by virtual meetings. The advancement in vaccination development, mass production, and enhanced distribution to billions of world population will significantly and positively create an unprecedented job market in the pertinent biomedical engineering field. The biomedical engineers are also expected to play an integral role in long term medical implications and rehabilitation of recovered patients from COVID19 infection, and preparation of a task force to combat future pandemics.
Shailesh Lal: Biomedical Engineering is a thriving field that implements engineering technology in the health profession to fundamentally transform the field of medicine. As the aging group of the American population is expected to live much longer and be more active, the requirement for biomedical devices and associated procedures, such as hip and knee replacement, is expected to considerably increase. Bioengineers gain employment in diverse fields, which includes academics in higher education, pharmaceutical corporations, research, and development, manufacturing medical devices, etc. Biomedical Engineering skills are in high demand because they possess a rare combination of expertise in both the engineering and medical field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average U.S. bioengineering salary is nearly $100,000. link