September 17, 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.
North Carolina State University
Case Western Reserve University
University of Kentucky
Wright State University
College of Our Lady of the Elms
Holyoke Community College
William and Mary
Department of Chemistry, Physics, and Geoscience
Alexandra (Sasha) Ormond Ph.D.: When I help students revise their resumes, I have them focus on transferable skills that they gained through their experiences. It may not necessarily be what students do that is important to companies, but their learned experience that students can take and apply in their new job. Students need to add a metric to their descriptions and how they have made an impact on a project, a job position, an organization, etc.
Alexandra (Sasha) Ormond Ph.D.: From what I've heard (from employers), companies look for employees that they can work with. I know that sounds silly, but companies want employees that are team players and work well with other individuals and in groups. These employees also need to work independently when asked to work on a project. They need to be organized, reliable, and trustworthy. Employees also need to be able to communicate well by writing and speaking. They must be able to follow directions.
Alexandra (Sasha) Ormond Ph.D.: This one is tough because it depends on the position! I think what is valuable for a chemist is being knowledgeable of working with instrumentation such as chromatography and mass spectrometry. Employees that are likely more attractive for a job position than another person have had the independent experience of working with instruments and can troubleshoot problems. Employees need to be able to explain the data that they obtained from an experiment and describe what the data mean. (Data is a plural term!) Problem-solving and critical thinking is very important for scientists.
Alexandra (Sasha) Ormond Ph.D.: Networking skills are probably crucial to earn more money, where you can land a competitive job, and to have options where you can choose a position. There are other things to look at other than just the salary. Benefits and work-life balance can help determine the big picture of whether the job position is one where a person "will earn the most." In this case, negotiation skills can come in handy, and Meredith College has offered opportunities for students to learn about these important skills.
Erin Krupa Ph.D.: I believe there will be an enduring impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our 2020 graduates. In such a short time, the pandemic has transformed the workforce and the way business is conducted. Most of the jobs our graduates are seeking have virtual interviews and this can mean accepting a job without ever having seen the jobsite, company, or future colleagues in-person. Many jobs have also, for the moment, transformed time and space, meaning that graduates do not necessarily have to move for a job or work in a specific location during the pandemic. The boundaries of work and home have been blurred, which gives graduates more flexibility in applying for jobs outside of the region they live in. Employers are starting to find that remote work does not reduce employee productivity, and can improve it in some cases, so remote work will become a continuing trend with many companies. I believe the pandemic will impact different sectors differently, but science and technology innovation is now at the forefront of our society. From developing vaccines to supporting the technology needs of a nation online, STEM graduates will be in demand to solve real-world problems to get us out, and prevent, future pandemics. I believe the effects of the pandemic on society will eventually fuel growth in the STEM market.
Erin Krupa Ph.D.: In my role at NCSU, I prepare STEM education professionals for the demands of teaching. For my students, the job market is strong. STEM teachers, who were in high demand before the pandemic, are in even more demand as the education system has had to contend with virtual learning for much of the past year. For education, and many other STEM disciplines, there has been an increase in people leaving the workforce due to the risk of COVID-19 infection and the childcare crisis, which have created vacancies that recent graduates can fill.
In the coming years young graduates will need skills related to their main discipline, but also the ability to adapt to changes, increased knowledge of novel technologies to share and communicate ideas, and the ability to multitask. I anticipate the pandemic will result in new innovations in how families and friends stay connected while physically separated by distance, how we educate our children, and how we care for our most vulnerable. This will result in new innovations and new enterprises. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Future of Education and Skills vision for 2030 argues that future-ready students "should be able to think creatively" (p. 5). New graduates will need to be creative thinkers, which will create new value and lead to more innovative ideas and discoveries.
Erin Krupa Ph.D.: First, I am hopeful that employers are understanding of the changes in the educational landscape during the pandemic and the difficulty students have had in finding similar experiences to pre-pandemic times. In addition, what will make candidates stand out are the extra things they do to obtain new knowledge and skills. This can range from internships to tutoring and from volunteer work to obtaining additional certificates. It is even more impressive if graduates can connect these items on their resume to improving their disciplinary knowledge or personal growth in areas that will make them a strong employee and collaborative colleague.
Glenn Starkman: The hardest thing to predict is the future. How different will the post-pandemic world be than the pre-pandemic world and the future we were anticipating? Will the success of the Chinese response to the pandemic, as compared to ours, in the context of the increased competition and antagonism between the worldviews of the US/West and China, translate into a decline in US economic and scientific leadership? Or will it inspire renewed investment in science and society so that we can outcompete them? Will the vaccination campaign succeed and renew public confidence in science? These macro questions seem to me likely to be more material for the future of our graduates than the fact that their classes have been remote for a year. We do know that coming into a job market during a downturn tends to have a lasting impact, so graduates will want to plan the next year carefully. This may be a good time to stay in school and gain some extra skills or otherwise alter their pre-pandemic expectations.
Glenn Starkman: Traditional skills are likely to continue to be important: critical thinking and communication, both oral and written. However, I think there is no doubt that there are two new types of skills that will become especially valuable: first, data science and modeling skills, and second, inclusion, diversity, and equity skills. The first can be accomplished by enrolling in the appropriate courses, with students often ahead of the faculty in figuring out how to learn what is needed. The second type of skills are more intangible and it's less clear how one might acquire them. Students may think that they are not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., and that that's the end of it. But for most careers, students will likely need to become even more self-aware in these areas in order to participate in and lead quality discussions on them.
Glenn Starkman: For students planning to head off to graduate school, what really counts is sustained and meaningful research in collaboration with faculty.
For students looking for work, it is harder to determine what's needed. Anecdotally, what seems to matter is obtaining, and better yet, creating opportunities instead of only doing what is expected of you, and thereby doing new things that will set you apart from other job candidates.
Department of Physics
Dr. Jose Lozano Ph.D.: I think one of the most noticeable impacts on graduates will be the possible lack of hands-on experiences in the laboratory due to COVID restrictions in most universities. While some students were allowed to continue their research work during the pandemic, many other students had to modify their research or postpone it to comply with the restrictions. Another problem could be the lack of available jobs in the midst of the pandemic. Some graduate students may find themselves in a difficult and highly competitive market while the pandemic is still going on and while the economy recovers.
Dr. Jose Lozano Ph.D.: In addition to the skills required in their specific area of study, most likely, they would need to have good technological skills and an open mind to conduct many activities remotely.
Dr. Jose Lozano Ph.D.: Research and internships, and any activity that demonstrates that the individual is a team worker and can collaborate in interdisciplinary activities.
Christopher Crawford Ph.D.: The coronavirus has had a profound effect on our daily lives but was incredibly disruptive when added to graduate school's intense pressure. While today's students are more connected online and adapt to Zoomland, it is much more challenging to work together on homework, and it is much easier to get lost in the shuffle. In the past, graduate students would work on problems together and spent much of their time in the supportive environment of their peers in shared offices, but now many spend long hours alone. I feel the most enduring mark will be the mental stress our students have suffered, but as they adapt, these trials will develop a more resilient and connected generation of PhDs.
Christopher Crawford Ph.D.: Physics has become a more collaborative endeavor, so teamwork skills are more critical than ever. Also, broad education and the ability to make connections between other fields and your research is essential. Unique combinations of cross-disciplinary training will give students a niche of expertise in today's saturated market of advanced degrees.
Christopher Crawford Ph.D.: I have found that my own students' experience performing research at National Laboratories or collaborating with expert scientists in their field has not only distinguished their resume but helped them to develop a network of potential employers and contacts. Speaking at national conferences is another right way to create this experience.
Karen McNeal Ph.D.: I would say getting familiar with how to process Big data and enhance GIS skills would be potential skill areas to continue to build up. There are some online courses one could l take without being enrolled in graduate/undergraduate programs to continue to build these skills (I do not have the plans offhand, but a google search would probably find some). Besides that, I would also say that trying to fine-tune communication skills about science to non-technical audiences would be good. If they are taking a gap year, use the opportunity to talk with the new people you are meeting about science in non-technical ways. See what works, what doesn't. Start building your confidence and experience doing so.
David Cool Ph.D.: The skill sets that young graduates will need when they graduate and enter the workforce are similar to and vastly different from just 15-30 years ago. If they are working in a laboratory setting, then the standards are the same; accurate pipetting, the ability to make complex buffers, and understanding how all the necessary equipment in a lab works. However, that is not nearly enough nowadays. The equipment and instrumentation have been expanding exponentially to the point that you will be working with both expensive and complicated instruments to generate a more considerable amount of data than anyone ever thought possible. Standards for labs today will be using digital imaging devices to capture everything from microscopic images, to western blots, to automated living cell analysis using multi-well plates. Multiplexed assays for 27 to 50 to 1050 cytokines and proteins have replaced single marker ELISA. But knowing ELISA will allow you to be trained to do the multiplexed assays. Most pharmaceutical companies have a great need still for 'old-fashioned' HPLC techniques. Every student I have had in my research techniques class, that graduates and goes for a Pharma position, comes back and tells me they asked them if they could run an HPLC.
Some were even given a test to see if they understood the concept. This then leads to mass spectrometry, LCMS, MALDI-TOF, and even GCMS, and everything that has been developed around those basic techniques is now commonplace in most core facilities and Pharma. New methods for flow cytometry, FACS, are necessary for the higher throughput drug discovery types of labs. Molecular biology has evolved from simple PCR machines that could run 24 samples, just 25 years ago, to digital PCR machines that can run 384 pieces today and email the final data to you at home, while you sleep. Knowing how to calculate the PCR data is extremely critical, as it isn't intuitive, and people tend to take short cuts. Knowing how to do that will be vital. Cell culture and working with animals are still common ways to generate data in any lab, and people who have those skills will always have a job. What do all these techniques have in common? They all have evolved to the point that no one is an expert in every one of them. Labs focus and concentrate on the ones they need the most and make use of them over a long period. What a student should develop is what I call a big toolbox. Learn as many of these techniques as you can, and then use them. Understanding that these are all cyclic and that you may get rusty, or the technology will change. It doesn't matter. By being trained in any of these, it will mean that you can be prepared for other things, that you can catch up and learn and update your techniques in your toolbox. This is what any PI running a lab will be looking for, someone who can be trained, and can evolve and adapt to different technologies, know how they work and how they can be used, what the data looks like when it is working well, and what it looks like when it isn't. The people who have these skills will always be employable.
There is a greater need than ever for workers to analyze data and synthesize a reasonable idea about what it means. This means that they must understand their experiments at a deeper level than just pipetting buffers and timing reactions. They must know what is happening, and if there is a problem, first, they have a problem and then how to solve it. Bioinformatics has become one of the fastest-growing fields. The increased amount of data, whether from standard assays run in an ordinary lab or high throughput data, needs more crunching. The future researcher will not be able to get by just knowing how to use a computer stats program but will be required to understand how to run data in R or Python or whatever new data analysis package is coming next. This becomes even more critical as the data becomes more complex, i.e., 27 cytokines analyzed in 3 different tissues over three other times, from 14 different groups, 6 of which are controls, with the rest being toxin and then treatment groups and authorities. A simple two way ANOVA just doesn't cut it. For this, machine learning tools, pattern recognition, neural networks, topological data analysis (TDA), Deep Learning, etc., are becoming the norm and are being advanced and changed to give more and more substance to what the data means. Students who can operate instruments to generate data and run more complex types of analysis on this 'big data' are in great demand. Likewise, learning the computer-generated design of drugs 'in silico' is a growing field that is now required to screen tens of thousands of compounds before generating them in the lab. This will need someone who can think three-dimensionally; even though the software and advanced computers can do that, it helps if your brain is wired that way, at least a little.
Aside from instruments and complex data analysis, consider where the clinical research is headed. With COVID19, the need to quickly advance drugs from potential use to clinical application has undergone an exponential increase. Lives are being lost daily to the lack of a vaccine or medication that can attenuate to any level the impact the virus has on the human body. The future clinical researcher will need to understand how the instruments work and how tests are run, how a vaccine works, how the virus or disease manifests itself, and how to get it under control. This will only be possible if the researcher is familiar with much of what I wrote above. You won't need to be an expert on virtually everything, but you'll need to understand it so you can use it to synthesize new ideas that may be applicable in the clinical environment. COVID19 is a perfect example. One of the early struggles with this virus was how to test for it. Antibodies weren't developed for it in the very beginning, so an ELISA was out.
In contrast, PCR is one of the most sensitive methods to identify genetic material, such as viruses. So, early on, PCR primers were created that could be used to run a PCR to determine if a person had a live virus. However, the first such PCRs had high false negatives and positives. Further refinement led to the creation of PCR primer sets and protocols that allowed for a more accurate and faster test. An advantage that anyone who has been trained in biotechnology will know the basics of developing a test. If it is a PCR, then what goes into that. Suppose it is an ELISA, how it works, and what you need to set it up. Imagine a test strip similar to the one used for at-home pregnancy tests. This came about in much the same way, through experimentation and developing a way to lower the false negatives and positives, to allow a quick, 5-minute test that could determine if a particular hormone was in your urine at a stage of pregnancy when many women may not have realized there was a possibility they could be pregnant. The person entering the workforce that can think in these ways will be employable and will be able to move between jobs and continue with a very successful and enriching career.
David Cool Ph.D.: The best place to work is wherever you can get a job. You will learn something new, no matter what or where you start. Colleges and universities employ people every day. However, the jobs there are usually called 'soft money,' meaning that your job ends when the grant runs out. Unless you have become such an expert and so critical to the needs of your PI or the department that they decide they will hire you to work until another grant comes along to pay you. Clinical research is expanding greatly in the U.S. now. Every medical student has to do research, and most large teaching hospitals have a research coordinator that will work to generate grants in the department. This means that lab personnel is required for these positions and valuable to the clinical research team. The clinical trial coordinator is a new and expanding field, becoming increasingly essential to help run even small clinical trials in a small university medical office. Universities are starting to create new degree programs designed to train people to run clinical trials. As one study starts, more will open up and you will have a lot of work to do. Government is also a great place to get a job, but you may have a more extensive hiring process, especially in today's market. However, large numbers of research labs do not work on a military base but, instead, run small projects that are sourced to and for the military. Since these are paid for by government funds, the salaries should be expected to be higher.
Of course, Pharma will be a choice, but this can be even harder to get in the door. Some companies don't advertise, and it is nearly impossible to reach a person in HR on the phone. You send a CV or resume blindly, hoping someone sees it. However, this example may help you think differently about Pharma. Twenty-five years ago, a larger Pharma company discovered that they had 100 PhDs running projects. But these PhDs weren't doing any grand thinking; they were running tests and assays, something any BS degree graduate in biology or biochemistry could do. So, the large Pharma company fired 90 PhDs, hired 200 BS degreed personnel, and let the 10 PhDs coordinate their efforts. They saved more money and made more progress.
David Cool Ph.D.: Where will technology be in 5 years? COVID again will be a driver of science and technology. Technology will need to adapt to understand the new diseases of tomorrow better, viruses that cross from animals to humans, how global warming and climate change will affect our environment, and the conditions and pests that will migrate, mutate, or expand. So, all the above techniques will be incredibly important as they are the basis for everything new that will be developed. Inflammation, though, will be a required field. So, instruments, technology, and research that impact inflammatory responses and immunology will be incredibly valuable. The examples cited above multiplexed 50 cytokine assays from 50 microliters of blood, combined with a digital real-time PCR for each of the cytokines and other related proteins, all analyzed by computer software written in real-time to take advantage of all the current literature that links each cytokine to another, and different pathways in the cells, and to their responses. This will be the technology necessary to beat the next infectious disease and that students graduating today will be competing in the job market.
Kristy Matulevich: The general advice I would give would be; first, to become a certified technologist or technician. Once students graduate from a NAACLS (National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science) accredited program, their next step should be to sit for their national certification exam. The exam which my program recommends taking is administered by the ASCP (American Society of Clinical Pathologists), which we feel is the "gold standard" in certification. Many employers either require potential employees to have this credential or give them six months, after they are hired, to pass the exam. Another organization offers a certification exam, AMT (American Medical Technologists); however, my program and the clinical sites in my local area, usually prefer the ASCP certification. Since becoming ASCP certified requires the technician/technologist to maintain their certification by completing continuing education requirements, new graduates who are approved will continue to learn more theory and techniques related to clinical/medical laboratory science, which is helpful at any stage in one's career, to promote lifelong learning. Some states across the nation also require licensure, so I recommend that a new graduate be aware of that when pursuing a job opportunity.
Kristy Matulevich: I feel that molecular testing, which has become more prevalent in the clinical microbiology laboratory, will emerge in importance in other aspects of the laboratory. This type of testing, which can have a higher sensitivity and specificity relative to current methodologies, can also decrease turnaround time, which would enable clinicians to diagnose and treat patients more efficiently.
Kristy Matulevich: This is a great question! I feel that there will be an enduring impact of the pandemic on graduates, which is two-fold. In one aspect, the financial implications caused by the epidemic may contribute to pockets of diminished employment opportunities for new graduates, in some regions of the country. However, other areas of the country, where the opposite is right, and the need for clinical/medical laboratory scientists is excellent. So, if a graduate does not see many open positions in their immediate area of the country, they may find more opportunities if they expand their horizons. The second way the pandemic has impacted graduates may be considered a "silver-lining" (since I am trying to find some of those every day). The epidemic had caused many clinical sites to suspend their students who were completing their clinical practicums. I feel that our new graduates have seen the laboratory education community come together, as a cohesive group, focused on providing the best methods to enable our students to be successful in the completion of their programs. The students were able to see, firsthand, how working as a team, being flexible and adaptable, and willing to sacrifice for the greater good can accomplish even the most daunting tasks. These are extremely important "soft-skills" that those working in the clinical laboratory must have to be successful and, hopefully, happy in their careers.
Janet Williams Ph.D.: Students should try to get as much experience as possible in the early part of their careers. If they are interested in research science, they should look for laboratory positions that will teach them various techniques applicable to many fields in the medical and biological sciences (such as DNA sequencing, PCR techniques, CRISPR, ELISAs, Western Blots, histological techniques, and many others). Students should ensure that they are proficient in at least two computer programming languages (such as Python and "R") that will enable them to process the data that they are generating in the lab and will enable them to present the data in a meaningful way to their supervisors and colleagues.
Janet Williams Ph.D.: Bioinformatics, Data Sciences, and Biostatistics. Scientists that cannot create programs to analyze their data and present their data will be insufficiently prepared to work in the research sciences.
Janet Williams Ph.D.: I do not think that there will be an enduring impact on students concerning the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. We will overcome this virus as we have other infections in the past. Students should learn to adapt to situations and make the best of the case, despite how unusual or complicated the job might be. When they look back, it will be a minor inconvenience that we should have been far more prepared for than we were.
Sage Franetovich: Keep an open mind, and be willing to try new things, and work with all kinds of people. We, the professors, are preparing you for a job market that is constantly changing.
Sage Franetovich: In general, there will be a significant demand for video conferencing and remote work. Computer-based research using databases and statistical analysis will be necessary. In labs, PCR, genetics, and sterile technique will be used more and more. This is an ideal time for students who are studying biotechnology.
Sage Franetovich: Graduates who studied Biology during the pandemic will complete their degree learning not only their content and material but also technical skills that will help them in a wide range of fields.
Don Snyder: The job market has traditionally been strong for computer science majors because tech crosses over into all different sectors. But COVID-19 has exposed some sectors within tech that are more vulnerable, such as travel and hospitality. Graduates may now be more discerning when looking at different industries and how resilient they may be in future economic downturns. The pandemic has also forced 2020 graduates to adapt quickly, adjust to online classes in their last semester, and virtually go through the entire interview process. New graduates can build upon this new-found adaptability and resilience going forward as they navigate the job search process and the transition from college to career and beyond.
Don Snyder: Strong tech markets in the U.S. include Austin, Raleigh, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Columbus. Some markets are established in tech, while other markets are more up-and-coming. Smaller cities that may be "off the radar" include Huntsville and Tucson. Graduates need to look at different factors when exploring cities, including the cost of living. The dollar will go a lot further in Raleigh than in San Francisco. And some cities that were once more affordable may have a higher cost of living now due to the recent influx of residents.
Don Snyder: The tech sector has been able to pivot easier in response to COVID-19; the nature of the work lends itself to the virtual environment. Technology has allowed people in other sectors to be more productive working from home. The tech industry will continue to innovate going forward, as it always has, but perhaps in different ways in response to COVID-19, including paying more attention to underserved communities' access and delivering educational content to a broader audience.
COVID-19 has also changed the definition of the office. Some tech organizations have allowed their employees to work from home for as long as they are with that organization. Recruitment for tech talent is competitive, and offering a potential new hire to work from anywhere may provide a competitive advantage. A candidate may be more inclined to accept an offer to work for a big tech company while living in Tulsa, over moving to Silicon Valley. Functional areas within the tech sector that should continue to see growth in the next five years include artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, cybersecurity, and cloud computing.
Dr. Betsy Smith: I would advise students just graduating to be flexible and open-minded in their job search. Chemistry is a challenging major, and students who succeed in it have learned how to learn, so they shouldn't assume that pure chemistry is the only thing they can do. One growing field is biomedical research, and chemistry majors are often qualified for jobs in that area. If you have other strengths, like writing, there are often jobs that can combine them as a technical writer or work for a science journal. There are jobs out there that might be perfect for you that you haven't heard of until you see an ad for it, so be open to different possibilities.
Dr. Betsy Smith: Honestly, I think anytime a scientist tries to predict what will be "big" in a few years, they're likely to fail. That said, I think there's a growing interest among consumers for more "green" products, so research into those areas will likely grow. For instance, we might see attempts to develop new plastics that are safer for the environment and humans, perhaps biodegradable. Organic chemistry traditionally uses harsh solvents and chemicals that are difficult to dispose of safely, so there is an effort to find alternatives to these. Analytical chemistry techniques for separating and identifying compounds, like GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), will likely continue to be necessary. CRISPR, the relatively new gene-editing technology, is likely to become even more widely used on the biochemistry side of things.
Dr. Betsy Smith: I am sure the pandemic is going to have lasting effects on everything, chemistry included. I think all industries are going to continue allowing more working from home, when it's appropriate. For bench chemists, that will rarely mean fully at-home because of lab work, but it might mean going in, setting up an automated reactor, and monitoring it from home while analyzing data. There will be a lot more research into coronaviruses and how to treat coronavirus infections. That seems like it would be more biological or medical, but there's a lot of chemistry involved in drugs and drug design, and a lot of overlap between chemistry and biology.
Helen Mango Ph.D.: Emphasize skills learned - field, laboratory, computer, writing.... Also, that geology is multi-disciplinary. It uses chemistry, physics, math, biology, tech.
Helen Mango Ph.D.: Anything with GIS.
Helen Mango Ph.D.: Short-term, yes. It is currently harder to find work because companies and governments are holding back hiring. Long-term, no. Geologists have too much to do: geologic hazard assessment, environmental clean-up, exploration, resource use and management, land planning, etc.