Life science Ph.D.s as industrial strength technicians?

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Sandra Porter

"Why won't biotech companies hire people with Ph.D.s to be technicians?"

"I already have a Ph.D., how do I find a job?"

These were some of the questions that commenters left after my earlier posts (here, here and here) on biotechnology workforce shortages.

Unfortunately, for these students and post-docs, the shortfall of employees in the biotech industry is largely a shortfall of technicians. It is a sad thing that promoting science careers can have the unintended consequence of creating a surplus of unhappy post-docs and even more unhappy graduate students. Perversely, many of the efforts to expand and improve science education often don't reach the students who'd be happy to be technicians. Both groups get misled by the incorrect notion that science jobs require a Ph.D.

I'll tackle the job searching question in a later post, for now, let's focus on why it is that having a Ph.D. could make job searching harder.

My own experience
This wasn't for a technician job, but a few years ago, I was in the position of hiring someone to help me on an education project. I interviewed four people and had some of them present seminars to our company to tell us about their work and why they were interested in working for us. Surprisingly, only one person had read anything about my project and really wanted to work on it. It was pretty clear from talking to the other people who applied that they viewed this position as a foot in the door and really wanted to do something else. One guy was even obnoxious about it and acted like the job was totally beneath him and I wasn't doing the right kinds of things anyway!

I was stunned after that interview and truly mystified about why anyone would expect me to hire them to do a job that they didn't want!

I remember that experience and I think this is part of the problem that people with Ph.D.s have with finding technician jobs in industry. Attitude matters. No one wants to hire you to do a job that you don't want.

That doesn't mean that you can't get hired, but it does mean that you must do your homework and learn something about what the jobs entail before you waste your time and energy getting rejected for jobs that aren't a good match and you don't want to do anyway. (How do you do that? That's another post.)

Voices from industry
I spent many years helping students find jobs and I just returned from a meeting (Educating Biotechnicians for Future Industry Needs - sponsored by National Science Foundation and American Association of Community Colleges) where we heard many people from the biotech industry discuss job skills and qualities that they would like to see. I'm drawing on those comments in this section. Lora, commenter number 4, described the situation best, but I'm also going to take a shot at it. I do not mean to offend and I am not trying to insult anyone, because I know you, my readers, would never match these types of descriptions, but these are the sorts of things that I've heard industry representatives say:

Why do we like community college graduates?

  • "low turnover rate"
  • "able to follow protocols as written, multiple times"
  • "good attitude"
  • "good work ethic"
  • "salary is often commensurate with education, i.e. we can pay them less"
  • "good hands-on skills"

Why don't we like to hire PhD's for technician positions in industry?

  • "have a higher turnover rate" (in other words, it costs too much)
  • "expect a higher salary" (Pay scales are often tied to education level, it's just not that easy to pay someone less than their education level demands and with a Ph.D., you'd start at the top of the pay scale for that job.)
  • "they get bored too quickly"
  • "not able to follow protocols repeatedly" (see above)
  • "some fail to understand that work involves an 8 hour day"
  • "some have an entitlement attitude"(I certainly encountered that when I was interviewing people)

These are some of the reasons that I've heard. Criticisms like attitude and work ethic feel rather personal and insulting when you know those people have never met you! Perhaps those generalizations are a bit unfair. As far as turn-over rates and job satisfaction, some companies have collected and studied the data and make hiring decisions on the basis of those data. Genentech is famous for this. If the people in industry think you'd be bored making buffers or culturing cells 8 hours a day, even if they don't know you could do this in your sleep (maybe that's what they're afraid of), they've got data on their side to show that you probably won't want to do this for very long.

On the other hand, I also know a few people who have Ph.D.s or other advanced degrees who work as technicians, staff scientists, or lab managers in academic labs. Those kinds of jobs are a lot like being a post doc but with better pay and better benefits. I also know people with Ph.D.s who manage core laboratories. They don't always get the respect they should, but they do get to collaborate on lots of different kinds of projects and take weekends off.

Perhaps, it boils down to this. There are valid reasons why companies don't generally hire Ph.D.s for technician jobs. Companies want to hire people for jobs if those people view the jobs as something less than an optimal position. They want to hire people who will be happy in the positions that they have to offer. It's not going to be a good match unless they find people who want those jobs and plan to stay.

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