Do You Need a Graduate Degree to Have a Fulfilling Career in the Life Sciences?
No – and here are some tips to help you find a great job without one
It’s a million-dollar question, especially if you’re on the cusp of finishing your undergraduate degree.
For high-achieving science majors, it’s almost expected that they pursue some sort of graduate education, whether that be an M.D., Ph.D., Pharm.D., Master’s, etc. Decades ago, you could probably make a strong argument that yes – a graduate degree would open significantly more doors for you in the life sciences. In recent years, though, as the industry and job market continue to grow and change, this is not necessarily the case. Jobseekers from all over are finding careers in biotech, biopharma, and medtech that are not only fulfilling, but also have immense opportunities for career growth. Biomanufacturing and Quality Control/Assurance are just a few notable examples.
I spoke to some industry professionals on the BioBuzz team to see what tips they had for life science students who want to skip graduate school and pursue an engaging job right out of undergrad.
Make the most out of your undergraduate education
A basic science degree (biology, chemistry, biochemistry, etc.) is often enough to get your foot in the door in an entry-level position in biomanufacturing – a field that is in dire need for talent and has a lot of future upward mobility.
To stand out for such roles, it pays to involve yourself in volunteer and internship research opportunities to truly build your skill set and make yourself a competitive job candidate. Employers are interested in your previous lab experience, as it shows that you’re accustomed to following protocols and have a basic understanding of core techniques, including PCR, assay work (ELISAs, western blots), cell culture, and perhaps flow cytometry. Even basic lab courses (often requirements for life science degrees) cover many of the hard skills employers are looking for in entry level positions, so taking advantage of those in-class opportunities and showcasing them on your resume can really make a difference.
For individuals interested in non-bench roles such as regulatory affairs, science policy, and science writing, lean in on non-science and elective courses to help pad out your skillset. A business or communication double-major or minor can hold good weight for these roles, but if you’re toward the end of your degree taking a few courses is better than nothing. And for those seniors who are at the end of the college diving board, you could also consider pursuing and taking relevant workshops instead.
Pay attention to the industry
Having a general understanding of the biotech/biopharma ecosystem and how it works will help you in navigating the space as a jobseeker. Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an expert – having a very basic understanding of drug development, for example, shows interviewers that you’re truly interested in the field.
Subscribing to media organizations like BioBuzz (hint hint) and reading our articles and newsletters will help you create a basic foundation that will prepare you to enter the industry. Additionally, attending campus networking events or faculty seminars will further expose you to the inner workings of the field and is a great opportunity to create key connections and possible mentors for future guidance. More often than not people are happy to give back and talk to students, so it pays to stick around a few minutes and chat after the session ends.
Don’t take your “soft skills” for granted
Communication (oral and written), integrity, teamwork, and the ability to work under pressure are all more general, but highly important skills that are valued by all employers, and will make you all the more equipped to handle any challenges you might face when job seeking. Throughout your undergraduate career, take note of the things you’re good at, what skills you feel could be developed more, and continuously be on the lookout for ways to improve (like workshops, mentorship events, or subscribing to media outlets as noted above).
Know that it’s okay to bounce around
The resounding response is clear that a graduate degree isn’t a requirement for success in the life science industry. However, the path is a lot less straightforward than M.D. to physician or Pharm.D. to pharmacist.
Having the world as your oyster can be intimidating, to say the least, and many new jobseekers often think that their first job dictates what field they’ll be in the rest of their lives. Taking this path requires you to truly know yourself and your values, be open to new experiences, and not be afraid to admit when you’re unhappy and it’s time for a job change. Talk to people who have been in the workforce for 5-10 years, and you’ll learn that in most cases career paths are winding roads.
Don’t view your undergraduate degree as a mere stepping stone needed to obtain higher-level degrees; there is a treasure trove of careers out there that you are more than capable of achieving.