No Ph.D., No Problem: BioPharma Companies Welcome Candidates with Only a Bachelor’s Degree
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Breaking into the life sciences industry can be intimidating, especially for candidates without a graduate degree.
But the landscape is changing, and now more than ever, there is ample opportunity for applicants with only a bachelor’s degree. BioSpace’s job board currently lists over 4,500 positions that only require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree.
Still, there are certain things those who want to climb the ladder with just a bachelor’s degree should know, including what companies are looking for in these candidates and what challenges they may face along the way.
The Hiring Landscape
Placing candidates with only a bachelor’s degree makes up about 80% of Atrium Staffing business' efforts, Holly Markman-Graessle, executive vice president, Atrium Staffing, told BioSpace.
“We’re in a market right now where there’s a multitude of opportunities with not enough candidates,” Markman-Graessle said.
The types of jobs that life sciences hiring firms place candidates without graduate-level education include entry-level lab technician roles as well as roles in the clinic and corporate roles.
EPM Scientific, a life sciences recruitment agency, hires candidates in several core markets, including research and development, pharmacology, biometrics, medical communications and more.
“In terms of markets we recruit in, [applicants] just having a bachelor’s degree do really well in clinical operations, anything in commercial operations, quality and medical communications,” Jae Yoo, executive director, EPM Scientific told BioSpace.
Preparing for a Job in the Industry
Whether a candidate is still completing their undergraduate degree or looking to start a career in the life sciences after graduating, there are things they can do in the process to best position themselves for a role within the industry.
“Any exposure within the life sciences industry is a huge plus, even working in any type of healthcare setting,” Yoo said.
For applicants who already have a degree, it is possible to leverage previous experiences in healthcare or research settings.
“Even someone who is graduating with a nursing degree would be great for corporate roles where their knowledge in that space would be phenomenal,” Markman-Graessle said.
Hiring managers at companies like Ozette Technologies look at several different skills when interviewing potential applicants.
Corrie Ortega, Ph.D., vice president of operations and product strategy, Ozette, told BioSpace the hiring managers at Ozette assess technical experience, such as the types of roles an applicant has held, but skills beyond the bench are also important in the interview process.
There’s one key skill set that’s so important, the company dedicates an entire interview to it.
“We really want to make sure there is culture fit. We are a mission-driven organization, and it’s important that we find the right fit for both them and us,” Ortega said.
The best candidate, she said, will have strong soft skills and will excel in communicating and empathizing with their peers.
Climbing the Ladder
If you’re wondering if it’s possible to climb the corporate ladder without a graduate degree, the answer is a resounding yes.
Both Cherie Green, vice president of translational science, Ozette Technologies and Michael Comeau, senior scientific affairs liaison, Ozette Technologies have worked their way up the ladder in the industry without ever having completed a graduate degree.
Green worked in the field of marine biology for a year after she graduated with her bachelor’s degree before deciding that it wasn’t something she wanted to do for the rest of her career. Instead, her interests were in the field of oncology.
After a job description piqued her interest, Green found herself with a position in a hematopathology lab, and for the past 25 years, she has slowly worked her way through a variety of positions, including those with more authority and management at companies like Amgen.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve just led with what I am interested in, and I learned what I am good at. I am good at building labs, building teams and building assays,” Green told BioSpace.
Comeau has been working in the industry since 1989. He started in an entry-level role, and over time, he became an expert in therapeutic development for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, co-authoring over 50 publications while working at companies like Immunex and Amgen.
Beyond publications and patents, working in the industry also gave Comeau invaluable experiences such as participating in scientific and international meetings, producing and delivering poster presentations and giving talks to large audiences.
“I always was surprised that someone with a bachelor’s degree could not only make it in this field, but advance, too,” Comeau said.
Working Against 'Ph.D. Bias'
Although both Comeau and Green have enjoyed long, successful careers in the life sciences industry, they do note that there are some challenges.
Comeau noted that some companies have different scientific tracks for employees based on if they have a Ph.D., and he said that a Ph.D. does help open certain doors. He recounted times he has been invited to participate in committees or speak at conferences just for the invitation to be retracted once the organizers found out he didn't have an advanced degree.
Comeau calls this “Ph.D. bias."
Still, candidates without graduate degrees can be proactive in finding companies that don’t perpetuate this type of bias. “I have always looked for environments that were open minded, creative, exploratory and innovative,” Green said.
Green said that candidates can avoid companies that make a point to differentiate between technical staff and scientists, placing emphasis on the fact that scientists are people who have graduate-level degrees.
“If scientists are contributing to the overall project, they should be recognized as scientists, regardless of their education,” Green said.
To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.
Many who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the sciences are encouraged to pursue further education to prime them for positions in academia or high-level positions in industry, but there are also benefits to taking time to work in the industry instead.
Markman-Graessle said that for recent graduates who aren’t sure what their interests are, starting out in a job in the industry can expose them to many different scientific roles, both inside and outside of the lab.
Ortega concurred. “You’re learning and producing at the same time. You get the incredible opportunity of learning, but then seeing that translate into value added for the overarching project and the team,” Ortega said.
Some, like Comeau, may never find it necessary to go back to school. When he joined the field, he said he “immediately fell in love” with the work.
“I told myself I would give myself a year [in the industry] and then consider going to graduate school to get my Ph.D.,” Comeau said. “I never went back.”