Scientists: Is a Master’s Degree the New Bachelor’s Degree?

Scientists: Is a Master’s Degree the New Bachelor’s Degree? September 14, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Do you need a PhD to work in the life sciences?

The quick and simple answer is: no. Nonetheless, the more realistic answer is: it depends on what you want to do.

In a Forbes article by Bruce Kasanoff, a recent college graduate, Mikayla Ulrich, asked him if it was true, noting, “University graduates are feeling more and more pressured towards post-graduate education. … It has been explained to me that the master’s degree has become the new bachelors and, to get even an entry level job, you need to have either a masters or PhD.”

Survey Says…

Kasanoff is a career coach, author and ghostwriter. He notes that a 2014 Census Bureau survey found almost 75 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields didn’t have STEM occupations. And this was a survey of 3.5 million people.

The survey found that about half of the people with degrees in engineering, computers, math and statistics do get a STEM job. But, according to The Washington Post, “most of those who dedicate their college years to STEM subjects veer into other fields.” (Including the author of this article).

Those overall statements don’t quite cover the truth of the survey, however. Liana Christin Landivar, a sociologist with the U.S. Census Bureau noted to the The Washington Post that a percentage of biology majors, for example, go on to medical school, and because of Census Bureau classification, doctors aren’t listed among STEM professionals.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce told The Washington Post in 2014 that the study didn’t indicate there was an oversupply of STEM graduates. Rather, many of them acquire jobs in fields that require technical knowledge, such as supply-chain management, inventory control and quality control.

However, USA Today pointed to a more recent survey in January 2017 that indicated STEM-based jobs make up more than 25 percent of Glassdoor’s “50 Best Jobs in America.” And it’s important to note that many of these job titles don’t necessarily have matching degrees. For example, the top-seeded position is Data Scientist. That’s a hot field everywhere, including biopharma, but people working in the area don’t necessarily have degrees in “data science,” even though there are some training programs in it that can bypass graduate school. Degrees for data scientist are often mathematics, statistics, business, computer science, or physics.

Glassdoor's next top five jobs are Devops Engineer, Data Engineer, Analytics Manager, Tax Manager, and Solutions Architect. These were based on number of openings (more than 4,000), median base salary of $110,000, and company satisfaction ratings.

What Do You Want?

Kasanoff says that facing these facts, “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want?’ There is a difference between being interested in science and feeling that you were born to be a working scientist. My physician friends spent the better part of a decade training while the rest of us were working, but that was the path to being a doctor so they took it.”

If you have a life science degree and want to practice medicine, you either need to go to medical school and get an MD or DO, or perhaps still attend graduate school and become a Physician’s Assistant (PA). Nurses, X-ray technologists, and medical technologists often have excellent healthcare careers with Bachelor’s degrees.

It’s true that if your goal with a life science degree is to lead research programs in academia or industry, you will need a PhD and possibly post-graduate work. However, there are plenty of research assistant positions—the people doing much of the hands-on laboratory work—in both academia and industry. Those typically require a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Biopharma Manufacturing an Overlooked Option

One often overlooked area in biopharmaceuticals is manufacturing. Philip Mericantante, Life Science Executive Recruiter for Adante Staffing, told BioSpace, “In general, there are a lot of manufacturing jobs at different levels, on your smaller scale as well as your commercial manufacturing conditions.”

Entry level manufacturing jobs include manufacturing operators and quality control analysts. Many of these jobs call for bachelor’s degrees in some sort of life science field, such as biology, biochemistry, chemistry, engineering, life sciences, and technical sciences. Higher level positions may require advanced degrees or more experience, such as senior quality control and quality assurance analysts, investigators, principal scientists, and program managers.

Bachelor’s Level Biopharma Jobs

But there’s a long list of good biopharma jobs that call for only bachelor’s degrees, including Biomedical Policy Analyst/Business Systems Analyst, Medical Affairs or Regulatory Affairs Specialist, Biochemist, and Biomedical Engineers. Examples include:

1. In-House Clinical Research Associate (CRA) for Technical Resources International in Bethesda, Md.

This position calls for a Bachelor of Science in health-related field or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), and experience with IRB submissions.

2. Regulatory Affairs Specialist II/Senior at Somalogic in Boulder, Colo.

This position calls for a Bachelor’s Degree in a scientific or technical field such as chemistry, biology, or molecular biology or equivalent work experience, and would prefer a Bachelor’s with six years of experience or a Master’s of Science with four years of experience.

Master’s Level Biopharma Jobs

It’s not particularly new that to move up from the more “technician”-oriented positions, a master’s degree may be needed. That was true in the 1980s and it’s true today. Positions routinely call for a “bachelor’s degree and five to eight years’ experience” or a “master’s degree and two years’ experience,” or some variation.

Here are examples of Master’s level biopharma jobs.

3. Associate Scientist, Conjugation Chemistry – Zymeworks in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The position calls for a Master’s of Science in a relevant scientific discipline with a minimum of two years of related scientific experience, experience with Antibody Drug Conjugates, and experience in protein expression and purification.

4. Senior/Principal Programmer for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals in Gaithersburg, Mary.

The right candidate will have a Bachelor’s of Science or Master’s of Science in mathematics, statistics, informatics, life or social sciences. The position also calls for extensive statistical programming or other relevant functional-area experience in a Phase III clinical trial environment.

PhD Level Biopharma Jobs

Of course, the individuals leading programs and research in biopharma are typically PhDs or MDs. Current job examples include:

5. Senior Scientist/Associate Director, Safety Pharmacology and Toxicology, Revolution Medicines in Redwood City, Calif.

This position calls for a PhD or equivalent in cancer biology, cell biology or a related position, and at least three years of relevant industry experience in toxicology for Senior Scientist level or five years of experience for Associate Director level.

6. Postdoctoral Fellow, Computational Biology, Immuno-Oncology at Celgene in Seattle, Wash.

Pretty much by definition, this position calls for someone already having a PhD or equivalent. The field of expertise is in physics, engineering, computational biology/bioinformatics, or social sciences, and experience in analyzing and interpreting large multivariate molecular profiling datasets.

Is a Master’s Degree the New Bachelor’s Degree?

Probably not. When I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in microbiology and public health in 1986, the rumors going around were always, “You can’t get a job in industry without a Master’s Degree,” and even if you did have a Master’s Degree, it probably wouldn’t pay any better in the short-run than your Bachelor’s Degree.

That’s likely no more true now than it was in 1986. Which is to say—it’s sort of true, sometimes, but not always. Clearly, when you look at job postings, employers tend to view the Master’s degree as roughly equivalent to two years of practical hands-on experience. And just as it was then as it is now, in most cases, if you want to direct research or run a research program, the highest-level degrees are going to be required—or a number of years of practical experience in management overseeing research and scientists.

Kasanoff’s advice? He wrote, “In many respects, the wisest course of action is the same as in any other field. Spend less time looking for a job and spend more time building actual relationships with others who are ahead of you on the path.”

That means networking, gaining hands-on experience, and participating in the field, whether as an employee, student or conference attendee. Kasanoff writes, “The more initiative you show, the less risk a potential employer will take in hiring you.”

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