Considering a Career in Biotech? How About Trying Computer Science Instead

Xconomy National — 

Sometimes biotech really feels like an industry in danger of being left behind.

Take last Friday afternoon for example. I was at a networking reception at the University of Washington, chatting with undergraduates from all kinds of engineering fields about the job market. People were finding jobs, but nothing much to brag about, until I bumped into a couple of juniors majoring in computer science. They were marveling about their good luck, telling me stories that sounded like something out of 1999.

Campus legend has it that one computer science student at UW recently secured a $100,000 annual starting salary, a $40,000 signing bonus, and about $200,000 worth of stock from Google. The average computer science undergraduate is said to be getting about $85K to start. Word is that all computer science seniors have job offers, and some have multiple offers from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Zynga, Facebook,, and others, says Pratik Prasad, a UW junior. This is consistent with the stories I hear from tech CEOs in Seattle, who say they are engaged in trench warfare with rivals to get the best young science and engineering talent.

This has to sound like something from a galaxy far, far away to people in biotech. Big Pharma’s R&D engines are in such a state of crisis that some are publicly wondering whether pharma should quit doing R&D altogether. Smaller, supposedly more innovative biotech companies are starved for cash and running lean, relying on cheap outsourced labor every chance they get. Academic biology departments are feeling pressure from state and federal budget cuts. For those who stay in academia, good luck ever progressing beyond the starvation wages offered by the typical postdoctoral fellowship.

The sense I get from talking to biotech grad students is that while they love what they do, quite a few have serious doubts about their chosen career path. They clearly have nothing like the prospects of their friends across campus who might create the next killer app for the iPad. While many biotech company executives like to complain that it’s hard for them to find enough skilled labor, people with scientific and technical skills tell you a different story altogether about the life sciences job market, which was recently covered by the SF Public Press.

“There is a huge divide between engineering and life sciences,” says Matt O’Donnell, dean of the College of Engineering at UW, who oversees various disciplines like computer science & engineering, aerospace, electrical, mechanical, and bioengineering.

Matt O'Donnell

All of the young engineers get job offers, because their skills lead directly into product development that industry relies on, O’Donnell says. As for those studying the kinds of riskier, more exploratory fields that are the bedrock of modern biotech—things like molecular biology and genomics—students “have to work much harder” to find a job, O’Donnell says.

How weak is the demand for young biotechies? O’Donnell gave me a pretty sobering rundown on job placement stats on campus. The UW’s top-rated bioengineering department only takes about 50 to 60 new students per year, he says. The rule of thumb is that placement usually breaks down into thirds—with about one-third going on to medical school, one-third going to graduate school in biology, and one-third taking jobs in industry, he says. The department gets so many good applicants, it could easily fill 200 slots a year, but there’s really no way all the graduating students each year could get placed in good jobs, O’Donnell says.

If they did, he says, “We could easily saturate the market.”

It’s a really sad state of affairs that there’s such little demand for young biotech talent. Many of these students, who have their hearts set on unraveling the mysteries of how genes and cells work to create the wonders of life, need to adjust their expectations. It’s not realistic for many to think they can go on to get academic faculty gigs, or even traditional bench research jobs in pharma or biotech, O’Donnell says. Many biology PhDs need to transfer their skills into office jobs in pharma—like business development, law, patents, marketing, and communications, he says.

I know plenty of smart and capable biology PhDs who have made that kind of transition. It can be a smart move, and it can be a challenging and intellectually stimulating line of work that is worth considering. At least where I live in Seattle, O’Donnell and UW bioengineering professor Buddy Ratner deserve credit for recognizing those alternative paths, and helping their young engineering students prepare for the real world, by forming partnerships with the business school and forcing students to practice their softer skills, like public speaking. It’s an essential skill in business that all too often gets short shrift in academia.

Those are good things universities should do to make sure their students don’t get stuck working at Starbucks. But I still worry about the dead-end that many young biologists are running into, and what this means for the future of the industry. One of the fortunate young computer science majors at UW told me he thinks the job market for bioengineers will improve in 20 years, when much of the underlying mysteries of biology will be figured out. By then, more healthcare R&D will be addressable with engineering-based solutions that take less time and less money, and contain less risk than they do today, the student said.

I’m not so optimistic, for a simple reason. The pharma and biotech industry is providing much less support for basic research today, which provides the foundation for all those quick and elegant engineering solutions we hope to reap tomorrow. Without supporting basic research today and providing gainful career paths for the young people who can tackle these problems, it could take us a very long time to see the fruits of genomic-based personalized medicine.

But given the job prospects of the engineers of today, I’ll make one prediction. We may not get personalized medicine for a long, long time, but our future will be full of devices to keep us constantly connected, informed, and entertained.

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27 responses to “Considering a Career in Biotech? How About Trying Computer Science Instead”

  1. Jason says:

    You made a column of the idea after all

  2. JD says:

    Computer science in biotech works too!

  3. Robert Jones says:

    Is it fair to say that degrees in engineering are much more difficult to obtain than degrees in biology?

    I studied with a lady whose father would not let her go into biology as long as he was paying for it. She pursued chemical engineering. She was in a Biochemistry lab with me learning protein purification. She was so glad to have an easy course to relax in.

    Biotechnology seems to be full of people who struggled through that lab.

  4. Rogan says:

    I’d like to see how this breaks up into bench bio vs. comp bio. Any stats on that?

  5. Seattle is undeniably short of comp sci graduates. If the leg would fund more slots, the would be immediately absorbed into the WA economy. Of course, some of them will end up in biotech. Most of the biotechs I know of are hiring CS people right now too. Google generally gets first pick and then Amazon. Biotech tends to want more senior people as opposed to new graduates. So an unscientific sample of recent grads doesn’t tell the whole picture, but one true picture is that WA is slitting its economic throat by not graduating more CS majors.

  6. P Evans says:

    @Robert Jones: perhaps a reasonable question, but I think one should certainly consider the time and effort investments in the likely terminal degree in each field. It is also fairly obvious that there is no justice whatsoever vis a vis difficulty and remuneration.

    Anecdotally, I’ve worked in bio and CS, and here’s my two cents: CS has a very nice low threshold and a very high ceiling, and the vibe to match. Much of biology is still inscrutable, and the ladder of success is an extremely tough one. I agree with Luke’s last bit, but still I wince at the idea that as a society we’re apparently more impressed with a “smart” phone than a vaccine, but c’est la guerre.

  7. Marc says:

    As someone who is currently in the biotech industry and have been doing lab work for 10 years, I would not recommend anyone going into biology or life science period. The risk and reward is not worth it and yes, the ladder of success is extremely tough. I agree with this article, change major if you are still in school.

  8. To see the national employment picture, as reported a few months ago by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology, take a look at:

  9. UW says:

    As a recent electrical engineering grad who is currently working at a top biology institution, I am very concerned about the bio field. Given the training required and average payout for skills achieved, life sciences / bioengineering is a long, long row to hoe. It is slow, it is expensive, it is glass ceilinged to anyone without a PhD (this includes nearest neighbor industries where PhD’s have fled their serfdom), and it is dominated by a relatively older generation of scientists who do not provide a healthy work structure for young employees. Life Science is an extremely dangerous career path for bright young people, and I encourage them to avoid the field and it’s ever-thirsty vampires.

  10. Ed—thanks for some very eye-opening charts. Supply and demand in the computer science labor market is even more out of whack than I thought. If more people don’t starting shifting away from the social sciences and life sciences, they will continue to be set up for a very expensive education that leads to a very disappointing career outcome.

  11. Anthony Rodriguez says:

    I am a graduating PhD student at UW BioE so this article hits very close to home. I am currently searching for jobs available both on and off the bench. The road is difficult and a majority of my fellow colleagues are leaving research behind altogether, but only a small portion are leaving life science. At the end of the day we can look back and regret our decision or accept that we followed our passion. Choosing the latter helps me sleep at night and drag myself in the lab the next day. So I accept the challenge of the market outlined by this article knowing I will be doing something I love and improving lives. I’ll leave it to others to stare at code all day so I can have the latest version of Angry Birds.

    @Robert Jones – Even those of us like me who studied Chem Eng and aced Biochem are finding it difficult to find jobs bc its an industry issue not quality issue.

  12. Anthony Rodriguez says:

    Also, the best advice I have for younger individuals seeking a career in Life Science is to look at the current job descriptions of position you may want. Then design your academic research to fill those qualifications. The techniques I used in my research are not standard which makes it difficult for me to match my CV with many of the qualifications for available scientist positions.

  13. UW says:


    You’ll be writing code too, CS skills are arguably the most important when getting a job in life science. The models and the data sets that are pushing life sciences right now are already way beyond non-computational comprehension. Also, be mindful of tailoring your experience to be too protocol specific, in this field having immunohistochemistry experience will only help you get a job doing more immunohistochemistry.

  14. Anthony Rodriguez says:

    @UW My apologies for my negative tone towards CS, it was not intentional. I cannot deny the impact of CS innovations on all walks of life from entertainment to healthcare. Also, I am well aware of the necessity of CS skills as I apply computational modeling in my work as well. My comments are intended to promote the idea of following one’s passion and not the best opportunity of a job. If you are not excited by the work you do, why spend 2/3 of your day doing it? No doubt that job prospects and compensation are important considerations but should not be the primary motivation for choosing a career path. For me, passion is the number one consideration when choosing my life’s work.

    To your second point, I agree you do not want to focus your experience on protocols. However, you do want to be sure to build a tool box that companies are interested in utilizing.

  15. Changer Career says:

    This is a  fantastic article that every aspiring future biologist should first read and then decide their career choice. Probably there is no one better than me who is an example of  having suffered the misery in biotech and then transitioned to CS and am now in a pretty well paid job. I have a Master’s in biotech from a top public US university. I have published 6 peer reviewed papers in various journals. After my MS, I  was in a Ph.D program in molecular biology in another top public univ. However , after 3 years into my Ph.D, i was enlightened by looking at the fate of people who graduate out with a Ph.D in biology. Most people with a Ph.D in plant sciences start with a salary of 22K to 28K as a post doc fellowship(Pls believe me its true!!!!!!!). Those with human/medical/animal biology/molecular biology tend to start with a fellowship of 36K per annum. Please consider some facts 1. People who start their post docs are around in the 32-35 years age group. They are generally married who might be possibly planning on starting a family. At this stage in life when the prime has passed and with so much deep into this field, you get paid peanuts. Its just subsistence living that you can afford to. Apart from that, the normal working hours is generally 12-14 hrs each day in the lab. Forget about weekends, vacation, enjoyment and such sort of things. Financial security is almost non existent.  Many profs recruit post docs from china and India and pay them anywhere between 17-25K for the first few years, further dragging down salaries. Looking at all this, I just decided to dump my Ph.D. I boldly thought that If I could put this much effort in CS, then probably, I will have a better life. With great difficulty, I joined a MS in CS and completed it in 3 years with all  the pre reqs. Now I work as a software developer and my starting salary is almost 3 times that of a biology post doc. I am really happy that I made this choice and sincerely recommend people considering biology as a career option to look for something else.

  16. SandsofTime says:

    A better switch from biology/life science field would be to go to medicine. The pay is the highest of all professions and prestige associated with doctors is a great benefit. Plus you get to practice something much closer to your existing knowledge base and skills. We will need more med school graduates to fill up the coming shortages in health care.

  17. dudeabides says:

    From the life sciences you go into medicine. Duh. Medicine is applied biology just like engineering is applied physics.

  18. Dylan says:

    I don’t know if I completely agree with this article. I attend a private university (biotech major) with a very highly ranked biotech undergraduate program and most of my older friends who have graduated seem to be perfectly happy with their lives. I’m not sure if its because our co-op program is so good at helping us make professional connections or what, but this is the first I’m hearing of these types of struggles within biotech. As I type this I’m actually sitting at a co-op with a biotech company, and most people here seem to be at least reasonably content with their jobs as well.

  19. Jim says:

    The career path of the scientist is absolutely, bar none, the worst career choice someone can possibly make. Do not do it! I am a Ph.D. scientist with an MS and BS in heavy duty science and engineering and find it ridiculous how impossible it is to find a job. The field is so limiting in every possible way that it’s a joke and not worth the effort and struggles once you get a job. For example, you may have expertise in an area that might be a bit outside the scope of a similar area, for example working with insulin protein vs monoclonal antibodies, so in the real world you’d think most people who understand the nuances of proteins could deal with either type…not in the insanity of the biotechnology community where you can be completely marginalized because you don’t have the *exact* experience they are seeking for the job.
    I warn everyone not to pursue this career as it is a dead-end and will leave you miserable and struggling for a job your entire life. Why suffer when scientists tend to be the smartest, hardest working and passionate individuals out there. Apply your talents in areas that will lead to happiness and prosperity. And whatever you do don’t fall for the BIG LIE about a lack of STEM graduates. A bigger lie couldn’t be manufactured as these are lies intended to steer poor and unsuspecting students to get these degrees to saturate the market so employers can pay you even less as you struggle to find employment.

  20. mattyshum says:

    I sure wish I had read this stuff before I started my masters in microbiology. Going on 15 months now after I finished with only 1 interview so far. It’s pathetic. I am in my 40s so going back to school yet again for a different degree is a tough prospect. Sigh.

  21. swampwiz0 says:

    I wonder if virtually *all* biology majors are really in pre-med/dental/pharmacy, and only when they don’t get into their school of choice do they fall back into graduate school of the general workplace.

  22. blah blah says:

    thanks for ruining my dreams. i’m getting my bachelors in chemicals engineering in less than a year and biotechnology was my only hope for masters. plot twist i even like computer science better but it’s too late now. fml.