Monday, October 09, 2006

Finding Jobs in the Life Science

There is a piece in Today on the difficulties recent Life Science graduates from NUS encountered in finding Life Science jobs.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. During my time in NUS, the enrollment in the LS programme probably doubled with all the hype. A great number of people wanted to study LS because of the better job prospects, with the seemingly intimate relationship between LS and biotech, not because of any great passion for biology. Well, it turns out that they were wrong about the employment prospects. The biotech sector in Singapore at the moment does not need so many LS B.Sc. holders. It needs LS graduates with advanced degrees. Sorry, there aren't even enough test-tubes to go around for people to wash.

What did these people from LS expect? The whole point of having a biotech industry is for Singapore to resist the economic competition from China and India and the only way to do that is for Singapore's economy to develop niches. This means that jobs that require specialised skills will have to be created and taken up by people with those skills. At the level of a bachelors in LS or any science for that matter, there isn't much specialisation. Advanced training is required. If you really want to a LS job with a LS bachelors, then go and get a really good honours degree.

The problem is that the biotech industry really needs people with PhD qualifications or at the very least, people with masters or even good honours. For a LS graduate with only a pass degree or a lower honours, it is difficult, if not impossible, for him/her to find a job in the biotech industry. This is not the case for the other established 'high-tech' industries in Singapore like wafer fabrication plants. Even if you have only a pass or 3rd-class honours degree in engineering/science, you can still find work in the industry. I have been told that one needs only very basic knowledge of semiconductor science. I know a EE graduate who specialised in computer engineering in NTU but still found a job as a process engineer in a wafer fab despite knowing next to nothing about the industry.

Therefore, we can see that a mediocre engineering graduate can find an engineering job that does not require a great deal of technical skill but a mediocre LS graduate is going to have trouble finding a LS-related one. This also means that the competition-resistance level of many engineering jobs in Singapore is probably low, since they require only superficial technical abilities, and thus, are at higher risk of being moved to other countries. But the upside is that there are plenty of such jobs are around. The more specialised positions in the biotech industry have a far lower risk of being moved overseas (which is obviously why the government is promoting the industry), at least for now, but are scarcer.

For me personally, when I went into physics, I knew that it would be even more difficult to get a physics-related (teaching, semiconductor, research, radiology, meteorology, scientific programming, etc) job when I graduate. A bachelors is next to useless for any job that required specialised skills although it is perfectly fine for other non-technical positions. The stakes were high and I knew that I had to get into graduate school. I calculated my odds and then worked my balls off so that I could go to graduate school.

Of course, I don't go to graduate school just for the better prospects, if it were any good in the first place. I do it because I enjoy doing and learning physics immensely. That's why I went into physics in the first place although I could have gone into engineering or law with my grades (I did get into law but that's another story...). But you have to acknowledge that a career in science can be chancey espcially in a country like Singapore. There are no shortcuts in life and taking up a degree just because of the hype is a surefire way to set up oneself for disappointment.

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