How to Get A Job in Biotechnology: with Masters Graduate, Caitlin Phillips

biotechnology, biotech masters of biotechnology, science scientist female researcher

As the world has been hit with the COVID pandemic, Biotechnology is one of the few industries that are not only surviving but growing. At the end of the day, I guess I should be thankful that I choose to do a Biotechnology Masters at the start of 2018.

At the end of 2019, I graduated from my Masters. Originally, I choose to do the Masters because at the end of my Bachelor. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had majored in biochemistry and molecular biology for my science undergraduate. Yet I didn’t feel keen to progress on to research. I have always been an avid lover of science and technology. As a child, my dream was to be an inventor–a problem solver. Looking back, I think it was this that inspired me to choose biotechnology as it is an exciting industry where science innovation can be woven together and brought into reality.

Throughout my Master of Biotechnology, I discovered that I had an interest in the business side of the industry. This worked out well for me as the course was coursework based, and about 50% were business subjects or strategy-oriented. For those that enjoyed the applied science and were more interested in how to be part of the bench-side research and development part of biotech, the course was lacking.

I myself have not done any significant lab work for years. I don’t know if it was my university in particular or the subjects that I chose. But I have only ever done a couple of lab-based subjects, all of which were in my undergraduate. In my experience, you only find that hands-on, actual applied science at the research level–being an honours student, research masters student or PhDs student. The pathway to get there is not straight forward at all and doesn’t seem to be what universities are pushing for.

Although I studied ‘applied science’ there have been very minimal times where I was in an environment to actually ‘apply’ the science

The average Australian has never been more educated than they are today. Education, specifically university education in Australia, is highly regarded and sort after internationally. And yet in my experience, there is still a disconnect between the learning and the practice. As I mentioned above, although I studied ‘applied science’ there have been very minimal times where I was in an environment to actually ‘apply’ the science. For me, this was not a huge issue; I figured out relatively early on that my passions and skills did not lie bench-side but rather in the commercialisation of the science. Instead, I experienced my own issues of disconnect.

There is a multitude of non-lab-based jobs that could fall under the category of biotechnology, and yet, when I graduated, I would have struggled to name one. I understand that biotech is not as vocational as engineering or nursing. It is a complex field the crosses over with healthcare, agriculture, technology, pharma, etc. Nonetheless, I still think that the university failed me, in that I was never properly introduced to the landscape of the industry. As a consequence, when I finished my studies–which I took because I was unsure of what I wanted to do–I still had no idea what I wanted to! Mainly, because I didn’t know what was out there when I finished.

There is a multitude of non-lab based jobs that could fall under the category of biotech, and yet, when I graduated, I would have struggled to name one.

I had planned to travel in 2020 to take a break from my perpetual years of study. Of course, this plan failed miserably due to COVID. Nonetheless, I finally mustered up the strength to charge headfirst into actually figuring out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to work. To do this, I reached out to experienced industry individuals. Emailing asking to hear their stories of how they came to work in biotech. I would ask for 15-30 mins to chat via phone or zoom, often guessing their email addresses.

Now, I will warn you. The response rate was not all that high. Many emails bounced, lots never responded even after I sent out to follow up letters. But, more importantly, those who did reply were keen to give advice and help out someone struggling with what to do. They were all in that position at one point, and they were sympathetic. With each person I spoke to, I was slowly able to map out the biotech and pharma industry in a higher resolution. I started to understand what entry level positions were often available and what the skill set was for each job. Not only that, but I also was able to grow my network. Each person I spoke was willing to recommend another name of whom I might be able to learn from.

Biotechnology: It’s Not About What You Know, But Who You Know

Miraculously, after one month of this, I was offered a job! A job for which I did not even formally apply. This, I’m sure, was part luck. Mostly because it was in clinical research–the area in which I had found the most appealing when networking. I have now been in this job for three weeks. Naturally, I am still learning my role, but I love the people I work with. I can’t wait until restrictions ease so that I can finally meet them all properly in the office. However, I do miss the networking. It seems that there is still so much to learn about the biotech industry. Luckily, there are so many friendly people who are willing to share their stories and advice. As long as you have the courage to reach out and ask.

I’ll admit, it is somewhat saddening that it took me this long to get that sort of ‘real world’ exposure to the biotech industry. From my perspective, the general disconnect between universities and the biotech industry post-study is quite startling.  I hope that as Australian continues to grow the education sector, it can find a way to bridge this disconnect. I admire the others out there, like Co-Labs, who are trying to do actively catalyse change.

After all, do we really need any more highly educated individuals who have no idea how to apply their skills? Let alone get a job?

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