Biomedical Science Careers - Introduction, Scopes, Challenges & Alternatives
The field of Biomedical Sciences has been getting a lot of interest. But, the field is still quite esoteric and unexplored. Besides, there has been quite a bit of criticism and negative publicity as well.
Biomedical Science is a branch of Applied Biological Sciences. Biomedical Science has got applications in understanding disease mechanisms, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of human diseases. There are various sub-branches of biomedical sciences that include human biology, pathology, biochemistry, molecular & cell biology, genetics, pharmacology, immunology, analytical & clinical chemistry, microbiology, epidemiology, bioinformatics, biophysics, and biomedical engineering.
Biomedical science is ever changing and very dynamic, hence offers exciting career opportunities in specialist laboratory work, consultant work, research, education, and management while serving the human society. The findings of the biomedical scientists are instrumental in making the advancements of modern medicine.
Typical Biomedical Science Jobs
Biomedical scientists usually work in the laboratory. They handle biological samples (blood, urine, cells, and tissues) and use a wide range of laboratory equipment ranging from test tubes, beakers, and pipettes to computers and hi-tech equipment.
Some of the common job roles and responsibilities of a biomedical scientist are:
- testing and screening for lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular disease; and screening for infectious ones such as rubella, hepatitis or Ebola
- investigating and understanding the disease mechanisms, profile and progression
- finding new, effective and innovative ways to detect diseases as early as possible (e.g. discovery of new biomarkers or a new method of detecting a biomarker)
- working towards discovery and development of treatments, which could be preventive (vaccines) and/or therapeutic (drugs and medicines)
After studying biomedical sciences (or engineering), one can be employed in various job roles within scientific research and development, bio-instrumentation, medical imaging, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, drug design and delivery, medical equipment manufacturing and supplies, hospital and healthcare
Know more about biomedical science jobs and careers. Another good career option and trending these days is the field of Translational Medicine.
Criticism of the Biomedical Science Field
the biomedical science field has got its own share of criticism as well. One of the major reasons for the negative popularity is that that the career of biomedical professionals (including PhD students) is not too smooth and easy. People also complain about the lack of alternative careers with a degree (or background) in biomedical sciences. Biomedical science professionals have been reported to have more career crisis than other professionals within the STEM field. Especially in the academic field, the biomedical people seem to have the most difficult lives. The scenario is not applicable to India, US, Spain or Brazil only. It's pretty much everywhere.
So, what are the reasons that the career (and life) of biomedical professionals are so stressful? Why even a change in career is not smooth for someone with a biomedical background?
Challenges & Career Roadblocks for Biomedical Science PhD & Postdocs
PhD – a Stepping Stone and a Roadblock at the same time
In order to excel in the biomedical field, a PhD is by default mandatory. Within the biomedical sciences field, career progression and salary jumps (I am not talking about 5 – 10% annual hikes) are almost impossible if you do not have a PhD.
Finding a Suitable PhD Position
Finding a suitable PhD position is not straightforward anymore. In 1990s a good Masters degree (along with motivation) would have been good enough to get a PhD position. But, these days you need to have solid research experience, publications, and strategic networking along with strong academic track record. Be it in the same country or in abroad, finding a well-funded and good PhD position is tough and tricky as well.
Finishing a PhD within Stipulated Time
Finishing a PhD is a challenge in itself. Quite often the challenge in the biomedical field is to finish the PhD within the stipulated time. There are many cases when people have to work for the extended period without any stipend (or salary). So, planning, management, guidance and luck are important in completing a PhD. As you can see from the Fig. 1, the time period to successfully wrap up a PhD at some of the top universities in USA is almost 6 years. In Europe, the average time period is something between 3.5 – 5 years, which is again quite a significant length of time.
PhD dropout is common in any field – Science, Commerce, Arts & Humanities. It is even more common in the biomedical science field. Typical reasons include project mismatch, dysfunctional supervisor-student relationship, and unfriendly lab environment, lack of social life, funding issues, and sometimes mere hard luck (no positive results and/or no publications). Sometimes the emotional burnout along with future uncertainties leads to students leaving the PhD halfway.
Overproduction of PhD GraduatesCurrently, the scenario is so fierce that even a PhD is not enough. Then the trend of producing Biomedical PhD grads in bulk has been going for the past three or four decades. But, now the field has reached a saturation level. There are too many PhD graduates and not enough funding to support Postdoctoral or academic positions. For example, USA has been producing a substantially large number of Biomedical PhD graduates. But there is not enough number of positions (academia and industry) that actually require a PhD.
Postdoc Pile Up
If you are in a foreign country, the competition to get a Postdoc position is absolutely fierce. If you still manage to get a Postdoc position, there will be a continuous pressure of publishing papers (the culture of Publish or Perish) and securing grants. You will have to go through a series of multiple contracts of 3 – 5 years. It might take 10 – 20 years of postdoctoral stint (or as Adjunct Lecturer) before getting a permanent position in abroad. The ratio of converting Contractual Postdoc positions to Permanent Academic positions is even worse than the PhD to Postdoc ratio.
Then there will be the additional pressure of getting the contract renewed before the expiry of your visa. Last but not the least, the financial compensation over the years is not too lucrative at Postdoc levels. If you are a Postdoc in abroad, and your spouse is on the Dependent-Visa with employment restriction (which is quite common in the USA), then life can get really hard and frustrating.
Less Pay for Postdocs and Research Scientists in Early Stages
Until and unless you have got a generous grant, the standard salaries are quite below the expected level; especially for the early-stage Postdocs. The probability to hit a jackpot is minimal as not everyone can get a novel discovery patented and licensed to get revenues and royalties. If you see refer to the Fig. 3 again, the median salaries of postdocs is below par in every field, and not only in the biomedical science field.
Now, once you get a postdoc position, you might feel lucky. But, there is another critical issue of ultra-slow growth in terms of salary. In the US, a first-year Post-doc will make something around USD $42,840 annually. After 7 years that figure will be approximately USD $56,376. Now you might think about moving to the industry after PhD, the battle is more than fierce. In the industry, you will definitely earn more over the same period of 7 years. One can start with an annual package of USD $71,600 and can expect to have a yearly gross salary of USD $92,100. But, the financial growth is not on par with other sectors like Finance, Banking, Management Consulting, Technology etc
- Academia has a Funding problem
- Too many studies are poorly designed
- Replicating results is crucial — and rare
- Peer review is broken
- Too much science is locked behind paywalls
- Science is poorly communicated
- Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful
Problems of Career Change for Biomedical Science Professionals
Now you must be thinking about switching career. Definitely, it’s an option. Are you ready for the challenge? Excellent, keep reading!
Limited Transferable Skills within Biomedical Science
In the biomedical sphere, you will learn several sophisticated techniques that require great skills. But, the problem is that the technical skills are not transferable to any other field. The majority of common and popular skills (molecular biology, biochemistry, immunology, sequencing, genomics, animal studies, docking studies, high throughput screening, proteomics etc.) are only useful within the biomedical domain only.
Another drawback is that skills get obsolete as well. Throughput screening or sequencing used to be core work of a PhD project a decade ago. But, due to the advancements in automation, the human involvement is getting reduced.
It is a fact that few universities or few PIs are reluctant to train PhD grads so that they can make a smooth career transition. But, sometimes the students (or researchers) don’t put too much effort on learning the generalist (and potential transferable) skills like Programming, Advanced Mathematics or Statistics etc. I have come across few folks who spent endless hours in the lab during their PhD, and didn’t give good enough importance on improving vital skills like communication, networking, or gathering enough commercial awareness.
So, what are the ways to move ahead and make a career change with a biomedical science background? To know more about that, please refer to the following post!