Monday, October 09, 2006

Life Sciences Hub, or Hype?

This has finally made it to the papers. On Today, 9 Oct 2006:

The Life Science Conundrum

After the hype, grads now realise that there’s no place for them in the
industry


Loh Chee Kong
cheekong@mediacorp.com.sg

IN 2002, when Singapore universities had barely begun producing their own life sciences graduates, Mr Philip Yeo, chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), famously rattled those unndergraduates when he said that they would only be qualified to wash test tubes.

But four years on, armed with their Bachelor’s degree, some of these graduates are learning the truth of his words the hard way. Many from the first cohort have ended up in junior research positions or manufacturing
and sales jobs in the industry - positions that do not require a life sciences degree. Others find themselves completely out of the field.

Said Edmund Lim, 27, who graduated two years ago, and now works as a property agent: “One of my classmates is working illegally in Australia, peddling psychotropic drugs to clubbers. Many of my classmates have gone into teaching. Others are in pharmaceutical or equipment sales.”

Another life sciences graduate, who declined to be named, found a job recently at a tuition centre, after failing to land research-related positions for over a year despite numerous job applications.

Already an established base for pharmaceutical manufacturing, Singapore has been trying, in the past five ears, to move beyond manufacturing to more high-end research that is “value-added”.

According to the industry’s annual reviews compiled by A*Star and the Economic Development Board’s Biomedical Sciences Group (EDB BMSG), an average of a thousand new jobs were created annually for the past five years. Last year, there were 10,200 manufacturing jobs in the industry, almost doubling the 5,700 jobs created in the then-fledgling sector in 2001. By 2015, EDB targets the number of such jobs to hit 15,000.

But the booming figures mask a Catch-22 situation: The current shortage of PhD holders in the biomedical sciences cluster is hampering Singapore’s bid to attract multinational companies to move their high-end research projects here. Without a PhD, most of Singapore’s life sciences graduates are only qualified to work as research assistants.

And both graduates and diploma holders vie for these positions that could pay less than $2,000 a month. In the industry’s manufacturing sector, life sciences graduates compete against their peers from other general sciences and engineering disciplines. They face even stiffer competition in the sales sector, where paper qualifications take on less significance.

A*Star’s Biomedical Research Council oversees and coordinates public sector biomedical research and development activities. On the surplus of life sciences graduates, its executive director Dr Beh Swan Gin told Today: “It is not a situation that can be easily communicated, as there are many factors involved. Simply put, a PhD is essential for progress as a researcher. And there are still not enough Singaporeans pursuing PhD studies.”

Adding that the local universities should not pander to the students’ demand for the subject, Dr Beh said: “The job market of today and tomorrow, is the market the universities should focus on. The manufacturing and commercial jobs have always been there, albeit there are more of these now. NUS (National University of Singapore) and NTU (Nanyang Technological University) should get better data on the demand for life science graduates at the Bachelor’s degree level.”

In 2001, NUS’ Science Faculty rolled out an integrated life sciences curriculum and NTU started its School of Biological Sciences (SBS) a year later. Meanwhile, the polytechnics also introduced more life sciences courses. Thousands of students jumped on the bandwagon, with demand outstripping the supply of places in these courses.

Professor Tan Eng Chye, NUS’ Dean of Science - who believes that it could take another five years for the industry to establish itself - acknowledged that his school’s intake of life sciences undergraduates was “a bit too high”.

“When we started offering a major in life sciences in 2001, 550 students took up the programme. For the subsequent intakes, the number stabilised at about 450. But we would be more comfortable with about a hundred less,” said Prof Tan, who added that many students were “unrealistic” about their job prospects.

Said Prof Tan: “A lot of students were probably all hyped up to look for R&D jobs. And when they can’t get such jobs, they could be disappointed. If they want to do research, they should further their studies.”

Nonetheless, some headhunters, like Kelly Services’ Lita Nithiyanandan, predict that it is “only a matter of time” before these “highly valued” graduates find willing employers. Said Ms Nithiyanandan: “As most of these multinational life sciences companies have recently set up or moved their R&D centres to Singapore, they require senior and experienced research professionals at this stage to streamline operations and get compounds approved fast for clinical trials. Once these centres are more established they will definitely need fresh graduates for researching new compounds.”

She added: “Overall, Singapore’s biomedical scene is evolving as a mature hub for Asia Pacific. This would create opportunities across the board for skill sets through the value chain from fresh graduates to mid-level research and analysts to high-end PhD professionals.”


There aren't that many (industry) jobs at the PhD level in the bio sector too. The research's hot, and many (US) professors can get the funding they need. But that doesn't translate into jobs for the doctoral graduates in the US. Many will end up doing post-docs for many years.

I should know - looking at my PhD friends in the (pure) life science majors. The ones having the best and most offers are the Mechanical, Chemical and Electrical engineers.

(Exclude mgt consulting and i-banking.)

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5 comments:

Fox said...

I think that there are jobs in the biotech industry for people armed only with a bachelors. It's just that the biotech industry in Singapore is still nascent and most jobs are still manufacturing-related, albeit in the pharmaceutical areas, where engineering/chemistry degrees are more useful.

Testtube-washing jobs also pay well but they are more likely to be in the states.

Seriously, schools (JC and polytechnic) should do more about career counselling/planning.

*The Lunatic Fringe* said...

Citizens should not believe everything the MIW says.

Look at the failures in the Soviet style central planning or even China. In an ever globalised market, can the MIW predict trends accurately?

These pronouncements on the next big thing are all educated guesses. Their guess is as good as ours. But of course, they are paid $1m a year to come up with better guesses.

lunatic_fringe

L'oiseau rebelle said...

I find it hard to sympathize with these life science grads. Most of them aren't forced at gunpoint to study life science. They made the choice, albeit an imperfect choice with imperfect information, to study the subject. Societal and familial pressure is not an excuse - it's only an excuse for cowards.

And is it really a problem to work in a field unrelated to your college major? Isn't college also about expanding your horizons, honing your skills at finding pertinent information, analyzing information, developing a strong work ethic, honing your convictions, values and ethics, etc, which is applicable to most jobs? A good college education can never go to waste.

-Decipher- said...

The life sciences graduates, unless I'm mistaken, are split into two groups:

a) They are in the course for the interest. I respect that. No degree, of course, guarantees job (or financial) security, but they're willing to just hop onto the bandwagon to enrich their minds. And life sciences, mind you, is still one of the most in-depth subjects you can ever find.

b) They are in the course for the money. Now, I don't know what else I can say to these people. A rat following a cheese trail? What if the pot at the end of the rainbow doesn't appear? You can't walk back... unless you're willing to walk another road.

I am saying to the government that something should be done to help Group (a).

L'oiseau rebelle said...

decipher - So if I'm genuinely interested in, say, Italian to Russian translation, and I'm actually good at it, and I want to get a college degree in it, the government should step in and help me secure a position that fully utilizes my degree and pays a salary comparable to that of college grads?

Anyway, I would think that members of Group (a) would also be interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in the field... which, at least in the US, isn't that financially difficult to do, even for international students.