A life science recruiter's blog on placing R&D professionals.

Blog/Career Advice for Life Science Professionals

Which Degree is Best?

I am often asked which degree is the best for getting a job at a pharmaceutical or other life science company. Of course the answer depends on which direction a person wants their career to progress and how much time and money they have to obtain a higher degree. At Clark Executive Search, we only recruit candidates with a PhD and MD degree. Therefore my knowledge of these degrees in the life science industry is more complete than for the other degrees such as bachelors and masters. A rule of thumb is that the higher the degree, the higher the salary and responsibilities an employee can expect at their company. However there is a vast change occurring within life science companies as they restructure themselves in order to survive their diminishing pipelines. Some of the old rules do not necessarily hold true. Look at the many highly skilled PhD pharma employees out of work because their jobs have been outsourced to CROs overseas ( see  my post here) and you wonder if it makes sense to get a PhD degree, especially one in chemistry. In fact there are two excellent posts discussing the PhD issue over at GenomeWeb )  and BioJObBlog . So what have I, an executive recruiter, who has recruited in the pharmaceutical niche for almost 20 years, learned regarding degrees?

Employees with a bachelor or master degree in science are the workhorses of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Some of these people are in the lab doing bench science. Some are in a clinical development position, such as a Clinical Research Associate (CRA). Some are in regulatory affairs and some in the manufacturing plants. Of course there are many other functions within pharma for bachelors and master candidates besides in the science or clinical areas. But I don’t recruit for those areas and cannot comment on the importance of degrees in those functions. Another point to keep in mind regarding the masters and bachelor degrees is that few companies will pay to relocate a masters or bachelor level employee. Therefore it would be a wise choice to live in an area that is thriving with life science companies, such as Boston or San Francisco. Living in one of these biotech or pharma hubs allows people the flexibility to move from one company to another due to a job loss.

Although employees with a master’s degree usually get paid more than those with a bachelor’s degree, there is a question whether the difference is worth the added expense of getting the master’s degree. An article over at Genomeweb asks whether the masters is an “ unnecessary degree” and suggests that people with masters don’t find jobs in industry any quicker than those with just a bachelors. If that is true, then perhaps it would be better to enter industry with a BS and once inside the company determine whether a higher degree will bring more job satisfaction and higher compensation. If so, many companies have education reimbursement policies and a person could add the master’s degree while working. Again I don’t work with this level of scientist so I can’t comment too much on these degrees. But it seems to me that BS and MS candidates are lumped together more often than not; so a person might as well just get a BS.

A PhD degree is almost mandatory to advance into management or to leading a laboratory. Unfortunately there are some very talented master level employees, who are just as smart as their PhD colleagues, but who just couldn’t spend the time to get the PhD because of money or family constraints.  These people have their career stymied because they don’t have the PhD degree under their belt. There is a real prejudice toward those without an advanced degree and I don’t see this ever changing. A few enlightened hiring mangers will tell me they will consider a master candidate if they have the industry experience to match. But in reality I always end up placing a PhD in the job.

Related to the degree question is whether postdoctoral experience is necessary for employment within the life science industry. I have had many chemists tell me that what they learn in a postdoctoral program has nothing to do with drug discovery chemistry in industry and so it isn’t really necessary. Yet of the thousands of CVs I have reviewed from PhD employees in industry, no matter from which field, they overwhelmingly list a postdoc as part of the experience. I can only conclude that doing a postdoc is valued and necessary for entry into life science companies.

Without a doubt the most sought after degree by life science companies is the medical degree and companies struggle to recruit MDs. It is often difficult to persuade a doctor to leave a highly lucrative private practice or academic career to move to the “dark side” of the pharma world. This stigma is slowly changing and there are many brilliant doctors in industry. However it is still a challenge for pharmaceutical companies and the recruiters who work for them, to find MD candidates with clinical trial experience. Recruiting doctors who are already in industry can be tough as well. Once a MD candidate has been employed, many golden handcuffs are offered the doctors to get them to stay.  The incentives given are some of the largest salaries in the industry and generous stock grants. Within pharma there are even special compensation “grades” or levels for MD employees. For example, someone with a PhD who is called a Director might be paid less than an employee with a MD and the same Director title.

There is also greater job security for MD employees. Since they are so hard to recruit and so much more money has been invested in these employees, a company rarely lays off its doctors even when there are major restructuring and job cuts at a company. Doctors are simply moved to other departments or even therapeutic areas. This sense of security and higher pay leads to a class warfare between the MDs and the PhDs. The PhDs think they have discovered the drugs and hence should be better appreciated and the doctors think that it is more important to understand how a drug works in a patent. I have had searches where a MD is required but many PhD candidates say they could easily do the job if given the chance.

What particular specialty a doctor has, also figures into the equation as to popularity within industry. Those MDs who have training in clinical oncology are the most prized of all. This is because so many companies have oncology drug programs and are scrambling for the same employees who have an MD and cancer clinical trial experience. One of my fastest placements ever was with an oncologist. A friend in the industry knew someone with this background in Europe who wanted to work in the States. He asked me if I could help this doctor and knowing the popularity of these candidates, I agreed to make a few calls on the doctor’s behave. I called a VP at a big pharma and briefly told him about my candidate. The fellow practically had an interview set up the next week. And they offered him a job on the spot! But one of the hardest searches I ever had was for a cardiologist for a big pharma. Cardiologists are the highest paid physicians( see Heart.org post here) and so even big pocket pharma struggles to land these candidates. Many cardiologists make over a half million dollars with some approaching the million figure. So finding doctors with this specialty and who have the necessary years of experience is tough as the ones with great experience are also the ones who are vastly rewarded.

A degree combination that is highly sought after by those hiring in industry is the MD, PhD. Candidates with both these degrees are needed to bridge the gap between the discovery labs and the clinical development departments. They have it all: an understanding of science and the medical background. They can traverse many different career routes within pharma, but  translational medicine is where a lot of the MD,PhD employees land. Again the candidate with both a MD and a PhD is highly prized by many companies and is very difficult to recruit. Once placed at a company the person can more or less write his own ticket in terms of career and compensation. Another reason these candidates are hard to find is that many people are not going into physician scientist training programs. The reasons for this are discussed in a piece over at The Scientist

So which degree is best for a career in the life science industries? If a person has the time, money and talent, certainly the safest bet for long-term employment is a MD. With this degree the medical doctor will have respect, great compensation and the reward of helping many more patients with new drugs than the doctor could help in his own private practice. They also don’t have to worry about insurance red tape and the necessity to hire employees to keep up with all the paperwork required to run a medical practice today. But if a person is more interested in science than in patient care, a PhD degree is the next best degree in terms of advancement in industry. With this degree a scientist can move all the way to top management positions such as Chief Scientific Officer or even CEO. The salary for a PhD candidate with just a few years of experience is in the six figures. And to those truly dedicated to saving patients from terrible diseases with newer and better drugs, the PhD scientist can have a very rewarding career in pharma. And for those with bachelor and master degrees who love science and also helping people, there will always be jobs at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the labs, in the plants and in the clinical and regulatory areas even as some of the jobs are outsourced to foreign countries like China and India. In summary the degree choice depends on many factors and there is no one answer.

For Related Career Advice, check out an interview of Ellen Clark in Genomeweb