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If I Had But One Word of Career Advice to Give

By Marty Nemko

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman was offered one word of career advice: plastics. If, today, I were limited to one word, it would be biotech.

First of all, the field is expected to make a bigger difference in human lives than any other. I had the honor of attending a panel discussion among five Nobel laureates, and the one thing they agreed on was that this would be The Biotech Century. It is likely that within your lifetime, the biotech industry will have helped countless people avoid the ravages of cancer, depression, heart disease, and mental retardation.

Biotech is already huge. It represents one-third of the world’s economy, according to Dr. Gurinder Shahi, director of U.S.C’s Global BioBusiness Initiative. Obviously, biotech is involved in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and biodefense, but there are many less obvious players. For example, giant energy company BP, (the former British Petroleum) recently joined the Biotechnology Industry Organization because BP is creating genetically-engineered plants for use as an alternative source of energy.

The U.S. has 1,300 purely biotech companies, more than 800 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. And the biotech boom is likely only to increase. I’ve not heard one expert assert that biotech has peaked. And according to BayBio, an industry organization, biotech firms will, in 2006, have hired 8,000 new workers in the Bay Area alone, with employment predicted to rise 10-20% each year for the foreseeable future.

But you say, “I don’t have a Ph.D. in genetics, and I can’t see getting one.” According to Moira Gunn, producer and host of BiotechNation, a nationally syndicated public radio show, only a fraction of jobs in the biotech industry require cutting-edge biotech expertise. As the industry is maturing, with products moving into clinical trials and actual production, jobs are increasingly available in less science-intensive areas such as manufacturing, marketing, sales, regulation compliance, accounting, and human resources. Some biotech knowledge is required but often a liberal arts graduate can tack on a masters degree or even just a few-month-long certificate program and acquire enough biotech knowledge to become employable in this hot field.

Biotech education and training is available at many colleges (including, perhaps surprisingly, at community colleges), especially those located in biotech’s top 10 geographic hubs: San Jose, CA; San Francisco, CA; Fairfield County, CT; Boston, MA; Nassau and Suffolk Counties, NY; Tulsa, OK; Shreveport, LA; Athens, GA; Sioux Falls, SD; and Montreal, QC. (Source: the Boyd Company, a Princeton, NJ-based biotechnology consulting firm.) Online courses are also available at is an education in itself, offering a number of free publications, including an online monthly newsletter. The site also includes listings for all 800+ Bay Area biotech companies.

And if you have a background in a related field, a modest amount of biotech education can make you not only employable, but in demand. For example, are you comfortable around computers? According to Gunn, information security is one of biotech’s hottest subareas. The explosion in the amount of health information available on patients along with the vast increase in privacy paperwork required by new government HIPAA regulations means a great need for programmers, database administrators, health administrators, medical records technicians, and informaticians—people who can sort out the mass of paper.

A perhaps more broadly appealing option is to administer clinical trials. According to Gunn, there are three clinical cancer trials underway for every cancer patient in the U.S! Those trials require many doctors, nurses, and administrators.

Truly, if I had a son or daughter just starting out, or even if I myself were looking for a new career, the one word I’d think of first is biotech.

For more info on biotech careers, see the book, Careers in Biotech & Pharmaceuticals, 2006 Edition: WetFeet Insider Guide.

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