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Innovation in Education: Bridging the Gap between the Lab and Careers in Life Science Companies

By James D. Sterling, Ph.D., Keck Graduate Institute, Claremont, CA

"Today the most exciting work in life sciences, engineering, and management is happening in the biosciences industry. To translate new discoveries into applications that improve the human condition, industry demands a new kind of professional - scientifically proficient and managerially savvy." – Keck Graduate Institute


In 1997, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded grants to 14 research universities to assist in establishing professional programs in natural sciences and mathematics. At this same time, Henry Riggs, the outgoing president of Harvey Mudd College, secured funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation to build an all-new graduate school designed to educate leaders for the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, healthcare product and bioagricultural industries. The resulting Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), the seventh member of the prestigious Claremont Colleges in California, enrolled its first class of 28 Professional Science Master's students in August 2000.

KGI's new program recognized that in addition to scientific knowledge, leaders in commercial life science settings needed to possess related business management skills and a deep understanding of the regulatory environment to succeed. Unlike a traditional MBA program, business essentials were uniquely tailored to the life sciences industry and included how to:

  • Catalyze development of basic life sciences research into useful new products, processes and services.
  • Address the business and ethical leadership challenges confronting the applied life sciences.
  • Build professional skills essential to the industry workplace including public speaking, team leadership and dynamics, and project management.
  • Understand how the bioscience industry operates-considering the scientific, intellectual property and regulatory issues that dominate the industry.


The concept caught on quickly and today 238 accredited Professional Science Master's (PSM) programs are offered at 111 colleges and universities across the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia.

The PSM is defined by as "an innovative, new graduate degree designed to allow students to pursue advanced training in science or mathematics, while simultaneously developing workplace skills highly valued by employers. PSM programs consist of two years of academic training in an emerging or interdisciplinary area, along with a professional component that may include internships and cross-training in workplace skills, such as business, communications, and regulatory affairs. All have been developed in concert with employers and are designed to dovetail into present and future professional career opportunities."

An integral component of all PSM programs is the professional educational requirement consisting of relevant industry experience and/or capstone project. At KGI, a paid summer internship is required and a capstone Team Masters Project (TMP) is also required to complete the degree. The companies pay a fee of $55,000 to sponsor a TMP and a corporate liaison and faculty advisor work closely with the team of students to ensure that outcomes are achieved that are useful to the sponsor. The experience enables the students to apply and develop their scientific knowledge and business management skills in a real-world environment. The projects involve confidential/proprietary activity with the sponsor and the students learn to give public presentations that are engaging, detailed and substantive while simultaneously protecting proprietary information. At KGI, a spectrum of companies have partnered with its Master of Biosciences program as sponsors. In 2010, sponsoring companies included Allergan, Beckman Coulter, Biomarin, Clear Springs, Gilead, Illumina, KCI, Life Technologies, PBS Biotech, Pioneer, Sigma-Tau Pharmaceuticals and Veracyte.

Another stimulus to the establishment of PSM programs was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with funding of around $10 million to launch new programs. These programs were cast to be nearly identical to PSMs and successfully funded programs could indeed apply to the Council of Graduate Schools for designation as PSMs. The primary distinction was that a student enrolled in an NSF-funded program is required to participate in some type of scientific research activity. In 2010, the NSF sponsored the establishment of 21 new Science Master's programs.


According to the 2011 Professional Science Master's (PSM) Student Outcomes Survey, conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools among recent PSM graduates, 81.6% of respondents reported they were working during the week of June 20, 2011; 12.1% were not working but seeking employment; 5.4% were still students; and 0.9% were not working and not seeking employment. In addition, of the 81.6% who were working, 88.4% reported that they were working in a job that was closely or somewhat related to their field of study. Because this survey was conducted shortly after spring 2011 graduations and approximately six months after December 2010 graduations, these findings are considered encouraging, especially considering existing economic challenges and unemployment rates.

Respondents, regardless of employment status, also were presented with a list of nine possible benefits of having earned a PSM and were asked to select up to three that resonated with them the most. The most commonly cited benefits were that they acquired specific skills and knowledge (73.5%), learned more about something of particular interest (52.9%) and increased opportunities for promotion, advancement and pay (41.7%). Overall, respondents were generally satisfied with their PSM program of study and reported the highest levels of satisfaction with the quality of their scientific and/or mathematical training, the distinctive nature of the program and the quality of their non-scientific professional training.

A comprehensive alumni survey (see below) also was performed by Keck Graduate Institute in 2011 and similar data to the Council of Graduate Schools survey was compiled. KGI Graduates compare very favorably with other PSM graduates. More than 45% of KGI graduates make more than $90k/year compared to only 10% of PSM graduates. With regard to satisfaction of the alumni with the degree, 78% of KGI graduates expressed overall satisfaction levels of high or very high on a scale of choices including very low, low, high, very high, no opinion.


Salary Distribution of 2002-2010 KGI Graduates

Precious Few Professorships for Postdocs

As PSM programs established their footing, KGI took notice of another evolving phenomenon. Growing numbers of postdoctoral science students were finding work in academic research laboratories, but finding it difficult to advance from those positions into professorships.

Academic laboratories had been in the envious position of being able to employ healthy numbers of researchers thanks to generous NIH funding that nearly doubled between 1998 and 2003 from $13.6 billion to $26.7 billion, and then increased by an additional $10 billion as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. As the supply of Ph.D. graduates and postdoctorals grew, however, employment in academic science departments did not. As a result, postdocs were not finding professorships. Instead, they were being invited to continue working in labs as postdocs, research associates, or research scientists. In an effort to better protect their professional interests, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was formed and Postdoctoral Associations were established on campuses around the country. Postdocs employed by the University of California system succeeded in working with UAW (The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) to establish a collective bargaining effort to protect their professional interests. Effective April 2011, an agreement was reached with the university to define the postdoc employment category including minimum salary requirements.

In an effort to keep their academic dreams alive, many postdocs simply moved between different colleges and universities, working in one postdoc assignment after another with hopes of eventually securing a professorship. This course of action is now threatened by expectations for significant U.S. budget cuts that will affect NIH funding, and by a much larger and increasingly competitive number of grant applications. Many anticipated academic positions are not available due to state budget cuts and the delayed retirements of many faculty whose savings have declined with the economic hard-times.

Transitioning out of academia into commercial laboratory environments has become a more promising alternative, yet it is a challenge that many postdocs are unprepared to meet. While their scholarly training and experience are impressive, their lack of practical business knowledge and experience in best business practices is a handicap.

In 2011, the National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators estimated there were between 43,000 and 89,000 postdocs in the U.S. In addition to many not being able to secure professorships, others simply were not interested in that career path.

Commercial Career Paths

In 2009, KGI conducted an e-mail survey of postdocs from NPA and 18 U.S. colleges and universities. More than 550 responses were received from around the world (see below), illustrating the priorities of postdocs interested in pursuing commercial careers.

ip addresses of respondents

Sectors: Those who responded expressed most interest in the life science industry sectors of biotech (36%) and pharma (29%). Other interest was divided among diagnostics (15%), medical devices (8%), agricultural biotech (7%) and research tools (5%).

Areas of Interest: Those considering a career in industry expressed most interest in research and development (34%) followed by product development (21%), management of clinical trials (10%) and business development (9%). Other interest was divided among production and operations/bioprocessing (6%), regulatory affairs (6%), toxicology (5%), marketing (5%), finance (2%) and supply chain (1%). One percent was uncertain.

Entrepreneurial Interest: Respondents who indicated they were interested in entrepreneurial careers said their companies would be based on an idea of their own (45%), an idea that is already in existence (34%) or an idea from the laboratory of their supervising faculty member (21%).

Competition: When asked about finding a good position in the biosciences industry, respondents believed it was very competitive (60%), competitive (32%) or somewhat competitive (8%). Less than one percent believed it was not competitive.

Connections: When asked how important it was to have a network of industry contacts, respondents said it was extremely important (43%), important (27%) or most important (24%). Only 5% said it was somewhat important and 1% said it was not important.

Breaking Down Barriers

To help young scientists and engineers create commercial career pathways, KGI launched a Postdoctoral Professional Masters in Bioscience Management (PPM) designed for Ph.D. graduates with backgrounds in science and engineering and for M.D. graduates. Like the PSM, this first of its kind, fully accredited master's degree helps postdocs acquire the business and management skills they need to pursue senior positions with life science companies or embark on entrepreneurial ventures to commercialize technologies developed in laboratories.

Like the PSM programs do for students with bachelor's degrees, the PPM program strategically informs doctoral graduates of the unique business environment that exists within life science companies. Courses combine traditional training in issues such as competitive strategy and marketing with specialized topics such as the role of regulation and medical reimbursement in determining the viability of life science market opportunities. The program also includes courses in accounting, finance, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior to help scientists and engineers understand how bioscience companies are managed. Like PSM students, PPM students also are required to invest two semesters working on a Team Masters Project funded by a sponsoring company.

Building Bridges to Industry

Many colleges and universities are building practical bridges from academia to industry for their graduates and postdocs. The Office of Career and Professional Development and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of California San Francisco are excellent examples. Programs like these introduce students to industry standards and demands through workshops, videos, guest speakers, one-on-one counseling, recruitment sessions, networking, job search resources and more.

Professional societies also offer graduates and postdocs meaningful points of entry into industry. SLAS, actively encourages student participation through a full complement of special programs that include internships, awards, grants and deeply discounted membership and conference registration fees.

In 2008, Southern California's BIOCOM organization created an online certificate program called the Life Sciences Immersion Program to offer industry skill-building and networking opportunities for postdocs. The economic downturn put this program on hold, but BIOCOM was able to resurrect it in 2011 with support from a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor under the President's High Growth Job Training Initiative.

Since 2003, The U.S. Department of Labor has invested nearly $30 million in grants across the U.S. to address the workforce needs of biotechnology businesses and help workers find good jobs with good wages and promising career pathways in the biotechnology industry. Business, education and workforce development partnerships have developed approaches based on the biotechnology industry's defined priorities:

  • Expanding the pipeline of youth entering the biotechnology industry.
  • Helping alternative labor pools gain industry-defined skills and competencies.
  • Developing alternative training strategies for educating and training industry-specific professionals, such as apprenticeship, distance learning and accelerated training.
  • Developing tools and curricula for enhancing the skills of industry-specific professionals for nationwide distribution.
  • Enhancing the capacity of educational institutions to train to industry-defined competencies.
  • Developing industry-defined career ladders and lattices and corresponding competency models and curricula.
  • Developing strategies to retain and help incumbent workers move into higher level positions.
  • Assisting transitioning individuals from declining industries to high growth industries by building on their existing skills and training for high growth biotechnology occupations.


Whether it's a degree program, a nonprofit society program or a student career office program, many programs today share the common focus on helping students secure great jobs – and helping employers secure top talent. These win-win models are emerging as important and effective tools of educational and scientific innovation.

October 18, 2011