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Working in the pharma industry remains an attractive employment prospect for many STEM graduates and PhDs, and demand for new employees continues to rise. However, the biotech and pharma industry has changed a lot over the years, and so has company hiring preferences. If you’re a student or recent graduate, you are probably wondering what are the most in-demand majors for pharma companies right now. And, perhaps more importantly, what is driving demand?

Recent Hiring Trends

In recent years, the market for biopharma has expanded steadily. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, biotechnology jobs are expected to grow an additional 10 percent by 2026—faster than the national average across all other occupations. In 2018 the biotechnology industry employed nearly 215,000 people in the United States. This industry is spread across 35 states, with hot spots in Massachusetts and California.

According to a 2019 report from MassBioEd, which analyzed majors specified in job postings, the most in demand disciplines for PhD-level hires among Massachusetts life science employers were statistics and biostatistics. Chemistry and biology majors remain in high demand at Bachelors, Masters and PhD level, but for Bachelors level hires, computer science, bioengineering and engineering majors were also highly sought after.

Experienced life science recruiters also note “an uptick in demand for engineers of all disciplines: particularly chemical and biomedical engineering” over the past few years, explains Brandi Byner-Burrow, a sourcing expert at Sci Bio.

Engineering and Problem-Solving

It is important for students to not just identify which STEM majors are in demand right now, but to understand why pharma companies are seeking them out.

For instance, pharma and biotech companies are seeking out engineers for their problem-solving abilities. “(Companies) like their hands-on ability to troubleshoot and tinker, fix and build things using critical thinking ability,” says Kerry Ciejek, Managing Partner at Sci Bio.

The demand for engineers at the expense of other STEM majors is motivated by the perception in industry that troubleshooting and problem-solving isn’t taught in many advanced degree programs. “PhDs in academia are not really trained to solve the product development problems. A lot of the work is based on mechanistic, basic research. That’s still needed in industry, but not to a large extent,” says Eric Celidonio, Founder and Managing Partner at Sci Bio.

When they are not seeking versatile problem-solving STEM PhDs, these companies prefer to hire candidates with highly-specialised technical backgrounds that fit ongoing drug discovery programs. For example, a biotech company won’t look to hire just anyone with a microbiology PhD — instead they may want a microbiologist whose area of expertise is a particular bacterial strain such as C. difficile. If a life science PhD without a niche focus cannot demonstrate broad problem-solving skills to make up for it, it limits the number of opportunities they’re eligible for.

Robots and the Pharma Industry

Another major shift in the pharma industry which affects hiring preferences is its move away from small molecule drug discovery — traditionally the expertise of synthetic chemists — to emphasize biologics and automated drug discovery processes. IT and robotics are more prevalent in pharma, and with it the demand for scientists who can parse data and incorporate robotic technology and AI into their daily workflow.

Not only are pharma companies seeking to hire more data scientists, statisticians and computer scientists — they want bench scientists with IT skills. “There’s a huge IT component to the job now,” explains Celidonio. Bench scientists now have access to automated technology to pipette liquids and run high throughput screens, and they need to be comfortable using the technology and fixing it when something breaks.

How much does your major in biotechnology matter?

As a STEM major or PhD candidate, you must be aware of trends in pharma hiring and jobs that will be in demand after you’ve completed your degree in biotechnology. Your choice of major or MS/PhD program should be informed by the number of industry jobs in your area of expertise available upon graduation.

The best advice for students seeking an industrial career is to expose yourself to industry in undergrad through internships, co-ops, or summer jobs. If you can’t secure work experience, look online to see what jobs companies are hiring for, and which majors or technical qualifications are in highest demand.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t panic if your major is not currently top of the most in-demand list, or demand seems to be waning. If you’re already part way through a program, there are ways to increase your attractiveness for recruiters and hiring managers regardless of your major. This includes obtaining relevant work experience, and improving your public speaking and communications skills to make a better impression in interviews.

When you’re on the job market, a clear outline of your technical skills in job application materials or LinkedIn profile will make it easier for recruiters to find you when they seek qualified candidates in your area of expertise. It’s not enough to just have the degree; you must be able to show that you have the critical thinking and technical skills to really use it in the industry.

At Sci Bio we understand the biotech industry’s changing landscape, and use our expertise to ensure hiring managers and job candidates find their perfect match. Get in touch with us today.