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I read recently in a popular annualized directory of careers that the bio-pharma industry is superhot. In fact, the publication goes on to say that if you are a biologist--B.S., M.S., or Ph.D.--you will be earning a midlevel salary of $93,000. According to the directory, salaries, benefits, and work hours in biology are among the best for any career choice and in any industry.

Sounds wonderful. But this isn't the job market that I've been working in for many years!

In fact, nothing about biology jobs in that publication rings true. Although some senior scientists with special expertise might earn more than six figures, they are not in the majority. Perhaps the authors forgot about the many postdocs earning $30,000 and an equally large number of B.S.-level research associates running assays for $40,000 a year. And how about those Forest Service and Fisheries biologists earning $25,000 to $30,000?

Further reading only supports the conclusion that the comments about work hours appear to be pure fiction as well. This book states that biologists get high marks for quality of life because of their 45-hour workweek. (Do you know anyone in biotech who works a 45-hour workweek? Neither do I.)

Just what is going on here? Why is the biotechnology job market being presented in such glowing terms by the lay press?

Wouldn't It Be Nice If You Could Trust What You Read?

As a moderator for the Bio.Com career discussion forum, I see the results of this hype every day in messages from IT industry people--potential crossovers who believe that they are simply one biology course away from a high-paying career in bioinformatics. They are attracted to the biotech industry because countless newspaper and magazine articles have painted the field as the latest gold mine for those who can combine IT skills with a background in biology. They are shocked to find out that bioinformatics employers are looking for Ph.D.s.

The reality of the job market is that biotech companies hire in very specialized niches, and smaller fields such as bioinformatics have subcategories of their own. The bio-pharma industry is one in which the niche career particularly rules. More broadly, biotechnology involves individuals with careers as different from each other as are a microbiologist's and a chemist's. (See " Understanding the Roller-Coaster Global Biotechnology Job Market" for more on this topic.)

Unfortunately, the biotech industry sometimes contributes to the hype. A national publication in the life sciences recently quoted a vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) as saying "the industry is becoming increasingly concerned about a shortage of trained scientists across the board." The article went on to suggest that people with botany degrees are in great demand!

Botany? Has anyone reading this article tried to get a high-paying job in the biotechnology industry with a botany degree? Media misinformation like this can be harmful, because young scientists are making career decisions based on these articles. They are choosing academic programs or zeroing in on a career completely unaware that their research has led them to inaccuracies.

With all this hoopla, making good career decisions becomes a still more difficult task. In this month's column I offer a cookbook approach to determining, with a fair degree of accuracy, how your chosen profession is likely to reward you (and if you are indeed advancing toward a worthy goal).

Five Steps to Uncover Accurate Job Market Information

In this case, networking is the only process that will actually yield the information you seek. If you learn to conduct a successful networking campaign early in your career, the same skills will serve you well when it comes time to conduct a job search.

  • Develop a Plan: Just like conducting an experiment at the bench, networking requires good planning, persistence, and a written plan. It even helps to have a thesis to test, for example, "Is it possible to earn $85,000 a year within 3 years as an associate in business development for a biotech company?" List all the possible sources of information regarding the specific career you are investigating, including magazine and newspaper articles (hype alert!), Web-based resources such as Next Wave (much better!), discussion forums, meeting organizers, headhunters, career counselors, trade associations, and--most important--people who are actually doing the jobs that interest you.
  • Work Your Contact List: The articles you read about your career choice will include the names of people recognized in their fields. Contact them directly and clarify their printed comments. (For example, when I reached that BIO VP about the quote concerning botany careers, I found that he had intended to confer a completely different meaning with his comments.) Your questions of these contacts might include "Do you know people who have made the move I am considering within the last 2 or 3 years?"
  • Build a Networking Database: An experienced networker knows that a list of 10 names will rapidly grow as contacts provide their suggestions. A contact list can spin out of control fast: Your research might yield as many as 30 names or more. One solution is to use a database or electronic address file to note the contact's name, company and title, address, phone numbers, and e-mail address and the dates on which you've attempted to reach that person. (A good policy is to call three times and if they don't return your call, drop them from your list.) Keep track of everyone who is suggested to you; this database has enormous value that you will be able to draw on many times.
  • Ask the Right Questions: Company employees are busy people, so you should expect to have only a few minutes with each contact. Success will come by focusing on each contact's experiences and views. After a brief introduction, asking a question such as "Can you tell me how you happened to move into business development?" will prove to be far more productive than "Can you tell me if your company is hiring in business development?" (You don't want to sound as if you are looking for a job, or you'll get transferred to Human Resources!) Test your hypothesis with them: Is your goal realistic? You'll learn more about salaries this way than by searching through inaccurate salary information on Web sites and in magazines.
  • Follow Up: Send a "thank-you" note to all who offered their assistance. Even if the call took only a few minutes, you want to leave the contact with a lasting impression of your professionalism. After all, you might be tapping this list again someday, and in a year or two those scientists you spoke with could be managers or directors!
  • Despite the overly optimistic press, I am always amazed at the staying power of the biotechnology and pharmaceuticals job markets. A person with some hands-on experience in any of the myriad of required jobs will be guaranteed to find job options. Despite 2002's rough economy and the resulting loss of value in biotechnology companies, the pressures to develop products and shareholder value have continued to keep good people in demand. This is the good news.

    The bad news is that niche hiring continues. There will always be hot career areas. Take it from this headhunter: Being skilled in finding and validating your own career information will inevitably contribute to your future success.