Career pathways in biotechnology

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Sandra Porter
Students in the United States take many convoluted and unnecessarily complicated paths when it comes to finding careers in biotechnology. If Universities and community colleges worked together, an alternative path could benefit all parties; students, schools, industry, and the community. The image below illustrates the current paths and the approximate time that each one takes.
I was at two meetings recently, one in Arizona and the Bio-Link workshop in Berkeley, where we spent time discussing the paths to careers in the biotech industry. You might think, if you consider the number of years in school to be important, that path D would be the most common path. But you would be wrong. Many of the students that might go straight to community college programs and directly into the workforce either opt for path A and end up on path B or somewhere along the line they miss out altogether and never think to consider that biotechnology or other science-related areas could lead to a good career. I'm not sure what to do about science in the high schools, beyond trying to find better ways to educate, recruit, and support science teachers and fund science courses; but I do have some suggestions for colleges. First, though, lets consider why we have so many pathways and discuss some of the challenges with the pathways as they currently exist. Path A High School -> University -> job Many of our readers, other faculty, and other bloggers here and here have pointed out that it's not the mission of Universities to prepare students for jobs. I think that's fine. Okay. Unfortunately, many high school students seem to miss seeing that information in the advertising brochures. There are exceptions to this rule. In comment 18, Larry Rohde described a wonderful-sounding program at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. I also know some private colleges that work with their students to help them find career paths afterward. Still, I think it's fair to generalize a bit, with the understanding that there are exceptions. A big difference between community colleges and universities is that the community colleges are responsive to the interests and needs of the broader community. Universities do not do job training. We all accept that. Community colleges do. When the biotech industry in Seattle asked Seattle Central Community College to consider starting a program to train students to work in the biotech industry, the college surveyed the local companies and decided it would be worthwhile. We even set up an advisory board so that we could be sure we were teaching the skills that would be useful for students to know and understand the needs of the local industry. Did the University of Washington teach students about SOPs and GMPs? No, but SCCC and Shoreline CC did, right along with media and solution preparation, cloning, sequencing, PCR, protein purification, immunochemistry, HPLC, western blotting, data processing, and cell culture. Consequently, path D offered an alternative that would quickly prepare students to go out and get jobs. Path B High School -> University -> Community College - > job To my surprise and (yes, I admit) delight, about half of our students turned out to be on path B. They had degrees from departments like Zoology or other departments that were saving money by cutting their lab courses and they came to us for a year to fill in the gaps. I've heard people say that many of the University of California schools are doing the same thing. It's sad but as I said, we all understand that Universities and community colleges have different goals and their missions are not the same. I didn't mind. The students were great. But I didn't think that the students should have had to spend an extra year in college. I think if we could have had some kind of collaboration agreement with the UW, those students could have taken our lab classes as seniors and finished in four years rather than 5 or 6. Path C High School -> Community College -> University -> job About a quarter of our students opted for this pathway but it wasn't an easy path. In order to have a two-year program, we had to substitute some pre-nursing courses for courses that would satisfy the UW's requirements for biology or microbiology majors. Unfortunately, this meant that if students wanted to major in a life science field, they had to take 3 years of courses at our community college. This wasn't a great option, since they still had to finish 60 credits at the UW. This path was hard for both the community college because of scheduling conflicts and the students because they had to find a way to meet requirements at both schools. Path D High School -> Community College -> job This path would be fine, but we found that very few students followed it. We found that most of the high school biotech programs tended to graduate students who went straight on to Universities or private colleges. Those students were not likely to choose community college as an alternative. If we did get students straight from high school, we lost them once they became acquainted with the challenges of following path C. Path E. My proposal. Given that:
  1. Universities do not wish to do job-training and community colleges do,
  2. Universities are cutting lab courses,
  3. Many students would like help and preparation for finding jobs after college,
  4. Community colleges have the equipment, staff, connections, and expertise to prepare students for jobs after college.
I propose that the Universities and the community colleges each give up some turf and work together. If the community colleges and universities were to put students interests foremost they could find a way to help those students who want to be prepared for jobs in biotech, without requiring students to spend 5-6 years in college trying to satisfy diverse and conflicting program requirements. Perhaps we could have more blended paths like the one I drew below.
How could this work? Joint enrollment? Or better transfer options? Joint enrollment is one option. In this scenario, students could be enrolled at either school but would take the biotech lab courses at the community college. Both groups of students would receive credit that could apply towards a biotech major at the University. This option does present some problems since tuition costs are usually much less at a community college. However, this kind of system would allow Universities to expand their course offerings without having to find dedicated lab space, buy new equipment, and hire more instructors. Community colleges could give up some turf, too. They could meet the Universities half way to allow students to take some of their non-science courses at the Universities. At the heart of the matter is the question of transferring credits. If the Universities were to accept community college biotech lab courses for a biotech major, then students wouldn't have to spend an extra year or two working to fill in course requirements at either institutions. This would allow students to get a four-year degree, which many students want, and give them access to the job preparation expertise at the community colleges.

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