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California - A Sunny State of Opportunities

MAY 11, 2006

By Mike May

Three photo grid of researcher, palm tree in front of sunlight, and a researcher putting away a box of vials
The high concentration of academics and industry in California makes this state a desirable destination for many job seekers in life sciences. In this article, experts from academic, government, and industrial settings describe the skills in highest demand and techniques for gaining the best job.

Genentech (
Kelly Scientific Resources (
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (
University of California, San Diego (

California hosts a range of life science employers: hundreds of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, state and private academic institutions, private research organizations, and government laboratories. In addition, "California has some of the most attractive urban areas on the planet," says Elbert Branscomb, associate director of biosciences at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Getting a job in that sunny environment, however, takes some doing. Branscomb says, "My impressionistic view from people applying to jobs here and gossip on the streets is that the market is fairly flat. We see quite a few people out looking for jobs because a corporation has failed or changed directions."

When it comes to biotechnology, though, optimism sometimes shines as brightly as the sun in San Diego. Madeline Butler, academic coordinator for undergraduate laboratories in the division of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), says, "Our students with undergraduate degrees in biology seem to do well getting jobs in academic institutions and at biotechnology companies." Likewise, Holly Butler, principle staffing consultant in research staffing at Genentech, also sees many opportunities. She says, "The California job market for life sciences remains strong. San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area are home to the majority of the jobs, but new biotechnology companies are sprouting up throughout the state." Rich Pennock, regional director at Kelly Scientific Resources, also sees growing job opportunities in California. He says, "We are seeing unemployment dropping in California, and a lot of the companies-especially pharmaceutical companies-are hiring." He adds, "Biotech money is also loosening up, so some of the incubator companies are also hiring."

Like all life science markets, California's can be divided into two general areas. Michael French, senior vice president of corporate development at Sirna Therapeutics, says, "The biotech job market can be divided into the business side and the research side." Biotech business opportunities are dynamic in the San Francisco Bay Area, says French. "People move around a lot in that space. So the job opportunities there are very good." For bench scientists, French says there are solid opportunities at many companies. "California is a great area for both of these types of jobs," says French.

Whether the current California job market is flat or growing, experts interviewed here expect a bustling future. Branscomb says, "There seems to be no doubt that biology is going through a phase transition and will emerge as a dominant scientific, technological, and economic force." He adds, "This century will surely be the time in which mankind finally figures out how life works. We are suddenly broaching into the real central chambers of the mystery of life and developing the tools to take it on in meaningful ways."

Marketable Abilities

Elbert Branscomb

The breadth of employers in California generates equally broad needs for scientists. "For R&D," Madeline Butler of UCSD says, "we see a demand for people with capabilities in molecular biology and biochemical techniques. These are still very big areas for bench jobs." She also sees considerable demand for experience in bioengineering and chemical engineering. Experience in a lab also improves an undergraduate's employability. For example, Madeline Butler says, "There's a lot of interest in students with some whole animal physiology and in vivo pharmacology experience. Students do not get much hands-on experience in these areas in undergraduate classes but they can get it through research opportunities and internships, which we encourage them to do."

Chemistry also offers many opportunities. "For chemists, there is a huge need across the board-medicinal chemists, organic chemists, formulation chemists, and so on," says French. If a biologist happens to have knowledge related to a target area that interests pharmaceutical companies, says French, "That person will be in great demand, but the therapeutic target du jour varies." That variation, though, does not hurt a biologist's attractiveness as much in core therapeutic areas such as metabolism, cardiovascular, and inflammation, according to French.

When asked about the categories of skills in greatest demand, Pennock mentions two. First, he agrees with the demand for chemists. He says, "Analytical chemists have always been in demand. The demand is very robust for skills in areas like high pressure liquid chromatography and gas chromatography." He adds, "Wet lab chemists are also in high demand." The second area of skills in demand, according to Pennock, is molecular biology. Here, he points out demand for capabilities in assay development, cell culture, enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). He also says that his company is seeing an increased need for people with backgrounds in good laboratory and manufacturing practices. A cross-disciplinary background, such as biochemistry, is also valuable, says Pennock.

Madeline Butler

According to Holly Butler of Genentech, "We are interested in candidates who have targeted research experience." She adds, "Employers are looking for well qualified, passive job seekers-meaning people who already have jobs and are good at what they do, especially those with superior academic records and proven success at learning and growing in their chosen field while adding value to their employer in the process." In terms of the most readily available positions, she says, "The disciplines that employers typically need help filling positions in are research and development, clinical, regulatory, quality assurance and quality control, manufacturing, pharmacology, and bioinformatics, genomics, toxicology, and immunology."

Branscomb sees needs for people with a variety of modern capabilities. "Most of what we see advertised for and what we are often interested in," he says, "has been dominated by a few themes, such as a combination of solid biological and computational skills." He explains: "Someone is golden who understands an area of biology, can use algorithms, and is computer comfortable or can even write serious code." Branscomb also sees lots of opportunities in "techniques that are transforming scientific methodology, such as array technology, comparative genomic approaches, proteomics, sequence analysis." He adds, "The fact that we can query entire genomes for the state of play at a specific moment is absolutely transforming the science."

The opportunities, though, extend beyond brand new science. Branscomb also sees advances in classical areas of biology. He says, "Immunology is rising on the tide of transformations in methodological power." He adds that rapid advances in developmental biology are also refreshing that area of research.

Riding the Rising and Crashing Waves

Some geographical areas offer the highest density of opportunities. Branscomb says that some areas of California-such as San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area-always seem hot for jobs in the life sciences. Madeline Butler agrees. She says, "There's definitely a demand here in San Diego. Some of the diagnostics companies, for instance, are expanding, and there's been an influx of big pharma into the area recently." She adds, "There seems to be a growing need for people with expertise in antibody therapies, pharmacokinetics, and toxicology. Companies also seem to be looking for people with a knowledge of biology and manufacturing."

Michael French

Pennock sees the geographical areas of demand as centered around three hubs: San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. "The farther you get from one of those hubs," says Pennock, "the fewer job opportunities you will see." In some cases, though, new job areas do develop now and then. For example, Pennock says, "Big pharma manufacturing is on the rise in Vacaville, California."

In general, though, Branscomb sees a life in biology as a life of change. "For many biotech firms, this has been an era of high instability," he says. "A firm can be bought by another and then change direction and get rid of much of the staff." He adds, "Even for very able people, biotech is not necessarily a very stable job. If stability matters to you, then this may not be not be the field for you."

Despite this drawback, Madeline Butler sees ways to survive. She says, "One of the advantages is that San Diego offers an abundance of opportunities. Although downsizing and layoffs are always disruptive, in this area there are so many companies and institutes that experienced people can often land new jobs quickly and can avoid having to relocate."

As with all of the experts interviewed here, Madeline Butler sees California as a great place to live. She says, "The weather and proximity to the beach are big pluses here." Then she adds, "Unfortunately, the housing prices balance the pluses. Relocating here from where housing is less expensive can be a bit of a shock." Branscomb agrees about California's high cost of living. He says, "It's so expensive to live here, and you have to live close to your work or suffer intolerably from the traffic. On average, though, we judge ourselves to be very advantaged for being in California." Perhaps best of all, Holly Butler notes: "California's the only state where you can ski and surf in the same day."

Nonetheless, the shortcomings of working in California can be significant. "One of the things we're seeing," says Pennock, "is that it is very difficult for someone outside California to make the transition into this state, because they are not familiar with the costs. When they find out about California's cost of living, it's pretty negative." He adds, "You really need a salary that overcomes those shortcomings." In some cases, in Pennock's perspective, companies in California do try to take the cost of living into account in offering a salary. "This is typically only true in mid-career to more experienced positions," he says. "At the entry level, we don't see that."

Personalizing the Possibilities

Rich Pennock

To get a life science job in California, Madeline Butler says, "getting experience-in academics or industry-is the primary thing." Then she adds, "As you move up, though, you must decide if you want academics or industry. They are very different environments."

French agrees that a job seeker should decide what environment is most appealing. He says, "California offers a variety of opportunities from the high risk 'working out of a garage' environment to the more solid mid to large pharmaceutical and biotech companies." In thinking over such options, French advises: "Be true to yourself about what you want." For example, the high risk garage job might sound great until you find yourself working till midnight when your family expected you home hours earlier. Likewise, French says, "People who are great researchers at a university might not find that they can accommodate the pressures of performing in a commercial environment."

After deciding what kind of job sounds most appealing, Branscomb recommends a personal touch. He says, "First of all, I'd do the standard thing: search, search, search." Then he adds, "Quickly bend that search to personal contacts. Personalize your search as aggressively as possible. Find people in similar areas to your interest and training who recently found jobs and go talk to them."

Moreover, different organizations may hire in different ways. Holly Butler says, "Larger companies have pretty sophisticated websites and online recruiting systems that work pretty well. Some smaller ones still will respond to the personal touch and will appreciate it."

Pennock thinks that a job seeker should first decide which of the three geographical hubs-San Diego, San Francisco, or Los Angeles-is most appealing. "These are distinct hubs, with distinct cultural scenarios," he says. "Decide which one offers the quality of life that you want." Then he says that a job hunter should put together a skill inventory-essentially a list of capabilities-and see how that matches up with jobs in the chosen hub. After that, Pennock says, "Turn to networking. Get referrals from friends." He adds, "You can also turn to professional associations and services like Kelly Scientific Resources."

The overall key to gaining employment and building a successful career in the life sciences, though, depends most on desire. "This is a line of work like being an actor," Branscomb says. "If you're not driven to it by idiosyncratic madness, you probably shouldn't do it." He adds, "The ones who really succeed have an almost irrational desire."