28 May 2008

Employment in biotechnology and in general

By Associate Professor Clem Kuek

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

“… by any other name would smell as sweet.” Graduates in biotechnology are not “biotechnologists” in the manner that graduates from profession-based degrees become “engineers”, “accountants” or “dentists”. In fact very few employment vacancies are advertised as requiring “biotechnologists”. What this means is that if an assessment of the employment prospects of biotechnology graduates is based merely on a census of the number of advertisements for “biotechnologists”, a pessimistic view of the graduate’s employment prospects will emerge.

The first disaster that biotechnology graduates can visit upon themselves is to only look for advertisements seeking “biotechnologists”. Many more doors open up if these graduates were to see themselves firstly as broadly-educated scientists in the biological sciences where their instructional model and unifying theme was biotechnology. Given the wide range of activities that constitute biotechnology, there is actually a large pool of potential employers out there. Thus, it is a fact that the well-prepared biotechnology graduate gains employment in many disparate fields such as manufacturing, regulatory/monitoring, medical/health, plant industries (agriculture; horticulture; forestry) and business, finding initial careers as technocrats or technical practitioners.

Look in your kitbag. Since the well-prepared science graduate is a scientist before he/she is a practitioner of a discipline, his/her employment prospects need not be constrained by discipline. For example, there are scientists who call themselves chemists and microbiologists working in quality assurance, and biochemists employed as brewers. Perusal of the subject complement of the Swinburne biotechnology degree will reveal the base sciences which are essentially chemistry/biochemistry, molecular biology, and microbiology. Where skills in these disciplines are sought in the applied sense, biotechnology graduates can and have been considered by employers even if they have not advertised for a “biotechnologist”. And rightly so.

Many graduates are handicapped by their lack of skills in selling themselves and what they can offer to potential employers. The key to being placed in a job is to discover what the selection criteria are (or duty statement is) and cogently argue why or how your background is at least a match for them or better. Yet, job aspirants often send only a CV in responding to an advertisement for a position. The CV is only a supporting document. It is more often the cover letter that addresses the employer’s requirements in expertise and personal qualities that leads to an interview. Top performance at an interview finally clinches the job. Learning skills in landing a desired job is important and at Swinburne they are taught in a compulsory subject which we give to our students at our cost.
Career planning? It can be difficult to plan a university career in anticipation of employment prospects. University entry can be anything up to four years or more ahead of when a graduate might be looking for employment and who is to say in what fields the best employment opportunities are going to be in then?

In the late 90s computing science and information technology were all the rage in Australian universities and IT faculties were the envy of other faculties with low student numbers. Visions of fortunes to be made in the emerging world of e-business and reinforcement of the importance of computing people by the Y2K mania put information technology into a bubble market. Then came the dot com crash and computing courses lost favour. “Hot jobs” come and go.

Careers can also take unusual, unanticipated paths. In the small cohort of my first degree, a four-year Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, one left in the third year to become a professional golfer, and after graduating, one found work in a computing department, another in a bank as a financial adviser, one joined the Royal Australian Air Force, and several like myself went on to do PhD programs little to do with agriculture. In my honours year, I began to specialize away from mainstream agriculture and began a career as an industrial microbiologist. Despite what my first degree might presage, I have never worked in an agriculture department, managed a farm or raised animals. What all this says is that a good degree with sound and versatile content broadens a graduate’s career possibilities. Look at your degree program and learn how use what you have done to parlay or position yourself into jobs that go beyond the label usually attached to a degree. For example, you would not be maximizing your opportunities if you majored in chemistry but restricted yourself to only looking for chemist positions.

There was a time when a job lasted a life time. These days with national economies being intertwined by globalization, enterprises have to evolve and adapt. This means that jobs can come and go. What this also means is that it may become more common for someone to have a sequence of different jobs in their professional career. The people who are able to adapt and continue to re-learn are going to be more useful to their organization (in absorbing change), and to themselves (in re-deploying to new jobs). And is it not precisely a good university education that is supposed to produce people who are soundly grounded in the fundamental knowledge of their areas, and who have the capability of continued learning built into them?

Lastly, university study should be hard work. If it is not then some how you are not being challenged to discover your true worth. And if at the end you come out with shining grades, you will be in good stead in your job quest, not necessarily because it means you have good command of the specifics in your course but because it signals that you are someone who will put in effort to do well; a person of high standards.

Associate Professor Clem Kuek is attached to the School of Engineering and Science, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at ckuek@swinburne.edu.my.