The Life Science Conudrum

After the hype, grads now realise that there’s no place for them in the
industry

Loh Chee Kong
cheekong@mediacorp.com.sg

IN 2002, when Singapore universities had barely begun producing their own life sciences graduates, Mr Philip Yeo, chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), famously rattled those unndergraduates when he said that they would only be qualified to wash test tubes.

But four years on, armed with their Bachelor’s degree, some of these graduates are learning the truth of his words the hard way. Many from the first cohort have ended up in junior research positions or manufacturing
and sales jobs in the industry – positions that do not require a life sciences degree. Others find themselves completely out of the field.

Said Edmund Lim, 27, who graduated two years ago, and now works as a property agent: “One of my classmates is working illegally in Australia, peddling psychotropic drugs to clubbers. Many of my classmates have gone into teaching. Others are in pharmaceutical or equipment sales.”

Another life sciences graduate, who declined to be named, found a job recently at a tuition centre, after failing to land research-related positions for over a year despite numerous job applications.

Already an established base for pharmaceutical manufacturing, Singapore has been trying, in the past five ears, to move beyond manufacturing to more high-end research that is “value-added”.

According to the industry’s annual reviews compiled by A*Star and the Economic Development Board’s Biomedical Sciences Group (EDB BMSG), an average of a thousand new jobs were created annually for the past five years. Last year, there were 10,200 manufacturing jobs in the industry, almost doubling the 5,700 jobs created in the then-fledgling sector in 2001. By 2015, EDB targets the number of such jobs to hit 15,000.

But the booming figures mask a Catch-22 situation: The current shortage of PhD holders in the biomedical sciences cluster is hampering Singapore’s bid to attract multinational companies to move their high-end research projects here. Without a PhD, most of Singapore’s life sciences graduates are only qualified to work as research assistants.

And both graduates and diploma holders vie for these positions that could pay less than $2,000 a month. In the industry’s manufacturing sector, life sciences graduates compete against their peers from other general sciences and engineering disciplines. They face even stiffer competition in the sales sector, where paper qualifications take on less significance.

A*Star’s Biomedical Research Council oversees and coordinates public sector biomedical research and development activities. On the surplus of life sciences graduates, its executive director Dr Beh Swan Gin told Today: “It is not a situation that can be easily communicated, as there are many factors involved. Simply put, a PhD is essential for progress as a researcher. And there are still not enough Singaporeans pursuing PhD studies.”

Adding that the local universities should not pander to the students’ demand for the subject, Dr Beh said: “The job market of today and tomorrow, is the market the universities should focus on. The manufacturing and commercial jobs have always been there, albeit there are more of these now. NUS (National University of Singapore) and NTU (Nanyang Technological University) should get better data on the demand for life science graduates at the Bachelor’s degree level.”

In 2001, NUS’ Science Faculty rolled out an integrated life sciences curriculum and NTU started its School of Biological Sciences (SBS) a year later. Meanwhile, the polytechnics also introduced more life sciences courses. Thousands of students jumped on the bandwagon, with demand outstripping the supply of places in these courses.

Professor Tan Eng Chye, NUS’ Dean of Science – who believes that it could take another five years for the industry to establish itself – acknowledged that his school’s intake of life sciences undergraduates was “a bit too high”.

“When we started offering a major in life sciences in 2001, 550 students took up the programme. For the subsequent intakes, the number stabilised at about 450. But we would be more comfortable with about a hundred less,” said Prof Tan, who added that many students were “unrealistic” about their job prospects.

Said Prof Tan: “A lot of students were probably all hyped up to look for R&D jobs. And when they can’t get such jobs, they could be disappointed. If they want to do research, they should further their studies.”

Nonetheless, some headhunters, like Kelly Services’ Lita Nithiyanandan, predict that it is “only a matter of time” before these “highly valued” graduates find willing employers. Said Ms Nithiyanandan: “As most of these multinational life sciences companies have recently set up or moved their R&D centres to Singapore, they require senior and experienced research professionals at this stage to streamline operations and get compounds approved fast for clinical trials. Once these centres are more established they will definitely need fresh graduates for researching new compounds.”

She added: “Overall, Singapore’s biomedical scene is evolving as a mature hub for Asia Pacific. This would create opportunities across the board for skill sets through the value chain from fresh graduates to mid-level research and analysts to high-end PhD professionals.”

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