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Physics From biophysics phd to industry

  1. Aug 15, 2010 #1
    Hi everyone! Short-time lurker here, and I have a fairly important question that I'd like some input on. I'll keep it simple, but I do have a lot of related questions so I may branch out as the thread goes on.

    I am considering getting a physics phd with a focus in biophysics. In particular, if I were to describe my primary area of interest it would be neurophysics (I think you could probably loosely consider neurophysics a subcategory of biophysics). My background is in physics and biology... I have a B.S. in physics, a B.S. in biology, and an M.S. in biology. I'm currently a research associate (official title is "visiting faculty") at a biomedical engineering department... I'm doing neuroscience related work.

    First things first, I DO NOT WANT TO GO INTO ACADEMIA. The only exception that could possibly come about where I'd change my mind on this is if I were to somehow get a fantastic offer straight out of my phd... like a tenure track offer or a post-doc that I flat out couldn't refuse. The reason being is that I'm 29 and I do not, absolutely do not, want to get stuck on the post-doc treadmill and I also want to have some flexibility as to where I live. These stipulations don't seem to mix well with academic careers. And from the way I understand it on these forums you absolutely shouldn't count on getting a tenured faculty job anyway because it is so competitive.

    So anyway, my question is -- will I be able to get a phd in physics with a focus in biophysics (sub-focus in neurophysics) and transition to an industry R&D job straight out of school? If I were to specialize in biophysics, would I have to specialize in an area that is in demand in industry, or can I focus on something that I really like and can I get an industry job in say biotech or pharmaceuticals simply by virtue of the fact I did my phd in biophysics (regardless of what specific area)? I don't really want to spend the next 4-5 years working on cell membrane biophysics, for instance, but I also don't want to struggle to find an industry job after spending 4-5 years working on a phd.

    Lastly, I realize that it is impossible to completely predict what the job market will be like for biophysicists in 5 years, but is it LIKELY that I will have a reasonable selection of jobs and companies to work for if I go this route? Or in order to have a lot companies strongly interested in my application will I have to specialize in an area of biophysics that is "hot" in industry work? Basically I don't know the value of simply have a biophysics phd in a health-care related topic even if it doesn't directly apply to say, helping in the design of drugs. I don't want to have my options limited to one or two start-up companies in po-dunk USA just because I specialized in the wrong area. A goal of mine is to be able to have a reasonable selection of locations to work at when I've completed my phd (if this is possible).

    I should note that I do not mind working on a "less interesting" topic, from my perspective, after I graduate. Like if I were to get a great job offer that pays well studying protein-protein interactions that would be fine even if it doesn't have anything to do with neuroscience. I just don't want to study something I'm kinda of "blah" about while I'm working on my phd.

    I do have other questions, but those are the basics for now. Any help would be greatly appreciated, and thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 15, 2010 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    Based on my very limited exposure, I suspect that you could be a very desirable employee.

    Going for an industry job means you really need to focus on what the needs of industry are- for biophysics, it could be drug development, tissue culture (scaffolding is big for bone studies), automated measurement techniques, large-scale experiment data mining, etc. Generally, industry is not interested in science- they want to develop a better product than their competition.

    Unfortunately, the reality is that the managers hiring have no idea how to use you (PhD in biophysics), so you need to tell them why they should pay you a salary- tell them how you can solve their problem.
  4. Aug 15, 2010 #3


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    I think biomedical optics is a well established industry in neurophysics.
  5. Aug 27, 2010 #4
    Hey guys. Thanks for the input.

    This is kind of the root of the problem for me. If I go back to school to get my phd, I want to do it on a project that is very interesting to me. Specifically, right now, what I'd like to work on is studying how the brain functions at a physical level, and I'd like to focus more on theory rather than electrophysiology type stuff. I'm thinking along the lines of the biophysics of signal transduction, applied information theory, signal processing, mapping emotional states to physical states of the brain. Basically work on developing frameworks that say "brain is in state X, therefore the individual experiences Y". If you want to classify it I guess it's a mix between biophysics/neurophysics, computational/theoretical neuroscience, and applied mathematics.

    I'm also interesting in developing new instrumentation for neuroscience research (for example, medical imaging, fMRI, biomagnetism, etc.).

    Therefore, the problem comes in when I ask, "will this phd research lead to an industry job?" Like I mentioned, I don't want to study (just) membrane biophysics of neurons... unless it's a small part of a bigger picture type deal. But if most companies are wanting membrane biophysicists, then I COULD be SOL unless hiring managers treat all biophysics phds roughly equally.

    I don't know, and I don't think there is any way I CAN know, if my research interests align with what future hiring managers are looking for. And since my slightly higher priority is to be able to find a stable, well-paying job, and have multiple options of companies and places to work for (both the company itself and geographically), perhaps I shouldn't spend 4-5 years getting a phd at all? The goal of "do your phd in something that interests you" and "be able to find a good job in roughly the area you want to live when you're done" seem mutually exclusive to me.

    That's part of the problem. I'm not all that interested in doing a phd in biomedical optics, but I'd be willing to work for a good company if they need a biophysicist to work in that area. I just have no idea if I can transition from biophysics, neurophysics, computational/theoretical neuroscience phd to an industry job such as a researcher at a biotech company dealing with biomedical optics.
  6. Aug 27, 2010 #5
    Oh, also, I think I could, in principle, convince a hiring manager I have the intelligence and tools to solve a wide variety of problems in industry. But there's no way I can know if I will be competing with other candidates who have the exact experience they are looking for.

    Say tissue culturing is the "hot" area that all the biotech companies are looking for. If it's also the hot area in academic biophysics, I (with my computational neuroscience slant to my research) will be competing with all these other people who already have years of direct research experience with tissue culturing. So even if I COULD convince the hiring manager I am capable of solving problems related to tissue culturing, there's no way I'm getting the job over the phds that did their thesis in that area.

    In a nutshell, it doesn't seem like a biophysics phd is worth the risk given the time commitment, since there's no way to know what the supply/demand will be like for biophysicists (and specific areas in biophysics) in industry 5 years from now. It'd be great if there were tons of tissue culture jobs at great companies when I were done and there are so many that someone like me who did his thesis in brain neurophysics could get one of those jobs, but I can't predict that.
  7. Sep 10, 2010 #6
    Bump for more feedback.

    Let me rephrase my question again. It may be easier to answer and it avoids my ramblings. :)

    If I were to complete a phd in biophysics (irrespective of the area of specialty), what is the probability that I will be able to choose from multiple companies to work for in a variety of regions of the U.S.? Example companies would be, say, Genentech, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Genzyme, etc. Basically I want to work for a good company and have a stable job with relatively low risk of getting laid off. Starting salary I'd be looking for would be something like 80-90K+. Lower would be ok, but I don't want to take too big of a financial hit given that I'm already sacrificing 4-6 years for a phd.

    If this scenario is NOT likely to happen (i.e. it's like getting a tenured faculty job... it's just not all that feasible to transition from biophysics phd straight to industry and it would take a considerable amount of luck), I will very likely go an entirely different route. Perhaps medical physics, medicine, go straight into industry and work my way up, etc. But I just can't find any reliable sources that definitively say what industry demand for biophysics phds are (or if I need to specialize in something specific to land a job). I don't want to spend 4+ years doing a phd then have to change careers completely out of R&D into something that pays like 45K a year because there is no demand for the area I specialized in. This seems like it should be a huge worry for anyone committing to do a phd in a technical field, given some of the stuff I've read.

    Related question: is there any way to find the "real" stats for how biophysics phds do if they go straight into industry? Searching on job websites it seems there is virtually nothing outside of post-docs. Is this because companies directly recruit from physics departments? Or is there absolutely nothing out there?
  8. Sep 10, 2010 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    There are no guarantees in life. You pays your moneys, you takes your chances.
  9. Sep 10, 2010 #8


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    Maybe my experience is atypical, but [STRIKE]many[/STRIKE] [STRIKE]most[/STRIKE] hmm, almost all of the PhDs I've worked with in industry studied something other than what they end up doing. For example, the Technical Director at my first job - a large paper and wood products company - earned his PhD in Entomology. A PhD tells employers you're a competent problem solver, it's not like going to vocational school.
  10. Sep 11, 2010 #9
    If you're looking at pharmaceutical companies, courses in pharmacology will help a lot. In fact, if you haven't started your PhD work yet, you might consider going for a PhD in pharmacology with a specialization in neuropharmacology. This area seems to have a great future.

    As an alternative you might want to reconsider whether you really want to spend the time going for a PhD if you aren't interested in an academic career. Medical monitors who monitor clinical trials worldwide can make excellent salaries (well in the range you specified or more after a few years). Your current level of education would be sufficient for these jobs.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2010
  11. Sep 12, 2010 #10

    So you have a degree in in biology and physics??

    Wow maybe i can be a double major in electrical engineering and chemistry.

    Wow men you are my inspiration.
  12. Sep 14, 2010 #11
    From my experience, so far, the majority of scientist that I've meet are working in areas that they did not specialize in. I begining to embrace that Ph.D's are sought after, in many cases, for their problem solving skills.
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