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A chart of the areas where biomedical graduate students struggle (left) vs. a chart of the areas where students excel (right) (Dr. Derrick Rancourt and Ryan Klopp)

Biomedical graduate students have a hard time finding employment. Many are underemployed, unemployed or have resorted to finding work outside their field of study. In 2018, StatsCan reported only 40 per cent of them obtained a job related to their field of study.

The Managing Emergent Knowledge: Addressing the Competency Expectations of Biomedical Employers study conducted by University of Calgary researcher Dr. Derrick Rancourt and master's student Ryan Klopp examined the reason employers hesitate to hire recent grads. They determined the concerns were based primarily on soft skill deficiencies rather than a student's ability to conduct research.

"If students are going to transition into the non-academic workplace, they need to learn the language of business," said Rancourt.

"Unfortunately, we don't teach it to them. I mean, some of them learn it through osmosis, but not everybody."

The most frequent concern was with the graduate’s ability to lead projects. Researchers say while many aspects of student research — like preparing and defending a thesis — are similar to project management, the lack of formal training is a barrier to employment.

"This lack of instruction is unfortunate," stated Rancourt and Klopp in their report, "because formal project management training would both help graduate students complete tasks on time, produce higher quality research and better launch graduate students into professional opportunities."

Companies interviewed by the researchers also cited communication skills, specifically in the area of customer interaction, as the most important indicator of career success. That same skill was also identified as severely lacking in new biomedical research graduates."

"We see that a lot when our customers that are using our devices are not terribly educated in terms of biochemistry or anything like that," said Emily Hicks, of Fredsense Technologies.

"So they really don't need the details in terms of how the product works. They're just looking for really ground level type stuff. Sometimes scientists that have a lot of a lot of training have a lot of difficulty, kind of breaking it down to that level."

Saba Aslam graduated this year. The biochemical engineer has a master's degree but hasn’t yet found full-time work with a biotech company.

Along with some other recent graduates, she started a consultancy. Aslam says that made her realize the true importance of training science students in the language of business.

“I think making them required to take communication courses or professional development courses would be really useful," said Aslam.

"Because a lot of student scientists themselves don't believe that they need those skills. But they actually do."

The researchers began looking into the issue after the province announced funding for university education will now, in part, be tied to labor market expectations.

"This model will be non-competitive," said Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides during January's announcement.

"Institutions will not compete against each other for taxpayer dollars. They will compete against themselves."

Individual targets — and the weighting of the targets — will be determined for each of the province's post-secondary institutions following consultation with students, teachers and administration. According to Nicolaides, the indicators may include:

  • Graduation and completion rates
  • Post-graduate employment
  • Experiential learning
  • Enrolment
  • Quality of teaching
  • Student satisfaction

Rancourt and Knopp are calling for a shift in the way scientists are trained. They say, in order to make their education pay off as a career choice, students should be trained in the communication skills they will need in industry. They say their research clearly indicates a skill gap existing between the training of graduate students and the expectations of employers in the field.