To BME or not to BME
December 29, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I am planning on doing biomedical engineering next year as part of a coursework master's. What bio-related job and career options will I have?

I did a BSc in psychology here in Australia a few years ago, focusing on human factors engineering/psychology, and although I enjoyed it, my heart has always been in the life sciences. After doing a lot of research, I believe biomedical engineering (BME) would be a good way to pursue that interest. The course I'm hoping to do is tailored to non-engineering background students. It includes standard engineering subjects, some core biomedical engineering units, several coursework electives, and a research project and/or industry placement at the end.

Now, I am currently trying to figure out exactly where I will end up at the end of the BME degree. Despite doing a lot of looking into it, I feel I'm not exactly sure what BME graduates typically go on to do, particulaly if they focus on the more cellular/molecular aspects which I'm most interested in (e.g. stuff like cell culture engineering, tissue engineering, molecular scale diagnostic or drug delivery devices). I'm trying to find out if there are companies out there that would hire BME graduates in that kind of field. Maybe in like a research assistant/associate type of role?

I suppose part of my concern is that the people I know who have gotten jobs in BME seem to have degrees in more traditional engineering fields (such as mechanical or electrical). This makes me wonder if I need to do a more traditional engineering degree. Or, would a strictly bio/chem focused BME background be employable? I was actually looking at chemical engineering a while back. Many BME academics at my university are chemical engineers doing nanotechnology in drug delivery, and I wonder if I would be better off doing chemical engineering and then trying to apply that to biomedical contexts, rather than doing a BME degree (seems a bit circuitous, but don't want to rule out any potentially good options.)

So, in summary, I'm trying to figure out if focusing on molecular/cellular engineering in a BME degree is good preparation for the field, job/career wise (or if maybe a different degree would be a better choice). Any general advice about BME and careers would also be appreciated!
posted by strekker to Education (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The cell/molecular pathway you describe will open the door to lab tech positions at pharmaceutical companies. That is a pretty standard career path and it is actually easier at the master's level to get jobs (at least in the States) in the industry than with either a PhD or a BS. The caveat is that the job market in pharma is pretty crappy right now (again, I can only tell you about the US).

It sounds, however, like you are in a good place to pick up expertise in a real growth area of bioengineering - the combination of nanofabrication skills with cell/molecular work. This is the lab-on-a-chip kind of stuff that is currently cutting-edge. This will make you extremely marketable in the near future. My company, for example, can't find enough people like this. So if I were you, I'd try to get some training and experience in both.
posted by overhauser at 10:41 AM on December 29, 2010

A bunch of people I know who have finished their masters in bio engineering are working as developers of MRI sequences, or other MRI related work. If you settle somewhere in a research hub you can apply your biomed degree in a variety of ways (something applied that is dealing directly with developing certain biomed machinery or doing research alongside phd in _insert title here_ who need a more technical person to accompany them in their research)
posted by mooselini at 11:18 AM on December 29, 2010

My background is BME, with my education stressing general engineering design and tissue engineering. My perception of the job market in the US is that it can be very difficult to find a job where I feel qualified. I feel like I don't have the really rigorous biology or chemistry background to work at pharma companies. But I also don't have the mechanical or electrical skills to work at a medical device company like Medtronic or Boston Scientific. Tissue engineering type work is huge in academia, but not very profitable in industry. At least, "tissue engineering" as I think of it. I definitely think that if you pursue tissue engineering work, your best bets for jobs will be academia (or pseudo-academia, like research hospitals), or small start-up companies.

I did find a job at a small biotech company that feels like an ok fit. We make what is considered a medical device, but it is a biologic so there is less mechanical knowledge involved and more biology and chemistry. But mostly the job works because it is a small company, so I dabble in a little bit of everything.

Ultimately, you should do what you're interested in. But for what it's worth, if I could go back and redo my education, I would be a mechanical engineer. Or at least have taken several mechE courses along with my tissue engineering courses.
posted by dormouse at 2:17 PM on December 29, 2010

i only got a BS in BME but the fact your masters program is catered toward nonengineers makes me think the outcome might be similar. As mentioned above I also feel there are little jobs I feel qualified for outside of academia and plenty of classmates feel the same (this is a top ranks BME and engineering school). Unless your program is very focused and gives you plenty of hands on experience, you will likely end up with lots of breadth but not enough depth. You won't have the chemistry or pure bio depth to compete in pharma nor the engineering depth of a mechanical or electrical engineer to be competitive in medical devices. BME still seems to be research heavy so many good positions require phds. That being said, is all you are looking for are research assistant roles perhaps it should be fine. My only advice would be to see how focused and rigorous your program is (many BME courses try to cover too mych and end up bring a watered down version of tradiobal engineering with biological examples) and getting plenty of hands on research experience in academia or industry is crucial. Keep in mind that BME is still reatively new which is why people come from many other backgrounds. I actually think this is a more solid path but it depends on your program.
posted by lacedcoffee at 2:50 PM on December 29, 2010

Also why don't you ask alumni or current students of your program to see what job placement like? Since BME departments vary so widely, it's near impossible to get great advice over the Internet. I wish I had asked. Then I would have learned that the majority of my classmates went to medical school/grad school and almost nobody got a good industry job due to lack of adequate preparation from out department.
posted by lacedcoffee at 2:57 PM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great responses. It's good to know what I'm getting into job wise. My impression so far is that the BME job market is probably a lot more niche than that for other science or engineering disciplines.

@overhauser: thanks for the helpful (and somewhat optimistic) reply. It's good to hear there is a market for expertise in biomedical nanotech, as that was an area I was looking at.

@mooselini: good idea with the MRI work. I hadn’t really considered that before.

@dormouse: I had that thought that maybe BME was "too" interdisciplinary in the sense that you're not specialised enough in the core sciences to work in them confidently. Not particularly confidence inspiring, but I'll have to consider it. I wonder how you're enjoying life at the biologics startup? I was thinking that might be a good route to take instead of the whole research institution/big pharma thing.

@lacedcoffee: Good idea with talking alumni/current students. Definitely on the list of things to do. I think you're right that in a degree like BME you probably have to be quite proactive in terms of seeking out opportunities for research/industry experience in order to network, build the resume, etc.

Thanks again all for your help! As always, happy to hear any other thoughts/comments.
posted by strekker at 10:52 PM on December 29, 2010

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