The Great Divide

Some worry of a gap between what is being taught in American university undergraduate BME programs and the job market.

Bruce Wheeler. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Wheeler.)

Bruce Wheeler.
(Photo courtesy of Bruce Wheeler.)

For decades, BME has been touted worldwide as the rising star in engineering disciplines. The number of technological advancements that can be credited to the field since the 1950s is staggering, ranging from new biomedical diagnostics and therapeutics to sensors, imaging technology, and orthopedics. In the United States, job numbers are on a steady rise and expected to grow by 27% within the next ten years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In those terms, “there has never been a better, more exciting time to enter the field,” says Bruce Wheeler (right), former president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society and a BME professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

But despite many accomplishments in BME, there appears to be a disconnect between the popularity of the field and the realities of the U.S. job market. According to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), in 2012, 4,374 students graduated with an undergraduate degree in BME in the United States, but as of 2013, only 19,890 people nationwide were actually employed as “biomedical engineers.” That means the field, characterized as such, is a relatively small one for absorbing the number of new graduates every year. By comparison, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 16,400 people are employed as nuclear engineers, while only 565 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 2012, according to ASEE. Even more troubling, wages for BME students who manage to find jobs are low for an engineering discipline. While the average salary of a biomedical engineer is high at US$86,960 per year, the average salary of BME majors after graduation is US$43,200, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s the lowest of all engineering majors—nearly US$20,000 less than the next lowest, industrial/manufacturing engineering. Left unaware, some students may harbor unrealistic expectations of what their prospects may be on the job market.

One major issue is the problem of perception. Contrary to widely held belief, the field of BME is not ever-expanding. The trouble is, in engineering, “there is an expectation that jobs are plentiful,” says Wheeler. This, he worries, might be encouraging too many students to major in the field, and American universities seem to be exacerbating the problem. There has been an impressive growth in the number of BME undergraduate programs across the country: in the 1990s, for example, the number of programs grew from 25 to 100 in a single decade, according to ASEE. At many universities with BME programs, it has become one of the most popular majors. In fact, at the University of Florida, it is so popular that Wheeler’s department has found it necessary to restrict enrollment to only the brightest kids. Wheeler says the majority of BME programs are characterized by something of a “Lake Wobegon effect,” where most students are “above average” because BME departments have had to limit numbers to only the best students. But unfortunately, these high-performers are often in programs that don’t provide them with the skills most employers look for in BME candidates (see also Gail Baura’s “Point of View” column in this issue). For those students interested in medical school or some other advanced degree, this might not matter, but for those who aren’t, few are prepared for the cold, hard reality of the job climate.

The nature of academic research is partially to blame, specifically in the BME field. Funding research is a growing problem, and to keep their labs afloat, many scientists are taken out of their labs to jump through the necessary funding loops. With the focus shifted to getting and receiving grants for research, which usually does not result in a marketable end product, many academic programs are being shaped in ways that are, perhaps unintentionally, creating further divisions between university labs and industry.

Yet even those students interested in pursuing a career in research face an uncertain future. The troubled funding climate is even worse for young biomedical engineers who are not yet established. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), young scientists with Ph.D. degrees, if they manage to land a position in academia or research institutes, average four to five years before receiving federal funding. Today, just 3% of NIH grants are awarded to applicants aged 36 or younger. That’s down from 16% in 1980.

Mike Neuman. (Photo courtesy of Mike Neuman.)

Mike Neuman.
(Photo courtesy of Mike Neuman.)

The difficulty in placing grads is due, in part, to growing too much too fast, but it’s also because most programs cram too much subject matter into four years. “There should be breadth as well as depth,” says Mike Neuman (right), a BME professor at Michigan Technological University. (Neuman was also formerly editor-in-chief of IEEE Pulse.) Students end up learning a little about a lot, but that knowledge is diffuse, not comprehensive enough in any one subject to prepare graduates for the workforce. “The people in the field have gotten so indoctrinated in the interdisciplinary nature of the program,” says Neuman, “that they forget to encourage students to make the right choices that will allow them to become successful professionals.”

The major is incredibly demanding—a typical bachelor’s degree requires students to take electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering courses on top of the courses required for any premed student, says Neuman. The course load alone permits little more than just a superficial overview in each of the engineering subspecialties.

The result is that prospective employers like Stuart Gallant, vice president of product and business development at Pro-Dex, a California-based company specializing in surgical devices, view BME graduates a bit warily, feeling they haven’t acquired enough in-depth engineering skills to do the job. Consequently, he hires many chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineers. “You might have larger biotech companies hiring recent graduates,” he says, “but they are typically for very low-level positions, the equivalent of what we used to call ‘tech jobs.’”

Orhan Soykan. (Photo courtesy of Orhan Soykan.)

Orhan Soykan.
(Photo courtesy of Orhan Soykan.)

In addition, most BME departments are composed of academic researchers focused on the biological and chemical side of engineering—tissue engineering, biomaterials, cellular biomechanics, immunoengineering, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology/bioreactors—not engineering. The trouble with this emphasis on biology and chemistry research is that “not much of this can be turned into a product that can be manufactured,” says Orhan Soykan (right), a biomedical engineer who worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Medtronic, a medical device company, for 25 years. “The industry is still making things out of metal, silicon, and polymers,” he says, “they are not yet building things out of genes, cells, and tissue.”

The Root of the Disconnect

According to the NIH, labor economists have considered the BME educational model broken since the 1990s. Still, the system has been slow to change, perhaps, in part, because more established, influential scientists continue to benefit, and great advancements in the field continue to be made. This seems to disguise the fact that few young biomedical engineers are given much of a chance to succeed when jobs that seem geared for biomedical graduates instead are often taken by other engineers with a stronger design background, usually electrical or mechanical engineers.

At the same time, these other engineering disciplines—­electrical, computer, mechanical, chemical, and industrial—are beginning to incorporate life sciences curricula and research into their coursework. These programs place more of an emphasis on practical, hands-on experience and make more attractive job candidates for industry than BME students who typically spend less time in the lab and more in the classroom. Soykan says companies often prefer job candidates from other engineering disciplines because they are simply better prepared for the rigors of industry. “It’s much easier to bring someone up to speed in anatomy and physiology,” says Soykan, “than to guide someone through all the design work.”

Adapting to a Changing World

Fortunately, it’s far too early to throw in the towel. There is wide recognition that graduates of BME undergraduate programs would be better off with more practical, hands-on training. Experiences in the laboratory, internships, or working as research assistants all give students a leg up in the job market. Neuman notes that some biomedical programs, such as the one at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, allow students to specialize in a particular area of traditional engineering within their major, but these traditional engineering curriculums are infused with a biomedical flavor. This, he suggests, is an effective approach that some other universities might consider adopting.

Dr. Shankar Krishnan, founding chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department at the Wentworth Institute in Boston, has studied BME education models extensively. His recommendation is that BME education incorporates summer semesters to allow for mandatory “co-op” opportunities, where students are required to experience hands-on training.

“In order for them to prepare themselves for the workforce, the students must not only take courses to prepare for research and development in industry or academia but also cover the industrial needs, such as in the areas of design, manufacturing, testing, quality assurance, regulatory affairs, training, intellectual property, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, etc.,” says Krishnan. Wentworth, for example, is designed to allow students to join industry upon graduation and includes two semesters of co-ops and/or internships. This is particularly effective in a place like Boston where there are many medical companies, hospitals, and research institutions, adds Krishnan.

Furthermore, it is the responsibility of colleges and institutions “to keep up with the rapidly changing biomedical engineering field,” he adds, “and adapt their BME program to match industrial needs.” Working with organizations such as the Industrial Professional Advisory Council, medical device industries, and hospitals can provide good insight and influence positive change in existing programs that reflects the current industry, he says, and programs that work more closely with industry tend to produce more successful graduates.

Alternatively, many scholars believe the best approach is to combine a BME bachelor’s and master’s degree program that places greater emphasis on engineering. Universities including the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and the University of Washington in Seattle are already doing this. Robert Kearney, a BME professor at McGill University in Canada, believes this might be the only way for students to receive training solid enough to enter the job market. “There are a lot of good biological scientists around,” he says, “that’s why it’s important to produce people that are good engineers” to set graduates apart from other graduating engineers and biologists.

Kearney admits that his program largely prepares students for research, not industry, but suggests universities might consider creating an additional track for BME students interested in going straight into industry. “In industry, intellectual property, regulatory, and ethics issues are all things you need to know,” he says, which you don’t necessarily need if you want to stay in academic research. “Research seeks to understand a problem,” he says, “but industry strives to solve a particular problem and get that solution to market in a reasonable amount of time.”

International Solutions

When reforming BME programs in the United States, it might be helpful to gather some inspiration overseas. For example, at the Institut Superior d’Ingenieurs de Franche-Comté at the University of Bescançon in France, students are thrown into the workplace from the very beginning. Over three years, they spend a total of 2,400 hours in both medical and technical fields, and master the entire lifecycle of a medical device, according to Dr. Oleg Blagosklonov, a professor for the university’s program.

The institute makes this possible because it created its own company—a real one—called Biotika. Founded in 2001, Biotika currently holds two patents and has registered four intellectual property letters, says Blagosklonov. Students participate in meetings, and the development of all technologies is designed and created under the supervision of professionals. One start-up was even created, he adds. The technologies created include DailySafe, a device to hold the proper placement of needles in vessels; a hospital bed with voice recognition; and Visiotika, a technology that allows completely paralyzed patients to control their environments with only the movement of their eyes. And these are just a few. “We believe that Biotika makes easier the first steps of professional experience for our students,” says Blagosklonov.

Aside from simulating on-the-job experiences, the department also created a “virtual firm,” where students can experience the process of applying for a job. Here, students play the roles of both employees and applicants for vacant positions at the firm. “For some students, Biotika may be their first experience of work,” Blagosklonov says, which “helps young engineers understand the more subtle aspects of human relations,” particularly during critical moments like applying for a job. A similar scenario could work extremely well for smaller programs in the United States; however, “at a big university,” says Wheeler, “how could I possibly do this for 500 people at a time?” All programs confront different obstacles and, therefore, require a variety of solutions.

Though industry and education may be out of sync in places, there is no doubt that the BME field will continue to present career opportunities in the future. Advancements in genomics, electronics, and imaging, to name a few, have opened the field to endless possibilities for growth. With a little effort and more collaboration, BME education has the potential to prepare the coming generation of students to meet these challenges.