Looking back over more than two decades leading Penn State’s master of biotechnology degree program, Loida Escote-Carlson concluded: “We’ve been tremendously successful.”
The teaching professor emerita of biochemistry and molecular biology chaired the program from its inception in 2000, with just four students in its inaugural cohort, until her retirement at the end of 2021—and in that time she says the program has graduated 100 percent of its students.
“We’ve never been able to accept a huge number of students,” she said. “So we really do our best to make sure that all the students we do admit are able to achieve the success that they came for at Penn State.”
According to the entry-level job placement numbers Escote-Carlson has compiled over the past 21 years, more than 60 percent of the program’s graduates end up working in industry, and the remainder are fairly evenly divided between government and academic or nonprofit jobs and further education.
“Certainly the biggest draw for our graduates is the biopharmaceutical industry, and most of them go into discovery research, which is the starting point for developing drugs, vaccines, medical devices,” she said. “Others get engaged in the nonscience areas of biotech—business development, intellectual property law, government policy—and some, of course, stay in academia as lab managers or working in core facilities, or they’re in nonprofits like research institutes. And some also continue on to a Ph.D. or another degree.”
At the end of the day, though, all of these alumni have one thing in common—they’re in high demand.
A Different Paradigm
“One of the hallmarks of program is that these students are broadly trained,” Escote-Carlson explained. “They have to ground themselves in science areas that are really leading to innovation in biotechnology, and they have to understand what the industry is about. And this is a very different paradigm for graduate training than our traditional master’s and doctorate programs in the sciences.”
Although this type of graduate training is not uncommon in other fields—engineering and business administration are notable examples—according to Escote-Carlson, Penn State was among the first universities to introduce a master of biotechnology program.
“The idea was that we have so many Ph.D. programs in the natural sciences, and academic positions are not increasing at the rate that we are generating degrees,” she said. “So one of the recommendations was to develop master's degrees that are positioned for nonacademic or broader type of work, and the biotech industry at that time was on the upswing.”
Fortunately, Escote-Carlson had also spent two years as a postdoc at a Canadian biotech startup, Cangene Corporation.
“I loved it tremendously,” she said. “And so because I had that experience in biotech, which gave me some practical understanding of how the biotech industry worked, that's how this whole idea got started—with Life Sciences Consortium Director Nina Federoff—that perhaps we should offer an alternative graduate experience to our students.”
An Alternative Experience
On top of a heavy course load—at least 27 credits in the first two semesters and a minimum of 30 credits to graduate—students in the program complete a minimum six-month full-time research internship or co-op, typically in industry, government, or at a nonprofit or another academic institution.
Students also have access to the University’s world-class research facilities—including the CSL Behring Fermentation Facility and Sartorius Cell Culture Facility—as well as to faculty expertise through the Center of Excellence in Industrial Biotechnology and to the Biotechnology Advisory Board, comprised of successful experts from across the industry.
The advisory board not only provides strategic guidance on the program’s curriculum, but its members also serve as career mentors to the students and connect them to opportunities including internships, co-ops, even full-time employment.
And, Escote-Carlson noted, the program’s many successful alumni—now spanning the biotechnology industry—are another great resource for the students, providing them with even more opportunities for professional development and networking.
“This really is a perfect environment,” she said. “There are so many resources, and we’ve been very fortunate to develop our program in this kind of environment with such tremendous support.”
No Better Testimonial
Now in its 21st year and with more than 250 alumni, the program continues to raise the bar on its own success.
“Our students have to be highly competitive,” Escote-Carlson said, “but what I saw this past spring—multiple job offers per student, and very attractive, to boot—that's the first I've seen that level.”
She gives the credit, though, to the students.
“No matter how well we say we have prepared them, in the end it's the students who have to show the proof,” she said. “And they really do well out there. I always attribute it to them that over the years, industry would come to us and say, ‘Hey, do you have any more of your students who might be interested in working with us?’ What better testimonial is there than that?”
Penn State’s master of biotechnology degree program—the oldest program of its kind in the United States—is offered by the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in collaboration with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.
The University also offers an integrated undergraduate-graduate degree program that is designed to enable qualified undergraduate students in the bachelor of science degree program in Biotechnology to graduate in five years with a master of biotechnology degree.
More information about these programs is available in the University’s Graduate Bulletin.