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Lara Husain, Employer Engagement Officer for the Society of Biology discusses skills gaps in bioscience graduates and how the Society of Biology is addressing this problem by accrediting degree programmes which will give graduates the experience, skills, and potential to excel in research and development.

“Under half of employers reported that all graduate candidates in the past year had met the skills required for the role.”

The Society of Biology launched its Accreditation programme in 2012 with external support from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). As an Employer Engagement Officer for the Society, it is my job to speak with bioscience employers and inform them of the Society’s Degree Accreditation Programme and how it is aiming to close the skills gaps between graduation and employment in bioscience research.

What’s the problem?

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the Office for Life Sciences (OLS) have both released reports highlighting that UK bioscience graduates aren’t adequately prepared for employment in bioscience research:

  • They lack research skills
  • They lack practical skills
  • Poor numeracy
  • Poor scientific literacy

These reports clearly outline that the issue is not about the knowledge graduates have, but rather the more basic skills which should be automatically acquired during undergraduate study in the biosciences. Additionally, UK graduates are not as competitive as they could be globally, for example the Bologna two-cycle process results in more work ready graduates as they have a longer time to become ‘professional’.

I have met with many bioscience employers across different bioscience sectors to discuss their experiences working with graduates; some have even expressed views that graduate recruits are unable to pipette adequately or complete simple serial dilutions. These basic skills are essential for a career in bioscience research and the Society’s recent bioscience employer survey (June 2014) revealed that under half (44%) of employers reported that all graduate candidates in the past year had met the skills required for the role. This leaves 56% of employers who are not satisfied that the skills graduates have acquired at university are sufficient for a graduate role in their company.

This problem may be leading to further issues because some companies are tackling the problem by recruiting over-qualified candidates into graduate-level roles, which may then have a negative impact on staff retention. In fact, the Society’s bioscience employer survey confirmed that 38% of the employers questioned believed this to be true (an increase from 25% in the Society’s 2013 employer survey).

Why is this happening?

In my opinion employers have time and time again highlighted the significance of the practical experience that students gain during their undergraduate degree; those who have completed a year in industry stand out as being far more skilled and prepared for employment than students who haven’t.

Employers have also expressed that graduates may show promise in interviews, but when it comes to working in a lab, many of them are unfamiliar with the equipment and some lack the ability to carry out basic scientific research. It is difficult for employers to be aware of the hands-on experience a student has had by looking at their degree title alone; an undergraduate honours degree in Biological Sciences in some institutions may include a year in industry and a substantial lab-based project, but others may not include any kind of individual lab work or research project.

How is the Society of Biology working to counteract this problem?

Accreditation has existed in engineering, physics and chemistry for a number of years, in varying forms, however accreditation of degree programmes across the biosciences has previously never been attempted due to the sheer scale and diversity involved. The Society of Biology, with financial support from the UKCES, decided to tackle this issue following two years of consultation with the bioscience community.

The programmes we have been accrediting are those with a year in industry or an integrated master’s year. The graduates from these programmes will have had the opportunity to gain the following skills and abilities:

  • Proven practical experience – typically, accredited degrees will include either a year in industry, or an integrated master’s year. This means that graduates will have substantial practical experience, an appreciation of experimental design, and independent research skills.
  • An understanding of physics, maths, and chemistry in a biological context, as well as analytical and problem-solving skills, including data handling and interpretation, and effective use of statistics.
  • The capacity for independent study.
  • Effective communication to both specialist and non-specialist audiences.
  • A critical awareness of developments in their field of study.
  • The ability to independently apply appropriate experimental approaches in modern research, and an appreciation of effective experimental design.
  • A knowledge and appreciation of accepted protocols and methods, including an understanding of appropriate research conduct and ethics.

Currently, the Society has successfully accredited 93 degree programmes at 19 universities across the UK and numbers are continuing to grow.

Find out more

If you’re still unclear about accreditation by the Society of Biology or if you’d like to find out more about how the Degree Accreditation Programme is already closing skills gaps, join our webinar this Friday (27th June), which will be discussing degree accreditation and supporting effective STEM graduate recruitment. Alternatively, please contact me, Lara Husain, Employer Engagement Officer at

Lara Husain is Employer Engagement Officer for the Society of Biology.

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