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Career Focus: Biomedical Engineering

By John R. Platt


Biomedical Engineer Profile:
James Patton
"In research, the most important personal characteristic is to not solve problems, but to conceive of new ones. This requires a degree of imagination and another degree of fascination with the cool work of others."
+ See full profile


Last month, the New York Times called biomedical engineering the number one new job of the coming decade, way ahead of such other in-demand jobs as financial examiner and medical specialist.

The Times based its list on statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which in 2008 reported that biomedical engineering jobs are expected to grow a staggering 72 percent (PDF) by 2018, the highest percentage growth of any field by far, and also the highest growth for a field that requires advanced education and training.

Even with that growth, biomedical engineering is a young field, and still relatively small. Out of the 1.6 million engineers working in the U.S. in 2008, only 16,000 were biomedical engineers. A growth of 72 percent in such a small niche translates to just 11,600 new jobs.


Biomedical Engineer Profile:
Hani Kayyali
"Engineering is very critical, but the process of commercializing a medical device is just as critical and often more difficult."
+ See full profile


"A huge growth rate in a small field doesn't translate into a huge number of opportunities," says Dr. Kenneth R. Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science. Foster is also a member of the IEEE-USA Medical Technology Policy Committee (MTPC), which addresses national policy issues such as health care and wellness. Still, this is a much higher growth rate than for electrical and electronics engineers, which the BLS projected will have a 1 percent growth rate by 2018, translating to just 3,100 new jobs.

Foster says there are multiple reasons for the growth of biomedical engineering, not the least of which is the codification of the biomedical engineering category itself. "Industry has been hiring electrical engineers for years, but now the field is becoming defined under its specific name," he says.

The other factor affecting the industry's growth is the rapid development of medical technology and the aging population that technology serves. "With the growth of the healthcare budget, more money is constantly going to medical devices," says Foster.

A Hybrid Career?

In part because the field is new, and in part because many of the companies making biomedical devices are still relatively small, biomedical engineers can have multiple career paths, says Foster. "At my university, some of our undergrads go on to grad school, while others go to medical school. Those that get BA degrees tend to go toward venture capital or management, where they are hired for their smarts."

Part of this shift away from direct research careers stems from the newness of the profession. "Students in biomedical engineering tend to be trained more broadly than EEs," says Foster. "As a consequence, our students tend to be generalists." He says the companies that hire biomedical engineers tend to use them as generalists or in area such as project planning or management. "The people I know in industry tend to run medical device projects, work on getting devices to market, or organize small research projects rather than work in computer programming or circuit design," he says.

Foster also reports that many of his students get dual majors in business or get involved in extracurricular activities that hone their management and leadership skills.

On the other side of the spectrum, many students might study pre-med subjects or follow their BA degrees by going to medical school. Dr. Daniel Sigg, senior manager of biotechnology for Medtronics, Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., says that it's important to have a foundation in both engineering and medical sciences. "Without a good understanding of how the body works, and how engineering can be applied for new treatments or diagnostics, it will be very difficult to succeed," he says. Sigg is also a member of the IEEE-USA MTPC.

Although he is no longer a practicing MD, Sigg says his medical degree has been an essential element of his success in biomedical engineering. "It is invaluable to understand normal and pathological body function, and 'speak the language' of health care professionals or professionals working in the field. The training also helps to quickly grasp new therapeutic or diagnostic concepts, and also be treated as a peer by other MDs I am working with." He says the clinical experience is also invaluable.

Too Much Growth?

The expected growth in this field means that there may already be a large number of candidates in the pipeline. The BLS reported in 2008 that "because of the growing interest in this field, the number of degrees granted in biomedical engineering has increased greatly."

"Over the past 10 years, there's been a tremendous increase in biomedical engineering at the undergrad level," says Foster. "Students perceive as a glamorous topic, large grants have set universities up to create these programs, and enrollment has mushroomed." This may mean that for a few years there could be an oversupply of potential employees for entry-level jobs, Foster says.

But Foster remains optimistic about the opportunities for people entering the field. "I used to worry that there would not be many jobs for our students, but they tend to have no trouble, because they're looking for jobs different from traditional electrical engineers."


For more information on biomedical engineering careers, make sure to check out IEEE Pulse, the magazine of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, as well as the IEEE EMBS Career Center.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright 2011 IEEE