By John R. Platt
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
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
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.
"A huge growth rate in a small
field doesn't translate into a huge number of
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
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,"
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
"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
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.
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