Biochemistry graduates rot away

BD Biochemistry 1

Some biochemistry graduates say they graduated 15 years ago and never got a job. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Annahbless Kithome says she was coerced by her father to pursue a biochemistry course against her will.

“My original life-long goal was not aligned with studying biochemistry. I was coerced into pursuing this course by my father, who envisioned me following a medical path. However, my true passion lay in pursuing a business-related degree from the beginning,” she tells the Business Daily.

However, since she had not attained the required grade for direct admission into the course, she initially pursued a Bachelor of Science general with her B+ score for a year before transitioning to biochemistry through a bridging programme.

Her class, she says, was split into two streams each consisting of about 30 students.

However, the study programme that typically lasts three years with 44 weeks of study annually would start to lose meaning for her mid-way as the instructors delved into complex subjects she found challenging to keep up with.

“As we started studying units like pharmacology and metabolism, which demanded extensive memorisation, the feeling of being out of place kept intensifying,” she says.

“Clinical biochemistry experiences at Kenyatta National Hospital also left me feeling overwhelmed by the presence of numerous sick individuals, making it clear that such an environment wasn’t suitable for me.”

She eventually switched her career after graduating, training her guns on pursuing human resource (HR) management, in a move that catapulted her to land a job at one of Kenya’s prominent telcos.

“Since then, I have consistently worked in HR roles both domestically and internationally, finding immense fulfilment in this field. Transitioning into HR was undoubtedly the best decision I made,” she says.

Some biochemistry graduates say they graduated 15 years ago and never got a job. Some found a career path after a master’s and PhD in medical biochemistry. Others are lecturers, who argue that students being called to pursue biochemistry at the university should opt for more marketable courses like clinical medicine or nursing.

Remjuce Bwana, a biochemistry graduate from Laikipia University, tells of a similar tale.

After achieving the degree feat in 2017, he had hoped to find openings in fields related to his scope of study, but the optimism kept fading away as days passed.

“I’m currently working as an insurance agent as I keep looking forward to better prospects. I’m also trying to enhance my online visibility by updating my profile on platforms such as LinkedIn, hoping it will attract some important eye,” says Mr Bwana.

BD Biochemistry 3

Biochemistry is among courses that will bring you tears yet they require very high grades for enrolment. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

The proliferation of the woes goes beyond physical interactions, with the general feeling among graduates on social networks being that the Kenyan job market does not appreciate science well enough to leverage its limitless capabilities, and, in the process, benefit sector experts.

Across social circles and in their career-talk engagements, the degree holders in the field paint a picture of systemic failure as they express the frustrations they have endured, lamenting that the Kenyan ecosystem does not provide a market for their hard-earned skills.

“The worst part is that universities keep teaching some of these courses yet they don’t have a definite and clear career path. Those who are lucky advance and go into teaching them yet they know how unfriendly the ground is," laments a nurse on social media.

“Biochemistry is among courses that will bring you tears yet they require very high grades for enrolment.”

Whereas in developed economies biochemistry as a discipline of study is highly rated as the epitome of medical practice and related fields, making it a lucrative venture for young scholars, graduates in the subject area on the local scene don’t have much to show for it.

But in trying to understand what exactly ails the sector, it is imperative to first unpack what the subject content entails to decipher why the skill set doesn’t seem to attract much traction within the local health systems.

Canada-based McGill University defines biochemistry as the application of chemistry to the study of biological processes at the cellular and molecular level.

According to the university, which also doubles up as a medical research institution, biochemistry emerged as a distinct discipline around the beginning of the 20th century when scientists combined chemistry, physiology and biology to investigate the chemistry of living organisms.

“Biochemists are interested, for example, in mechanisms of brain function, cellular multiplication and differentiation, communication within and between cells and organs, and the chemical bases of inheritance and disease,” writes the institute.

In a more practical use in modern times, the discipline of study was prominently instrumental in developing the various Covid-19 vaccines that greatly aided the world in suppressing the pandemic.

But is it all dim and gloom? Is there anything that learners can do to enhance their employability chances?

According to Ms Kithome, the secret lies in the willingness of graduates to continually upskill.

“There are several ways for graduates to enhance their employment chances. Firstly, gaining relevant work experience through internships, part-time jobs, or volunteer positions can significantly bolster one’s resume and make them more attractive to employers,” she advises.

BD Biochemistry 2

Biochemistry is the application of chemistry to the study of biological processes at the cellular and molecular levels. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

“Additionally, continuously improving and acquiring new skills through additional courses, certifications, or workshops can demonstrate a commitment to personal and professional development.”

On the part of the institutions and curriculum developers, Ms Kithome calls for an urgent initiative to reassess the outlook and teaching approach, noting that a lack of practical skills hampers graduates’ entry into the job market.

Locally, the Biochemistry and Biotechnology Professionals Society of Kenya was founded in 2018 with a mission to ‘advance the broader Biochemistry Molecular Biology and Biotechnology enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people’.

On the international scene, openings have already started to show light beams as degree holders bag lucrative posts. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the US, the median salary among Biochemists and Biophysicists was $94,490 (Sh13.7 million in current exchange rates) as of May 2019.

In Kenya, however, the number of students enrolled in medical laboratory science courses during the academic year 2022/2023 declined 35.9 per cent to stand at 1,105 down from 1,723 in the preceding financial year according to data published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).

On the contrary, the overall number of undergraduate and postgraduate health sciences students in local universities increased 21 per cent to 28,024, signalling that learners are ditching lab science programmes and shifting to other health science courses.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.