OK, I’ve Got My Degree. Now What?

One of many alternative science careers

One of many alternative science careers

Years ago, when I was in graduate school studying molecular biology, many of my professors seemed to place a lot of value on the traditional career path: several years of post-doctoral fellowships, followed by a career as a tenured faculty member at a big academic institution, with teaching responsibilities and a laboratory, post-doctoral fellows and students. At the time, many of my fellow students and I planned to follow this path and, eventually, become primary investigators and manage our own labs. There was little talk of other career choices. However, after several years of graduate school studies, I realized that, as much as I enjoyed learning and thinking about science, certain aspects of spending 3–6 years as a “post doc”, then managing my own lab and writing grants did not appeal to me. I had to revisit the question “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

So, what else could I have done with my science degree?

A lot.

Here I list just a small sampling of some of the nontraditional career choices available to people with scientific training.

When considering different science careers, pay special attention to other skills that you have that might pair well with science. If you like interacting with people, consider work as a sales or marketing person at a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company, an educator or curator in a museum, aquarium, botanical garden, zoo or library, or a park ranger. Do you have a knack for writing? You might be a good candidate for a job as a technical writer, editor or science journalist. Do you like to solve problems? Put your skills to use as a technical support scientist or a consultant who helps company managers solve science-related problems that arise within their businesses. Other career fields include:

  • Patent, environmental and other types of law
  • Information technology and bioinformatics
  • Regulatory affairs and safety
  • Technology transfer or business development
  • Forensic science
  • Scientific or medical illustration and animation
  • Managing government research funding programs
  • Politics, as a political advisor, legislator or lobbyist
  • Laboratory or hospital management
  • Environmental science, as an inspector or educator, for example
  • Genetic counseling
  • Epidemiology
  • Medical prosthetics design

In my case, I was hired as a Promega Technical Services Scientist, where I spent more than 5 years providing information about various products and helping other scientists troubleshoot experiments when things didn’t go exactly as planned. I also dabbled a bit in writing and found that I really enjoyed putting thoughts to paper, so I moved to Scientific Communications, where I can put my interest in writing and science to use. During my academic training, I had never thought of technical services or science writing as a career choice. I suspect that many other people with science-related careers do not have the job that they had planned to have when they started studying science. It’s just further evidence that sometimes we have little control over where life takes us.

Do you have a science-related career that many would consider nontraditional? Let us know by adding your story to the Comments.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

12 thoughts on “OK, I’ve Got My Degree. Now What?

  1. IMHO schools and professors in the life sciences are VERY BAD at preparing students for careers. If you look at the ratio of PIs to PhD students, it’s quite obvious that there aren’t enough lab head jobs in the world, yet grad students aren’t given enough information about the non-academic alternatives. A “Career Day” once a year is not enough. We should have more career fairs and opportunities for internships like engineering students.

  2. As a current PhD student in microbiology, I couldn’t agree more: there is a tacit assumption that you came to graduate school to become a professor. And as Hwa Shi-Hsia pointed out the numbers just don’t add up. Most of us will end up elsewhere.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article. It’s a message that can’t be said enough: there’s more to ways to “live science” than being a principle investigator.

  3. Last year I was invited to speak to PhD students at Emory University in Atlanta (my graduate alma mater) about alternative careers for PhD-trained biologists. The students in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical sciences at Emory spear-headed an alternative careers seminar series. They are receiving support from those in “authority” for their efforts, and Emory has even created a “certificate” program science journalism in cooperation with the journalism program for the division PhD students. Things are beginning to change, but it’s the current crop of graduate students who will have to push to formalize the opportunities to explore alternative careers. All graduate programs try to keep a current list of their graduates and where they are currently employed. That list is a great place to start when looking for alternatives to the traditional PhD-postdoc-academic researcher career track.

  4. Science writing and editing is an excellent option. Educational publishers, including major companies such as Prentice Hall and McGraw-Hill, often seek out M.S. and even Ph.D. holders as staff editors for K-12 textbook programs. College-level departments frequently need writers with science backgrounds for textbook supplements (such as study guides). My particular career path has led me in this direction, from biologist to oceanographer, from author to editor, and finally to freelance science writing and editing. It’s a rewarding occupation for those who enjoy communicating about science to non-scientists.

    • Thanks to everyone for your comments.
      I agree that science writing is a great option. As a science writer, I get the opportunity to learn about and even participate in research projects without trips to the lab on Saturdays and Sundays or in the middle of the night.

      As for the emphasis (or lack thereof) on a wide range of alternative careers, I graduated and got a “real” job 13 years ago, and I was hoping that schools had started doing a better job of presenting alternative careers in science since then. It sounds like there are some efforts to educate students about alternative careers, but there is still a lot more that can be done. I think it will still be left to the students to pursue more information about alternative careers until schools and professors realize that not everyone can establish his or her own lab. If we can publicize programs like the one at Emory University that Michele mentioned, maybe more students will start to expect such efforts on their behalf, and similar programs will become more common.

  5. A good post and one that needs to be shared. I followed the traditional path through graduate school and into postdoc. After a few years I was forced to confront the painful truth that i wasn’t going to make it to Faculty, at least on the path I wanted (Full time, tenure-track). No one had ever offered me advice on what to do next so it was a year or more of hard thinking and planning. One thing I tell postdocs now is to be honest and plan for alternative careers; these are now more traditional than regular faculty positions.

    You have to think about what you’re good at, where your skills and work on developing your non-bench skills. You might enjoy writing, but without a portfolio you will be hard pressed to transition to a writing job. An editor doesn’t really care how great your western blots are!

    So, I spent two years working steadily to build my “science communication” portfolio; lots of freelance writing. I got elected as chair of our local Postdoc Association, and from there to the Board of Directors of the National Postdoc Association. Throughout of this one word rings true: Network. You future directions, and possible misdirections can rest a lot on “who you know, not what you know”. this is another piece of advice I give to postdocs. Network.

    I spoke with our administration and arranged an “internship” as a “Research Administration Fellow”. From this my career has moved in different directions and opened up a whole new world where I can be a scientist, and “do” science, but away from the bench. I use my skills in administration, management, writing and good old scientific thinking in different ways. plus, I’m still working on my resume, and networking.

    The world is a different place to that of our original mentors and teachers. A job for life rarely exists, and you have tp be prepared to learn and re-train almost constantly. It’s a wonderful challenge, and I relish it. Remember, we’re all scientists, and we all got into this gig originally because of the inherent challenges and unknown vistas.

    • A very good point about networking, Ian. I don’t think it is enough these days to spend countless hours in the lab, working 12 hours a day and 6 or even 7 days a week. That is now expected of all students; it is no longer a way to distinguish yourself from everyone else. Connections are increasingly important, even to get a postdoctoral fellowship in a well-known lab.
      Back when I was in graduate school, the students would have lunch with the weekly speaker, and we would have the chance to ask questions in a smaller forum. One of the questions that would always come up was “Do you think we are training too many PhD scientists?” The response from one particular speaker, a very prominent and well-respected scientist, still sticks in my mind. She said that if you work hard and are devoted to science, you should have no problems getting a good job. I’m afraid that is just not true anymore. There are a lot of talented, hard-working scientists out there who cannot get a faculty position.

  6. Paul Graham once wrote an essay drawing the conclusion that if you are smart enough to get a degree in science, you are too smart to be a scientist. (I’m paraphrasing) His argument was effectively that the effort put forth to obtain the degree did not measure up to the payoff.

    Sadly, I can no longer find the essay. His site was changed and I’m not sure the essay was brought over to the new site.

    http://www.paulgraham.com/index.html

    Alternative careers for science trained individuals is a topic that needs to be fully developed.

    Professors are unlikely to do the subject justice as it may not be in their best interest to do so. Some might argue that professors need to do all they can to ensure an adequate supply of cheap labor. After all, it is publish or perish for many of them.

    Spreading this type of information can only be done by people like us.

    The technology exists at the right price. With a little organization the word can spread faster than any one person doing it alone.

    Tools: Blogs, info products, public speaking

    What do you think?

    • Unfortunately, there is little incentive to change the current way of doing things, especially as many laboratories struggle to secure adequate funding. The professors are simply trying to do the best science they can with the resources that they have. As for educating students about career choices, I assume that most professors followed the traditional career path: graduate school, maybe a postdoc position or two, then a position at a university, and are not the best source of information on this topic. Students will need to tap other resources to gain that information, and that’s where those of us who have an alternative career in science need to do our part to help educate students. Hopefully students will also start to expect (demand?) more information about these other career paths as part of their academic training. Finally, I’m not sure that I agree with Paul Graham’s conclusion. Maybe a better conclusion would be “If you are smart enough to get a degree in science, you are also smart enough to find a satisfying career in science.” You just might need to think beyond the stereotypical career path.

  7. Sorry for seeming to abandon the conversation but I think there is an opportunity here and something needs to be done.

    I’m still working out many of the details but I set up a blog up with a few posts being developed.

    The site you found was very interesting. There should be a lot of good material for posts.

    If you find yourself thinking about the subject, I will always be looking for new ideas.

    • One way of educating students about alternative careers is to share our own stories about how we ended up with the career we have. This is one of the reasons why I posted my story here. Additional examples from scientists with various career paths might be good fodder for your blog and for additional posts here. The more examples we publish, the better. This would provide just a glimpse of all of the possibilities and, hopefully, help keep students from getting discouraged—even if you don’t become a tenured professor, you can still go on to have a very fulfilling career in science, one that requires you to use your knowledge and skills.
      We should be doing all we can to open lines of communication between people who have a successful alternative career in science and students who are starting to think about the topic. Those of us who went on to pursue alternative careers might be able to provide some guidance .

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