Career Paths for Life Scientists

Brian Taylor

May 03, 2010

Julie: Many Ph.D.'s in the life sciences feel trained for one thing: a faculty job at a research institution. As they progress through a postdoc, they find themselves in a career quandary. Academe is their first choice, but the faculty job market is challenging and they are worried about finding a position.

Over the years, we've talked with many graduate students and postdocs who have seen what it takes to succeed in academic science and decided it's not the right place for them. Industry seems like an obvious alternative, but it's not always clear how to find a position there, either. And many Ph.D.'s wonder whether other options exist besides academe and industry.

Jenny: A career change takes time, even if you're moving into a related field. How much time will depend on a great variety of factors. It's important to set a timeline for yourself as you do research and plan your move outside of academe.

Doctoral students often wonder if they need to do a postdoc to be competitive on the nonacademic job market. The answer is yes if you want a research-and-development career in industry; it's hard to get an industry job without having done a postdoc. However, you might strategically pick a postdoc with the goal of developing new skills or changing the direction of your research to something that is more cutting edge. The fact that you have done postdoctoral research shows an industry employer that you have gained some experience in running a lab and managing a budget.

Julie: Gaining more independence in your work and perhaps getting some supervisory experience may make you a strong candidate for other positions as well. But how do you figure out exactly what kind of career you want to pursue in life? That's such a big question that it helps to break it down. Ask yourself, What do I want to do next? What is my current work lacking?

Sometimes you can start to get over "feeling stuck" by trying something new. Volunteer somewhere or look for an internship. Many research institutions that hire postdocs also have technology-transfer offices, and many of those offices have internships specifically for Ph.D.'s. Or take the initiative and see if there are opportunities for you to develop in your current position. Career assessments, such as the MBTI or Strong Interest Inventory, can be revealing, but they don't provide any magic solution.

Jenny: It's important to remember that your first job is not your last job. Your first step out of academe should help you gain some skills that will serve you well as you move forward. You may find many parts of your new career to be invigorating, but if it's not everything you dreamed about, it's OK. It often takes people a few career moves to get to exactly where they want to be.

Julie: One common question we hear: What careers have you seen science Ph.D.'s move into? Our answer is often fairly long because we have seen them move into a wide range of fields. What's most important is that you move into a position that's a good fit for both your skills and your personal goals. That said, here are some suggestions.

Jenny: For many scientists, a natural next step is to move into research in a for-profit setting, in either a large pharmaceutical or biotech company. The market for such jobs is competitive, so it often takes time and some strong connections to find a position. The odds of applying to a company online without any prior connection and then being called for an interview are fairly low. But we've certainly known postdocs who found a job that way. However, a good contact at a company can help you rise to the top of a stack of résumés a lot quicker.

Julie: Perhaps you are no longer interested in research. You should still look to pharmaceutical or biotech companies as potential employers. Many scientists have found engaging work as medical-science liaisons or as researchers whose work is more clinically oriented.

We've known postdocs who went on to earn M.B.A.'s and start their own biotech companies, and we've know scientists who've moved into business development, sometimes straight from an academic setting and sometimes after a few years working on the research side of a company. Scientists interested in business have also found exciting work in the finance industry (in both venture capital and equity research) and in the consulting industry (in both large firms like McKinsey and BCG, and life-science-focused practices like those at LEK or Campbell Alliance).

Jenny: For scientists who love to write, several types of positions allow you to get out from behind the bench yet still engage with science. That might mean working for a medical-writing business that produces papers for pharmaceutical companies, developing education materials for medical professionals (we've seen scientists who are doing some amazing things with computer-based training materials), or doing editorial work at Science, Nature, or other specialized journals.

Although this is a challenging time to look for work in print journalism, there is always a need for people who can write clearly about scientific concepts for a wide range of audiences. If you're interested in writing about science for the general public, you might investigate the possibility of doing that on a freelance basis while you're still working on your research.

Julie: Government offers many opportunities for scientists on both the research (national laboratories and federal agencies) and policy sides. A Ph.D. we know in nutrition who works at the National Institutes of Health says her job allows her to keep up to date in her field, and even attend important conferences, all without having to do some of the bench research that she didn't enjoy. There are a few terrific, but competitive, fellowships, like the Presidential Management Fellowship, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship in science and technology policy, the Cancer Prevention Fellowship, and the NCI Health Communications Internship Program, which are a nice way to get your foot in the door of the federal government.

For those interested in working in government, informational interviewing is crucial. You need to learn how hiring works in the agencies and departments of interest to you.

Jenny: Technology transfer and patent law interest many scientists. Large universities with extensive research operations usually have offices that investigate the marketability of technology developed within the university. Scientists usually run those offices. If you're interested in patents, law firms and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are logical employers. Law firms that hire scientists often help them pay to go to law school.

Scientists can find many other career opportunities in university administration, besides tech transfer. As universities add offices that serve postdoctoral fellows, hiring someone with a science background to run the office or manage its programs makes a lot of sense. Most top research universities provide career services to doctoral students and postdocs. Serving as a career counselor to Ph.D. students and postdocs is rewarding (as we both know firsthand). A science background would be a valuable asset for someone who works as an academic adviser for undergraduates or as an assistant director in a faculty-support office.

Julie: We've heard of other science-related careers that sound terribly interesting but are a little bit off the beaten path. One is becoming a science librarian in an academic library. Not many librarians have a Ph.D. in a scientific field, and having one can be a strong asset if you decide to pursue the librarian path.

Another unusual career is in science illustration. If that interests you, check out the following groups: the BioCommunications Association, the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, and the Association of Medical Illustrators.

Jenny: We're not offering an exhaustive list here of nonacademic careers for life scientists—just some ideas to get you started. It's also possible that you may find yourself doing something completely different from your scientific training. Julie and I once knew a physics Ph.D. who ended up in the facilities and real-estate department of a large university. His community activism made him a great fit for a position that involved serving as a liaison between the university and the neighboring community.

We've often found that the people who have the most interesting careers are those who find their way serendipitously, by being open to the different opportunities that come their way.

Julie: Among the more general resources available to career-changing life scientists are several books:

  • Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development, by Toby Freedman
  • So What Are You Going to Do With That? A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius
  • Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists, by Peter S. Fiske
  • Guide to Nontraditional Careers in Science, by Karen Young Kreeger
  • Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower, by Cynthia Robbins-Roth

Among the useful Web sites you might consult for advice on nonacademic careers, is a great starting point, as is the job bank at

Jenny: Career exploration takes work and time. It's a myth that your academic program always equals a career. Actually, it's your intellect, skills, and goals that lead you to a career. You have to be proactive about it and can't expect others (especially employers) to make connections for you. Just keep in mind that hundreds of other scientists have found happiness in many different kinds of careers.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to