5 Alternative Career Paths for Life Science PhDs

Craig and Friends in Ghostbusters Costume
Not a Picture of Suggested Alternate Paths! 

I still remember when I first stepped foot onto the campus of the University of Albany. I’m a Long Island  native, so the school was by no means “new” to me. Not only did I have a few friends that were attending, but I also heard a lot of good things about the university as a whole. When you’re going into one of the “hard sciences”, you want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. For me, UAlbany was a no brainer: good reputation, fun student activities, and they were (partially) paying me to go there. It couldn’t get much better than that.

Craig and FriendsMy purpleness showed early, and I felt like I thrived at the campus. I met a lot of students that were on the same educational path as I was, and we created a sort of learning community that fostered growth within our discipline. Honestly, the student community is one of the major reasons that my time at the University of Albany was so memorable. We created study groups, helped each other with lab reports, and just essentially become that added support needed to keep your sanity while in college. Additionally, the undergraduate research program at the school introduced me to a major resource called the Wadsworth Center Laboratory of Molecular Medicine (downtown Albany by “The Egg”). This gem turned out to make a major contribution to me getting fully vested into the discipline.

As time went on, I started to evolve in what I wanted to do for a career. Initially, I thought becoming a doctor was the only option. As I got immersed into my Biochemistry and Molecular Biology majors, I discovered my love for research and figuring things out. From there the idea of pursuing a PhD was birthed. It felt like it was the best option for me, considering the fact that I wanted to pursue my passion for research.

CS 3

Reach for the stars, they said. You should definitely go get your PhD, you’d be great for it, they said. Well, I guess they did have a point. Pursuing my doctorate degree in Molecular Biology at Brandeis was definitely one of the most challenging things that I have ever had to do in my life. I could go on and on about the long hours I spent trying to construct my dissertation or the countless nights that I had to wake up and drive to the lab just to “feed” my cells — but that’s not the point of this post. I want to talk about something that I wish was more openly discussed when I first started my journey towards pursuing a PhD. It’s something that’s crucial for anyone currently working their way towards earning a doctoral degree: a job.

I know what you may be thinking: why would I need to worry about a job when I know I will continue onto a postdoc and then a tenure-track academic post? Isn’t that what everyone does? That’s precisely my point. Don’t get me wrong: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with continuing a career in academia upon completion of your doctorate. It takes a lot of patience, skill, and dedication to remain in the field after you have literally spent years becoming an expert in everything dealing with Life Science. Maybe you’ve considered going that route, feeling that your choices are limited. Many PhDs believe that apart from academia, their only “alternative” option is to go into industry and work in biotech or pharma.

Welcome to a new age my friends. Contrary to popular belief, your doctoral degree can be used beyond the realm of academia. It is an understandable mistake to make. In fact, while I was at the University of Albany, I too thought that my only option was after receiving my PhD was to become a professor or researcher. I even had it set in my head that that would be my career path even though I did not truly have a passion for it. Everyone was doing it who was part of the hard sciences, so I just assumed I had to as well. I’m here to tell you this, friends: If teaching is not your passion, then do not do it. There are more options than you think. I’d like to introduce you to 5 paths that many do not know exist. Paths that will allow you to use your degree in more ways than what is assumed to be “the only way”. As the holder of a doctoral degree, you can still have prominent and even high paying research roles outside of the laboratory.

“Surveys indicate that professors often encourage their students to follow in their footsteps, and in some cases, actively discourage careers outside academia.”
CS 1I first became aware about these alternative paths when I was about halfway through my graduate program. One of my advisors, Dr. Goode, kindly took the time to set up a panel of alumni to discuss different options we could pursue outside of academia. We all met on campus, with some pizza and beer if I remember correctly, and I was introduced to some of the other choices including careers in consulting, scientific writing, and even MSL. The best part? These are just a few of the career options available, but not often discussed in the world of the PhD student.

Here is a list of some (but not all) of the top career choices for Life Science PhD holders:

Consulting / Market Research

Consulting is an excellent career choice for PhD students because they have already selected a field to specialize in as they prepare for their dissertations. Management consulting firms look to PhDs to head positions that are specific for certain types of clients (i.e. science and technology). They are especially interested in doctorate students because they have developed a unique set of analytical skills necessary to become an effective consultant.

  • Health Advances offers consulting services within the health care industry.
  • ClearView Healthcare Partners is a boutique life sciences consulting firm based in the Boston area that provides premier strategic consulting services to biopharmaceutical companies and investors.

Writing

Although a career as a writer may seem similar to academia, professional writers do not necessarily teach students.  Your research skills and writing talent and experience will serve you well in this career.  A corporate technical writer, or even a freelance writer, are both excellent choices if you wish to continue with the writing that you have become so accustomed to as graduate student.

  • Certara is the leading drug development consultancy with solutions spanning the discovery, preclinical and clinical stages of drug development.
  • Plato BioPharma is a pre-clinical contract research organization (CRO) delivering robust in vivo physiological and pharmacological data and biomarker profiles to understand compound activity in the cardiovascular, renal, pulmonary & diabetic therapeutic areas.

Law

Did you think that law was only for your political science and communications students? Intellectual property firms will recruit Life Science PhD students to become technical specialists/scientific advisors who review and write applications for patents.  On top of that, many of these firms will sponsor law school tuition, so you have a comfortable salary while pursuing a law degree part time.  Once again, the analytic and research skills you’ve acquired directly transfer to a career in law.

  • Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati is the premier provider of legal services to technology, life sciences, and growth enterprises worldwide
  • Clients partner with Cooley on transformative deals, complex IP and regulatory matters, and high-stakes litigation, where innovation meets the law

Entrepreneur

The good news is, you don’t have to go to business school to become an entrepreneur.  The only requirements are a good idea and a lot of perseverance and patience.  Because you’ve been spending the last few years pursing a doctorate, it’s safe to say that you have both.  Your advantage is that you know how to think critically and conduct in-depth research before making any rash decisions.

  • KOLgroups provides healthcare market research and consulting services They offer physician recruitment, phone interviews, and in-depth interviews to help pharma and medtech companies develop and commercialize new, innovative technologies.
  • PathoVax LLC is developing a best-in-class prophylactic Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine technology RGVax targeting all 15 cancer-causing strains

Sales

When I say sales, I’m not talking about retail.   Sales for a Life Science PhD means giving presentations about complicated products, instruments, or other tools that someone unfamiliar with the field may not be able to sell properly.  A field applications scientist in the Pharmaceutical or Biotechnical sector may be the best option for those who want a smooth transition from research to sales.  In this role, you serve as the product expert as opposed to the sales closer.

  • Thermo Fisher Scientific is dedicated to improving the human condition through systems, consumables, and services for researchers
  • Pall Corporation is a manufacturer of proprietary filtration, separation and purification products and solutions

These are just a handful of the more popular alternate career paths. Take the time to talk with your advisor and others in the field outside of academia to see what path is best for you.

Feel free to contact me via LinkedIn if you’d like to talk more or have any questions. Or, leave a comment or question below.


Please Note: The views of our student bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the UAlbany Advisement Services Center. These are their stories  – their voices.
Portions of this post were previously shares here:
http://blogs.brandeis.edu/science/2017/03/15/from-phd-to-life
About the Author:
CS 2
Craig W. Stropkay, PhD
Director, Life Science Consultant
UAlbany Class of 2007
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