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Top 11 Alternative Entry Level PhD Science Careers To Skip the PostDoc

Many postdocs realize that they are working a contract position that will eventually expire. The thought of ‘what comes next’ can be extremely daunting; especially considering the reality that most will not end up in academia. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to explore the endless possibilities of what you can do next. More often than not, the biggest hurdles that you must overcome are learning about the opportunities available and making sure you have the skills required.

Once you have this knowledge, what do you do with it? Are you really gathering the skills required to be a competitive candidate in the job market you are about to enter? Will you be ready to accept the fact that, even with a PhD, you may be unemployed?

Taking charge of your career is not a passive action and it requires you to constantly be in motiondeveloping and mapping out your plan just as you would any critical experiment that will be added to your next Cell manuscript.


You spend 5-7 years getting a PhD. You want to see a return of investment. You want to end up with a fulfilling career that utilizes your PhD. You want to know all your options for the types of alternative PhD careers (outside of academia) that are out there, but the steps you need to take are missing or are unclear.

Going further, how does one define a return of investment? Will this is up to you. So you need to think about what matters to you so you can maximize where your PhD will take you in your career. A PhD is not the end, it is only the beginning.

You are so focused finishing your PhD and writing your thesis that you hardly have any time to work on your resume, let alone even think about it. Apply for jobs? Yeah, after “I defend and take a vacation.”

Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

By taking on a postdoc and not doing the planning prior to your graduation you are hurting yourself in the long run in two ways:

  1. You are missing out on real-world experience and OPPORTUNITY that may be (and most likely will be) found in a job area that better matches your interests, skills, and strengths and value you can add to a company.
  2. You will miss out financially-which is not a reason to go into science or grad school in the first place-but taking on a low-wage postdoc salary does not equal to what you could be making in other areas in industry and can hurt you especially if you are graduating with undergrad/grad school debt.

You have to pay your dues like anyone else. The important thing that defines your PhD and the value that it holds is what you do AFTER. How would you rather spend your time? Doing a 2-4 year postdoc (or even second postdoc) then transitioning into a career you should have figured out long ago? Or rewinding the clock and skipping the postdoc altogether?

An academic postdoc may be appropriate for some. But for many, it is not. Don’t delay the inevitable and put off the decision you need to make now versus later. If you haven’t come to this point of realization, which is common for many, maybe you need to put in the work ahead of time to make sure you are making an informed decision. That way you can go further down a path of your choosing with the level of confidence that you need.

Many just don’t want to put in the work in hopes that time by itself will help unwind things and bring forth answers through luck or serendipity. Reality check: it just doesn’t work that way.

With that said, it is important to point out that even if you go into industry, you will still be paying your dues. You aren’t going to start out in some senior level management position. You’re going to have to work your way up. So stop reading articles on the ‘top 10 PhD careers in industry’ because they aren’t telling you anything other than giving you a wishlist. Be realistic about where you are now and where you want to be in short term (not just the long run). Put the entitlement aside.

Whether you decide to “pay your dues” as a postdoc stuck in academia or as an entry-level professional working in industry, the point is that if you want to get your “dues” out of way NOW rather than later-then spend it in the industry that you are going to ultimately end up in.

Why are you paying “double dues” as an academic postdoc, then as an entry-level PhD in industry when you could just pay “single dues” as an entry level-PhD in industry?

Although an academic postdoc can (in a way) be paying its way forward towards an entry-level PhD career in industry (and there can be industry based postdocs), it is still not a simple apples-to-apples comparison and in many ways will only delay the start of your career.

You may end up in your mid to late 30’s with an industry career that finally allows you to support your family and have a work-life balance (postdocs are getting longer, and it is not uncommon to do multiple postdocs, AKA the “permadoc”).

You are only lengthening your timeline in terms of career progression if you want to pay double dues. Some may argue a postdoc helped them gain a new set of skills and made them more well-rounded. Why this certainly may be the case, you have to match that up to the industry position you go into in order to justify the value of the continued postdoc time spent in academia. This ‘justification’ may happen in retrospect years later, but it also makes you wonder had you transitioned into industry sooner how much further ahead you would have gotten.

Again, what’s missing from the equation is that a PhD student (regardless of category) needs to be made aware of all their career options ahead time (be proactive), do the proper planning ahead of time (such as networking), and do a self-assessment to make informed decisions and not just using the PhD experience as the main deciding criteria.

  • Misconception #1: I will do a postdoc to buy myself some time and “figure it out later”
  • Misconception #2: The PhD is the “end game”
  • Misconception #3: There are tons of careers out there for PhD’s which will make the transition into any these careers easy
  • Misconception #4: I have gained enough transferable skills in graduate school to distinguish myself from everyone else
  • Misconception #5: I can get “any” job out of graduate school or a postdoc
  • Misconception #6: Entry Level PhD Careers are no different than mid-level or even senior and there is no need to distinguish in terms of what is feasible.

Although it is easy to read and absorb articles like this (From Cheeky Scientist: Top 10 List of Alternative Careers For PhD Science Graduates), this article is misleading many PhD’s and giving them a false hope. And quite frankly is written by a series of authors that aren’t really out to genuinely help you (or lack the industry experience to back it up) and will only try and prey off a PhD’s naivety.

For example, as someone who is a Product Manager in the Biotech Industry, I can tell you it is most likely not an entry level career out of graduate school. Neither is a Business Development Manager and many others. Can it be with enough experience obtained outside of graduate school? Yes. But it is unlikely unless you are a rare breed.

So no, you are not going to get ‘any’ industry job just because you have a PhD and you think you have the transferable skills, the perfect resume, or are super confident.

You may eventually obtain your ideal industry career after you cross-over and pay your dues and PROVE yourself at your job. And it’s going to take time and hard work. A PhD doesn’t help you win an office argument and will make you look arrogant if you think you are better than everyone else just because you have a title or come off this way.

Be realistic in your expectations… You aren’t going to become a Venture Capitalist fresh out of postdoc or grad school with zero reputation. When you go into industry, you reset your clock and you have to build your reputation up again from scratch. Generally speaking, academic achievements won’t get you very far in industry as again, this doesn’t really add any value to an employer.

So, let’s be realistic and honest to those when we are giving advice and defining what entry level careers are for newly minted PhD’s, and the steps they need to take to make the transition.

But, before we go further, let’s just revisit a “PhD Return of Investment” To Put It Into Perspective:

From a previous post, is a PhD really worth it? (Back to Top)

  1. The Intellectual: See a PhD as being worth it for expanding one’s mind, knowledge of a field, and becoming an expert in a particular field.
  2. The Job-Lander: View a PhD as being worth it based on whether or not they could land a ‘good’ job and the type of job that they wanted (field based, industry based, location based, etc.).
  3. The Time-Saver: View a PhD as being worth it based on how long it took them to graduate, or how long it took to get into the workforce or end up with the job they ultimately wanted.
  4. The Opportunist: View a PhD as positive since it can lead to new opportunities. This could be credibility within a company and with customers, being viewed as the technical expert, or getting job promotions (i.e. senior scientist)-since the glass ceiling is raised or lifted. The opportunity could also lie with transitioning into a different field.
  5. The Industrialist: Doesn’t care about academia and this may have been apparent from Day 1, mid-PhD, or towards the end of the PhD. They only care about going into a field like industry and the worth of a PhD will depend on the hindrance or success of landing a job in this area. See #2.

Whatever your reasons are.. This helps you see the big picture here and how a PhD and career choice is very individualistic.  This post is a mixture of #2 (Job Lander), #3 (Time-Saver), #4 (The Opportunist), and #5 (The Industrialist).

As someone who works in industry at a large biotech company (over 10,000+ employees), I have come up with a list of the top entry-level careers for PhD’s that I see as the most common and that are realistic.

Keep in mind this list is not exhaustive and is just to give you a good idea of what is out there if you decide to make the transition. So yes, there are other positions out there and this can be very industry and company dependent (biotech, pharma, government, non-profit, hospital, CRO, etc.)

So where will a biology PhD take you?


PhD’s need to gain a better understanding of their non-academic career options. A large majority find their calling and inevitably end up in ‘alternative’ STEM PhD careers due to the attractiveness and better career prospects of industry. How many actually end up as tenure-track faculty? Less than 8%.

You can skip the post-doc and end up in a different segments/area! Look downstream. And you don’t have to go through the post-doc loop to end up as an industry researcher, government researcher, or in a science/non-science related job. A postdoc is NOT a pre-requisite, so stop buying into the fact that this is a “default” position post-PhD.

I want to strongly suggest that you obtain an internship during your PhD to gain any experience you can to boost your chances of obtaining an industry position, whether entry-level or experienced.

For example, you could work for a biotech company as a graphic designer to learn how to produce marketing collateral for companies, or specialize in design, media, or advertising. You could take on an internship as a technical writer to gain the in-depth product knowledge and insight about the market. Or you could even take on a marketing internship where you gain product management experience by helping to create and/or launch products to market, and gain crucial team/cross-collaboration skills spanning across many different departments.

I just want to re-emphasize why an internship is so crucial, since the current advice trend is to really try and “sell” PhD’s on their “invaluable transferable skills” and convince them that this is enough. In many cases, transferable skills are not enough. So here is a recap from a previous blog post:

Transferable Skills

There are also many articles feeding PhD’s the false hope that transferable skills (solely acquired during a PhD program in academia) are enough in all cases of finding a job post-PhD. For some number of jobs transferable skills are (this is also very company dependent), but for many-these skills are NOT ENOUGH. So it isn’t just about finding the power and confidence within yourself. Or setting better goals.  Or having a better tailored resume.

But, let’s take a step back here for a moment and just recap on what those transferable skills are. They are certainly useful and you no doubt as a PhD-holder you will take them to your next job.

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, project management, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

The point here however, is to not stay under the impression that you don’t have to do any work outside of academia to become more marketable. You need to boost your skills and experience in any way that you can, while you can (during grad school) in order to increase your chances.

With that said, you either have the skills (and experience) the employer is looking for-or you don’t-for the particular job you are interested in. If they are willing to take a chance on you (i.e. view you as a quick-learner), that is great, but the issue is still staring at you right in the face.

That is why the struggle is so prevalent and why many PhD’s look for that foot-in-the-door position, where industry will typically hire you based on what you did last. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, as it is very individualistic, but you need to be aware of the current job market so you can prepare and adapt ahead of time.

The idea is to gain skills outside of academia to make yourself more marketable.  So, did you put in the time and work ahead of time? If you didn’t, don’t be surprised if it takes you awhile to find a full-time and stable job outside of the postdoc.

Did you know that there are currently 86,000 US biology PhD students? This is doing nothing but flooding the system with soon-to-be PhD’s that will have many of the same “transferable” skills as you-especially when transitioning from academia into industry or business.

So Cheeky Scientist’s quote misses the point entirely:

Every PhD job is a PhD job. You can never be too qualified for a job. Having a PhD perfectly qualifies you for ‘any’ industry position. When you strip a PhD down, it’s really just a degree in knowledge. You’re a Doctor of Philosophy after all. Your gift is your ability to acquire knowledge and use it to your advantage. You have the knowledge. Now all you have to do is leverage it… PhD’s thrive on both competition and collaboration. PhD’s have to compete for resources and for publications, while also having to share resources and collaborate to get published. No one is more qualified to work on their own or with a team. If you’re a PhD, start seeing yourself as a self-starter AND a team player, and leverage this unique combination to get the industry job of your choice.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the story here, and the grass isn’t as green as some may try to make you believe outside of academia. It just isn’t that simple and so cut and dry.

No, having a PhD does not qualify you for ‘any’ industry position. And when there are thousands of PhD’s out there who all have the same transferable skills as you, you aren’t going to ‘get the industry job of your choice’ fresh out of grad school or a postdoc. I think we all have heard enough of this unrealistic view and “feel good” false mentality. With that said, let’s move on and put the marketing bandwagon behind us.

Here is a reality-check that summarizes it quite nicely:

The result is an employment market where companies can afford to be choosy — and companies have mostly stopped choosing scientists straight out of grad school or a postdoc. “Companies are no longer willing to hire PhD’s who don’t bring additional skill sets to the table,” says Eric Celidonio, a veteran corporate recruiter. “They tend to hire candidates who they think will add value [to the company] in addition to research skills.”

~Science Careers Magazine

So, let’s get started. For each position, I will provide what the job involves/entails, list how many jumps you need to take, the type of move, and what the position can lead to. Can you break the ‘rules’ or take shortcuts? Certainly. There are exceptions. But these are the most COMMON paths I see.

Will you use your PhD?

Whether or not the position ‘requires’ a PhD, it is important to point out that a PhD will give you a huge leg up and will improve your ability to understand and explain the science behind the brand or your product(s).

Additionally, having a PhD will give you more credibility with customers and key opinion leaders, and can add tremendous value to your team. In the long run, it can also help open up a lot of doors and opportunities. However, it is important to not lose sight of what matters after grad school and not get caught up on deserving some ‘special treatment’ or high-end position (especially starting) just because you have a PhD.

Again, I am providing you with realistic expectations and entry level careers in order to give you hope in order to skip the postdoc. Find what is right for you and follow your passion. But keep in mind that I am certainly not telling you which path to take as it is entirely individualistic.

Quick Summary of Top 11 Entry-Level Careers Covered:

    1. Industrial R&D Scientist (or even Industry Postdoc)
    2. Product Specialist or Technical Marketing Specialist
    3. Technical Support Scientist
    4. Manufacturing/Operations
    5. Technical Writer
    6. Medical Science Liaison
    7. Consulting
    8. Sales (i.e. Field Application Scientist, Inside Sales)
    9. Recruiter
    10. Project Coordinator
    11. Technical Applications/Support and Customer Education

  Additional Careers

1. Industrial R&D Scientist (or even Postdoc)

If you thrive on intense scientific exploration and want to work with a sense of real and immediate purpose, then consider discovery research. There is also drug discovery and preclinical research. If you are already doing scientific research during your PhD or postdoc studies, then this is the first and foremost obvious choice.

As a researcher, you are the driving force of innovation for your company. One of the major perks and advantages of working as a researcher in industry is the team environment. When you throw a dynamic team in the mix, with people who are creative and collaborative-it makes seemingly ‘impossible’ scientific problems become possible to solve.

You will get great satisfaction out of seeing your products get launched into the market and getting feedback from your customers as to how your research led to advancing their own and helped solve their scientific problem (or even leading to a therapeutic or business partnership).

Industry will typically hire you based on what you did last. So the gap to bridge really isn’t that big. Many won’t even network to land a job in industry if the R&D position matches closely to what their thesis was on (or they will work as temp to get a foot in the door then land a permanent position). This applies even more if the position is niche-focused.

A good example is someone who had a stem cell project or some hot topic that is in high demand in industry. Did you work with genome-editing such as ZFN or CRISPR during your time in grad school? Guess what? There are companies that highly value these types of skills versus the generic molecular biology bench skills. That is why the lab you chose during your time in grad school does affect your career prospects.

That’s not to say that if you didn’t have a niche-focused thesis project that you aren’t marketable. It is very company dependent in what they are looking for. Your goal is to maximize your skills outside of academia to not look like an academic. Become MORE marketable to make the transition easier to outcompete other PhD’s who have the same set of transferable skills as you. Or outcompete those that do have that niche focus.

There are also industry post-docs which you can read more about here.

Move: Bench to bench move (lateral)

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Operations, Business Development, Marketing, Sales, Tech Support, Product Development, Quality, Regulatory or Clinical Affairs, Patent Law, Consulting, Venture Capital, Project Management, VP of R&D, etc.

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2. Product Specialist or Technical Marketing Specialist

From the American Marketing Association: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Product Management has many different definitions but can be defined as (from Pragmatic Marketing): “A member of either the marketing organization or the development organization who is responsible for ensuring that a product gets created, tested, and shipped on schedule and meets specifications. It is a highly internally focused job, bridging the marketing and development organizations, and requiring a high degree of technical competence and project management experience.”

“The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical— some very technical, others less so. The strategic role of product management is to be messenger of the market, delivering information to the departments that need market facts to make decisions.” ~Pragmatic Marketing

Marketing is a great way to apply your scientific, medical, and/or business acumen. Marketing professionals can be involved in the earliest stages of product development all the way to product launch/commercialization and post-launch support/brand management.

A product specialist is usually under supervision of a Product Manager. What this does is expose you to many aspects of the product life cycle. You may even develop and launch your own product.

Once you learn the ropes and product portfolio, you may even do sales visits or calls, or present at seminars. Additionally, you will be responsible for support of your product (tactical) which could involve creating marketing collateral or responding to sales inquiries (expect numerous daily emails). As each product line will encounter issues, you will also be given issues that you can fix.

Your goal as a product specialist or technical marketing specialist is to go into product management. But you most likely will not start as a product manager until you have demonstrated success with product development and customers.

To learn more about product management, please visit my previous post here.

Ways to get exposure during grad school: Audit a business class, write a business plan or do a SWOT analysis, take an entrepreneurial class, create or manage your own product (this can be online), etc.

Product Life Cycle

Move: Bench to Business.

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can lead to: Sales, Product Development or Product Management which can also lead to Director of Marketing, Senior Product Management, Product Market Analyst, Consultant, Medical Affairs, Business Development, Commercial Operations, etc.

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3. Technical Support Scientist

Although probably not the most exciting job, it can be very rewarding for some. A technical support scientist position can be a great way to get your feet wet by learning/demonstrating deep technical scientific knowledge and being able to empathize and solve a customer’s problem(s).  This job will entail making product recommendations, providing application support to scientists, engineers, researchers, technicians, and most importantly-the customer.

Though this process, you will gain a deep understanding of the product portfolio, understand what the market needs (by understanding their pain points), and sharpen/boost your scientific knowledge of the field as you seek and provide answers.

After all, there can be very broad product areas that you are not familiar with. Since it is not always in one specific area, you will become exposed to many different levels of science (company dependent). This can make you very well-rounded and put you in a great position to shuttle into other positions.

What can make this position mundane is that you will spend the majority of your days dealing with customers by phone, email, or live chat. But these job functions/responsibilities are important avenues in order to reach customer resolution.

You will work across multiple departments and disciplines to provide feedback about products, document and resolve customer issues and complaints in a timely manner. Identifying product discrepancies is key and being able to recommend solutions. You may be expected to provide fast-paced technical contact/call-center support and your performance may be measured by the number of tickets closed out in a given week or month (like a quota).

Many times when you get stuck and can’t provide an answer, you can elevate to the product manager who will then assist you with more technical expertise. As a product manager I can tell you that it is not uncommon for a conference call to be set up to resolve a customer’s issue in order to put out the fire.

Think of a technical support scientist as someone who is a firefighter. When the going gets heavy and the fire is too big to put out, you will call in reinforcements. But you will be expected to put out a lot of ‘little fires’ as this occurs on a daily basis within a company and managing a product line/keeping customers happy.

Top performers will be rewarded and you can expect to be promoted quickly, as this is not meant to be a long-term position. Once you are able to demonstrate that you know the product/market and are efficient in solving a customer’s problem/being the technical expertise, this puts you in a great position to move into other areas like sales or marketing.

Move: Bench to Desk.

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Product Management, Sales, Manager of Tech Support/Call Center, and many other business-related positions.

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4. Manufacturing/Operations

Every company can market and sell great products but this is all dependent on what manufacturing/operations can make and deliver in a timely manner. Internal capabilities will also define what can or cannot be made based on the timing of the market, and can cause a bottleneck if resources are limited or a department is running lean. Basically, manufacturing is CRUCIAL to being able to hit deadlines and make sure the product gets in the customer’s hands in a reasonable timeframe.

You may perform numerous procedures and lab techniques such as aseptic handling, media preparation, inventory management, bioinformatics, tissue culture preparation and/or harvest, equipment setup and operation, high-throughput automation and robotics/liquid handling, maintaining good record keeping such as charts/lab notebook, etc.

You may end up making something without asking “Why”, which can be the downside if you lose sight of the market and what products are being developed and how exactly they are helping to solve a customer’s scientific problem.

But if you stay engaged with upper management and the marketing team, chances are you may get promoted to a Scientist within R&D or within the Operations/Manufacturing group (depending). Many others choose to transition out into other business positions such as marketing or sales.

It may sound cut-and-dry, but this career can actually be quite rewarding as well as challenging and you will acquire a lot of valuable industry skills into your future career. Teamwork will be crucial and you will use/sharpen your scientific background and lab skills on a daily basis. Project and time management is another great skill that is learned and demonstrated.

If a customer has an issue with your product, they will elevate to a technical support scientist (#3) who may then elevate it to a product manager (#2) who in turn may team up with manufacturing to pinpoint the problem (this is issue dependent). Therefore, you will also learn the pain points of your customers and how to solve them.

Although manufacturing is different than a Scientist (#1), this doesn’t mean that manufacturing does not lie on the innovative side. In many cases, operations and R&D work together to test new products and be able to launch them into market. This career can be exciting and a great starting position for some.

It also gives you the ability to really show you are able to meet the demands of the market and propose ideas for how to improve operational efficiency. Coming up with new ideas/protocols/procedures to ultimately reduce the Cost of Goods (COGS) can really get you noticed and benefit your entire group for years to come.

Also most likely responsible for: following Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s), Good manufacturing Processes (cGMP’s), having possible knowledge of ISO and FDA protocols, etc.

Move: Bench to bench move (lateral)

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Product Management, Product Development, Business Development, Plant Manager, Consulting, R&D Research Scientist

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5. Technical Writer

Did you enjoy writing your thesis and communicating your deep technical knowledge and understanding of science in a written manner? Did you enjoy writing a grant for your PI? First author journal publications? A career as technical writer will allow you to really capitalize on your writing skills and get noticed. The other key in industry for this position is that there is always a need for technical writers when there are product launches.  Think about it.

There is a constant need to write and publish written material to be able to educate customers, promote awareness, and provide technical expertise (such as protocols) to customers so they understand how to USE your product.

You will be able to work in a cross-functional team and environment to obtain an in-depth understanding of technical knowledge to write scientific content for product support and documentation. This can include technical bulletins, blog articles, sales training, press releases, technical marketing pages, data sheets, application notes, product brochures, web-based collateral, etc.

The key is to be able to explain scientific and technical information in a clear and concise manner. Just like you had to do at your thesis defense. You present deep scientific information and make it understandable. If you walk up to a random person on the street, you should be able to explain science to him or her in a way they can understand.

Many scientists tend to use scientific jargon and people have a hard time seeing the value in what you are trying to say. If the general population can’t understand it, your customers will also have a hard time understanding it as well (don’t assume everyone is an expert in your field).

Technical writers will also have visibility working with R&D or scientists to verify the technical accuracy or product documentation.

You may collaborate in order to complete documents. A technical bulletin is a good example where you may rely on R&D for data or supporting figures. You may look to them to provide the protocol or supporting information behind the experimental data. Once you have that piece of information, you can further polish it, provide additional suggestions or finalize the document for publication.

Another important job function is to own and manage updates and revisions to existing technical literature.

Existing products will need to be updated accordingly based on market needs or new features that are added. Products may be changed, updated, or even retired. Each company will have their own content and style regulations and rules (fonts, colors, branding), and you will learn to edit documents within these constraints (a trademark for example is important).

A slightly related position is Corporate Communications, which lies more on the general business side in order to convey a story to investors and other stakeholders. This tends to be a little less technical, but still allows you to use your writing skills. A position as a communications specialist allows you to help develop and deploy corporate positioning, branding and messaging.

As someone in Corporate Communications, you will create and update investor relations, be responsible for content management such as websites, online/social media communications, database management, and plan/execute multi-channel communications. For someone with a PhD, this may be a less common path but is still a good foot in the door.

Entry-level applicants should consider taking positions (say as an internship during grad school) that involve writing press releases or running trade show booths, such as PR communication, technical communication, or marcom positions.

Move: Bench to Desk

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Corporate Communications/PR, Marketing, Advertising, Sales, Business Development, Finance, Other Industries

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6. Medical Science Liaison (MSL)

Do you enjoy communicating or presenting highly-technical scientific information to support the needs of scientists and/or clinicians?

Do you enjoy reading about current clinical trials/studies or scientific publications, digesting clinical data, and being able to provide suggestions/advice based on your expertise and scientific knowledge of the current field? This is one of the harder entry-level careers to break into, but not impossible.

Approximately 75% of your job will be communicating scientific, clinical, and research information based on current needs.

Think of this position as a consultant and not as a sales representative. The downside however, is that some (say Medical Doctors) may view and treat you as a sales person. Although this position in itself carries a lot of prestige to begin with, and you will gain a lot of respect as you continue to build your reputation. Keep in mind that you will also be competing against PharmD’s and MD’s, who may have more clinical knowledge and experience than you, which makes this position challenging and very competitive.

But if you can find a way to fill the gaps and convince a big pharma company to bring you on as an MSL (i.e. volunteer early, focus on your therapeutic/expertise area only, and being able to demonstrate that you are a quick-learner and an effective communicator/educator of scientific information), this can be a very rewarding career.

To bring it all together, here is the definition of a Medical Science Liaison or MSL from the MSLS (Medical Science Liaison Society):

The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is a specific role within the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, CRO and other health-care industries. MSLs have advanced scientific training and academic credentials generally consisting of a doctorate degree (Ph.D., PharmD., M.D.) in the life sciences. They concentrate on a specific Therapeutic Area (i.e. Oncology, Cardiology, CNS, Pulmonary, Hematology, Surgery, Women’s Health Care, etc) and disease state.

Medical Science Liaisons are vital in the success of a company. They work throughout a product’s lifecycle, help to ensure that products are utilized effectively, serve as scientific peers and resources within the medical community, and are scientific experts to internal colleagues at companies. However, the primary purpose of the MSL role is to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s), at major academic institutions and clinics.


Also check out: Spotlight #1 and Spotlight #2

Move: Bench to Business

Jump: Varies. Usually 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can lead to: Manager or Director of MSL’s, Marketing, Sales, Business Development, Associate Medical Director, Management in Medical/Clinical Affairs, in-house Medical Communications, Health Economics, KOL Management

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7. Consulting

Management consulting can be an excellent way to put your analytical and scientific training to use while you develop your business expertise. If you have the passion to innovate, drive change, and help companies be more successful, it may be the right career choice for you.

You will learn how to lead teams, manage people, and take on challenging and interesting problems. The connections that you make with top business professionals will also open doors to future career opportunities. And, your hard work and efforts could also have a huge impact on the future direction of the company.

Management consulting firms are going to be your most realistic/feasible option if you wish to become a consultant fresh out of graduate school. This is because as a PhD you have gained critical thinking, analytical, and deep problem-solving skills they highly value:

It doesn’t matter all that much what your Ph.D. is in—the important thing is the analytical approach you bring, writes Brian Rolfes, partner and director of global recruiting at McKinsey & Company, in an e-mail. “That said,” Rolfes adds, “we are delighted when new hires have specific domain knowledge that is relevant to our clients. People with training in electrical engineering may be suited to serve high-tech clients like the telecom industry. And in our healthcare work we have many people with biology, genetics, bioengineering or organic chemistry backgrounds, including a good number of M.D.s.”

Quantitative analysis skills are especially desirable. To be a strong candidate for a consultant job, a scientist should also be effective on teams, have great communication skills, and be able to point to a record of making a difference inside and outside the lab.

One thing that isn’t required—surprisingly—is business knowledge. Most Ph.D. consultants do need to learn business skills, concepts, and terminology, Bennett says, but that challenge is quickly overcome by the training that consulting firms provide their entry-level recruits.

~Science Careers Magazine

From PhD Career Guide:

If you are interested in consulting right out of graduate school, then you are likely looking at management consulting firms, who value the ability to think critically over specific knowledge.  These management consulting firms vary in size and variety of clientele, and most importantly, many are actively recruiting PhD’s in all disciplines because they acknowledge the analytical skills that are necessary to successfully complete a doctoral program.

The major firms including McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Co., (which are also known colloquially as the big three in consulting circles), have formal programs to bring new hires up to speed on business competencies if their background is not business related.  More than anything, (yes, including business acumen), these firms value your critical thinking skills.


Move: Bench to Business

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can lead to: Partner at firm, Marketing, Business Development, Commercial Operations, Venture Capital, CEO

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8. Sales (i.e. Field Application Scientist, Inside Sales)

This is one of my favorites and having knowledge of this position actually saved my PhD.

Think of a Field Application Scientist or FAS (for short) as a specialized sales rep/account manager with deep scientific technical knowledge and expertise. They provide support to customers of companies in laboratory equipment, reagents, or lab-services.

Chances are when you are dealing with customers who may have complex problems or scientific questions, these cannot be met by telephone or email. So as a FAS, you help provide that face-to-face interaction and technical support for the customer. You will get to travel a lot which can be exciting, and will have high visibility in the company.

Product managers will look to you to help drive their products and provide on-site technical support when needed. If you hold a PhD in biology, your strong suit will obviously be driving biology-related products. For this reason, people within the company will turn to you as the ‘point-person’ if their background is in chemistry (and their comfort or knowledge level is lacking), for example.

A general account manager or sales rep may also not have the necessary knowledge in order to close a big sales opportunity. What happens is they call upon a specialist, or Field Application Scientist to help close the big/high ticket sale.

The reason for this is that Product Managers are already spread pretty thin. They certainly don’t have the time to fly all over the world to help close sales throughout the year. This can be in their priority list at times, but this is generally the job of the sales force.

That is why Application Scientists exist, to go beyond the general account managers and drive those niche-focused sales and/or provide highly technical support. They may also give scientific seminars on the latest technology at Universities or conferences, provide training, and/or even set up equipment or do product demonstrations.

It is a GREAT way to demonstrate your knowledge of the field and how your product fits into that field as a SOLUTION. You are not selling just a product, but a solution to solve a customer’s scientific problem.

You will gain trust among your customers and establish great relationships. A FAS can lead to many other positions such as marketing, sales management, and business development. You will have demonstrated first-hand that you have customer-facing experience and you know what the market needs.

Your feedback is also very highly valued in the company as Product Managers/Sales Managers will look to you for new product ideas and Voice of Customer (VOC) feedback of current/existing products performance.

When technical inquiries from customers can’t be met by telephone and e-mail tech-support teams, they escalate to applications scientists. “Especially when they require lab work, an applications scientist speaks with the customer and can go so far as to test samples or specific applications,” Herzer continues. Herzer has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Rutgers University; such high-level credentials are common among applications scientists, and often are necessary for dealing with the complexity of modern research tools.

~Science Career Magazine

Lastly, Inside Sales is a bit different in that is done remotely. It can still be technical, but without the field support that a FAS gives. Performance metrics and ways in which to grow accounts via sales will be different (i.e. cold calls versus face-to-face visits), but inside sales is a great option for those who don’t wish to travel or are just starting their careers out and have a family.

Also check out: Hit The Ground Running: Field Application Scientist

Move: Bench to Business

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can Lead to: Sales Operations/Training, Marketing, Business Development, Consulting

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9. Recruiter

If you are a people person who enjoys and feeds off personal interaction and networking, and if bringing people together based on common interests is a driver for you, a career in recruiting may be right up your alley.

This job will allow you to exercise your “people” skills while you contribute to the scientific community and the impact you make on people’s lives. After all, you are bringing value to both the company and the individual by filling the position, as you assess what is a great fit based on that individual’s background, education, skills, company value, etc.

Although some may argue that recruiting may be more for people with industry experience under their belt, it is not uncommon for a PhD to fill this position as you understand the value and skills needed for a science/technical position. This is even more so if you are filling positions for a company that is hiring in your PhD area of expertise.

In many cases, learning the “ins” and “outs” of industry can be learned on the job, as long as you are a quick-learner, and have the skills needed to be able to aggressively identify and get candidates hired, all while building your network/reputation.

Think of a recruiter as a hiring consultant. Your strength would lie in the understanding and having a good grasp on the strategy within an organization and identifying the talent needed/required in order to achieve that company’s goals, whether short or long term. You are ultimately helping companies save time, energy and money. Organizations are willing to pay a premium to secure top talent. In a nutshell, it is your role as a recruiter to identify, evaluate, and attract top talent.

This is a great position as it will help you to gain more expertise and knowledge of the industry and what companies really value in candidates.

One of the common companies hiring in this area that I see is Kelley Scientific, which is a science staffing company that hires PhD’s fresh out of grad school.

Move: Bench to Staffing Agency.

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Recruiting Firm (Varies by Industry).

Can Lead to: Business Development, Sales, Starting your own firm, a Career counselor of Executive Coach, Consulting, or Human Resources/Organizational Development Consultant.

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10. Project Coordinator

Would you rather focus on the big picture versus being a specialist in a specific area of scientific discipline? Do you enjoy being the facilitator in the decision-making process, managing a team, and/or helping to define options in order to pull together information from many groups working on a project in order to hit deadlines?

If you don’t mind being a highly-visible point-person and doing lots of paperwork/documentation (just being honest), project management might be right up your alley. A Project Coordinator is a step below a Project Manager, just like a Product Specialist is below a Product Manager.

You be responsible for assisting the Project Manager in all aspects of Project Management including project planning, data gathering, analysis, development, communication, status tracking, implementation, budget monitoring, and follow-up. You will coordinate project activities with the project manager and communicate information to key project stakeholders.

You can expect and will learn from changes in project requirements, deadlines, scheduled dates, etc. There will be unexpected hitches. You will learn how to communicate crucial and relevant information to your team members. You are responsible for providing project status reports and meeting updates. There will be project tracking logs including actions, issues, anomalies, problems, change, risk, etc.

This entry-level position will give you hands-on experience with understanding what constitutes the scope of a project and what individual team members are responsible for. You will have little to no authority, but will lead by influence. Once you have enough experience under your belt and a reputation for successfully managing projects/teams, this most likely will lead to a promotion as Project Manager.

Being a Project Coordinator/Manager is vital to launch new products into the market or complete projects/large milestones (projects and the types of projects can vary by company). You are essential to a company as you will pool together resources and teams in order to execute the stages of the Stage-Gate Innovation Process (again, can vary by company). See image above.

You can also (down the road) obtain your Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification. You can read more about that here and what the prerequisites are.

Move: Bench to Business. Leads to Project Management

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can Lead to: Project Manager which can lead to Project Team Leader, VP of Development or Project Management, Consulting, Marketing or Business Development, Portfolio or Alliance Management, etc.

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11. Technical Applications/Support and Customer Education

Depending on the company, many will have a customer education or technical applications support team with varying responsibilities and job functions. If a product manager needs to schedule a workshop, customer visit, online webinar, or sales training-the Customer Education team is responsible for coordinating all the events and making sure everything goes smoothly.

If someone on your team is attending a scientific conference for example, you may be responsible for ensuring that sales/marketing/R&D has the needed marketing/sales collateral to advertise your product. You may also travel and attend conferences to help with setup of the booth, setup of presentations/slides of speakers from your company, have sign-up sheets/lead capture forms ready for customers, gather marketing/sales reports, provide product support, etc.

Where the customer needs you (based on business needs), is where you will most likely go/focus your attention. Many can even be potential clients or business partners, or high-profile customers.

More importantly, your whole job is to understand the needs of a customer, educate, and solve any pain points/problems they may be having through the exchange of information.

For example, you may need to gather information ahead of time (such a survey) to understand what a customer wants to get out of a workshop, seminar, or presentation. Then you can plan ahead accordingly to make sure you have the needed resources to meet those requirements.

Feedback from the customer (before and after) is crucial in order to continually improve your methods and make sure you are doing your absolute best in order to ensure the highest customer satisfaction.

This is a good position to play on both sides of marketing and sales support, as well as understanding the needs of the customer. Because of this, a Customer Education role can shuttle you into many different positions in areas where your job overlaps.

Move: Bench to Desk.

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Management (Customer Support Lead), Sales, Marketing, and many other business-related positions.

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Additional Careers

Don’t see a job that interests you? Make sure you Register and take the myIDP test: You may be surprised at what matches up to your skills/interests.

For example, I did not list Law in this blog post. If you are someone who has gained interest/skills during your PhD in Patent Writing or in Technology Transfer you could find yourself shuttling into this area.

Going further, I have seen some PhD’s write patents along with their Professors and have gained a very good understanding of the patent process and what is out there in the field. You could even go to law school and/or apply as an entry-level associate in a firm (or work for your Tech Transfer Department at your University). It is not uncommon for PhD’s to work as patent agents during the day and go to a nearby law school at night.

Entrepreneurship is also a great route for some with the right personality and drive:

It took me a while to realize what is now obvious: Ph.D.’s are well-suited to being their own bosses. As a humanities graduate student, I managed my own projects from beginning to end, with no one telling me on a regular basis what to do or how to do it. In general, doctoral students are incredibly self-motivated and driven: to plan, research, write, present, teach, apply, report, submit, budget, edit, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their own time and their supervisors’ expectations. And we do this with limited funding, drawing on our creativity and resourcefulness to accomplish our goals.

~Jennifer Polk

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Just Remember…

You define your career and where you want to take it. It is up to you to find and create these opportunities, and to act NOW as you equip yourself with knowledge and the steps you need to take in order to successfully transition into industry.

‘Alternative’ and non-traditional career options, which are now becoming the standard, need to be available and made apparent for those who are stuck in the post-doc loop, burned out at the bench, or are looking for a way out. Therefore, making the jump from Academia to Industry and other fields such as Finance, LawGovernment, WritingVenture Capital, Consulting, Entrepreneurship, SalesTechnology Transfer is the first step.

Please also check out: 5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training


Further Reading:

I Just Got My PhD, Am I Ready for an Industry Job?

The Four Horsemen – Postdocalypse

Yes this is a long post, digest it slowly 🙂

Is A PhD Really Worth It? Or A Waste of Time?

Some may look back 5 years or even 10 years post-PhD and say it was definitely worth it. Others may be fresh out of graduate school and have a different view/opinion or may only feel frustration.

It may be defined by the job you ended up with (or ultimately want), the opportunities that your PhD led to, or how you define success. Others may say the PhD gave them more credibility, upwards mobility, and technical expertise needed for their job. Others may have pursued a different field apart from their PhD training and claim the PhD served a much different purpose (such as self-discovery).

The skills learned during a PhD are also invaluable in many ways, but the reality is that these transferable skills still don’t seem to be enough by themselves to land your first job in many cases (although very job and company dependent). But whether a PhD program ‘fully’ trains or prepares you for the job market or not, still doesn’t define its worth. The point is that a PhD-even if it doesn’t pay off now-certainly can (or will) later. But one very important point to make is this:

How you define the value of a PhD or if it was worth 5-7 years of your life (and time out of the workforce)-is entirely individualistic.

With that said, let’s go into this article-which is written by Michelle Capes, along with 2 other PhD’s who offer their perspective. Please keep an open mind as you read through the comments, as each PhD will have their own experiences which may be different from your own.

Is A PhD Really Worth It? – Michelle Capes

I am often asked whether my PhD was worth it. Would I do it again?

PhD programs are almost universally trial-by-fire experiences. When they’re completed, many new PhDs find out that they’re underprepared for finding jobs in anything but academia.

This should come as no surprise to any PhD. But the real question is what are you doing about it? With the flood of articles that are heightening awareness and pitching the idea of careers outside of academia as the norm, it all becomes diluted unless you actually put it into action.

As they begin their job hunt, they run up against the “overqualified, inexperienced” wall with a resounding thud. They are often turned away from entry-level positions in favor of bachelors and master’s level candidates, and become disillusioned about having earned their PhD at all.

I decided to ask couple of my colleagues about their thoughts on this question before weighing in with comments of my own. This article will give you three different answers and perspectives on the question “Is A PhD Worth It?” From there, you decide (it is very individualistic).

Debbie completed her PhD in 2012 and is currently on her second postdoc. Although she had funding for another year, she realized that complacency was not an option. She got a head start on her job search by participating in frequent networking events, serving on a committee to organize biotech events in the community, and building up leadership cred by acting as president of her university’s postdoctoral association.

She is no stranger to the frustrations of the job hunt, having weathered some truly frustrating situations: being told, for example, during an informational interview with an industry scientist that she should complete a third postdoc in order to broaden her skill set, and losing out as #2 on the short list after several exhausting interviews.

At the time of this writing, Debbie has accepted a position as Associate Medical Writer at a large contract research organization.

Debbie’s response to “Was your PhD worth it?” was this:

The answer is no longer the obvious ‘yes’ that it would have been in the past. With a tough job market and increasingly high [hiring] standards, having a PhD doesn’t seem to mean as much as it did in the past. However, there is more to the picture as well. Getting my PhD ensured that I was trained to think as a scientist. It altered my whole thought process for the better and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Debbie also spoke about her sense of accomplishment:

I kept working through some tough times and finished my degree. I’m proud of that. I eventually realized that the job market is going to be tough at any level – it is what it is. No matter what level you are at, what job you are trying to get, if you apply yourself to networking and distinguishing yourself from the herd, eventually you will earn yourself a good job.

I knew Holly while I was in graduate school, when she was completing a postdoc in a neighboring lab. After the postdoc, Holly became assistant scientist in a clinical research lab, then left for a position with a global leader in the medical device industry. Her pathway toward deciding to pursue a career outside of academia sounds (unsurprisingly) familiar.

Here’s Holly’s response:

Yes, my PhD was completely worth it, although for surprising reasons. Following my decision to pursue a career in the industry, I was unsure of what to expect since I had previously been pursuing an academic track. The decision was largely due to frustration with:

(1) the grant landscape 

(2) the lengthy amount of time to impact patient’s lives pursuing academic research (I was interested in bench-to-bedside science).

The benefit of having a PhD was realized as early as my interview. I had pursued a clinical research position and discovered that while PhD’s in the bench-science arena are very common, if not required, in clinical research, it is not necessarily expected. My PhD, along with some experience in clinical research, and the ability to communicate effectively, landed me the job.

The most surprising element of my training which has given me the best advantage? My post-doctoral years. These years have set me apart from other colleagues who have a PhD. Having 1 or more post-doctoral years has shown my ability to expand my knowledge into another area, and also the ability to manage my own research ideas and projects.

In my experience, research in the industry is not only about what you know – it’s also about project management and the ability to communicate across groups of people.”

Holly continues:

Another benefit of the PhD is the characterization that you are a learner.

‘Learner’ personalities love to expand and grow, which is encouraged in the industry. If [they are] going into industry, someone with a PhD should understand their value is not necessarily the knowledge they bring to the company (although that is important), but the characteristics that are needed to finish a PhD which include:

(1) persistence, (2) resilience, (3) idea generation, (4) project management, and, (5) dedication.

This list is not comprehensive, but gives a view into the dimensions [that] a PhD has to offer. Potential PhD students, current students and post-graduates should reflect on what their PhD experience will or has taught them, not just about the science, but the soft skills that help to set them apart – I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure it out; it might have paid off even sooner.

And I’m back (Michelle Capes).

For my part, I am very happy to have earned my PhD and I would do it again, although not for the original reason I had in mind when I began my program. Sure, I gained a lot of expertise in a niche area of science, and that was all very interesting. But I knew it wouldn’t sustain me for my entire professional career.

When I made the decision to leave academia, I had to capitalize on the other things I learned during grad school and my postdoc, beginning with marketing myself effectively during my job search.

I attained a position as a scientific recruiter precisely because I had a PhD. The agency prided itself on “scientists recruiting scientists,” and having that credential after my name lent credibility to their selling point. (In fact, when my first set of business cards arrived without my credentials, they were immediately re-ordered at the supervisor’s request.)

Now that I have launched my own business venture, I realize that the network I built during graduate school and my postdoc is priceless. I have numerous contacts, both in academia and industry, who know me well and are willing to vouch for my abilities, refer potential clients, and put me in touch with additional colleagues.

It was during the PhD program that I got my first experience doing many of the things that I now offer as services through my business, including grant writing and editing, writing articles, and mentoring. When I pitch these services to prospective clients, having a PhD imparts a high degree of clout. It’s also helpful to be able to point to the successful grant applications I prepared during grad school and my postdoc.

Let’s re-visit the original question: “Is a PhD Worth It?”

I’ve related three positive responses about the value of a PhD. However, a simple Google search will turn up a plethora of negative responses, along with doom-and-gloom articles relating the poor job prospects for PhDs.

If you’re asking this question and you already have your PhD, it probably means that you’re not planning to stay in academia. It likely also means that you’ve made the realization that your training didn’t include the part about looking for jobs, writing resumes, interviewing, etc.

You’re in good company: many other PhDs are waking up to the hard reality that there simply are not enough academic positions for the 64,000-odd PhDs awarded every year in the U.S. alone. Some would make the case that this imbalance is a good thing, because more students are given the chance to succeed and to benefit from one-on-one advice from professors during their education (Source: The Wire).

Regardless, the realization that too many PhDs were being cranked out for the number of tenured academic positions available set in as early as the 1990’s. Way back then, PhDs were forced to search for employment in other sectors, belatedly realizing that they were woefully unprepared to transition into such careers.

That the situation has not been remediated almost twenty-five years later is reprehensible, especially now that funding crunches are forcing not only new PhDs and postdocs into the non-academic career path, but also established professors.

I recently read an article on The New York Times titled “When Education Brings Depression.” The comments (which admittedly got off-topic) about the article ranged from personal experiences of depression in grad school to questioning the point of going through graduate school at all, with one reader (we’ll identify her as Suzanne) complaining, “If I had it to do over again, I would never have devoted all those years to a doctorate. Graduate school is definitely a total scam.”

To which “lxp19” replied the following (emphasis added):

It [grad school] is only a scam if you only went into it to get a job…if you went into it thinking it was the ticket to a job…or if you were misled by the department, who sold it as a ticket to a job. Education is about a lot more than getting a particular job. I agree that grad schools need to promote and prepare students for a broader spectrum of professional opportunities.

But learning to understand the world in more depth, to develop our own ideas in more depth is not a scam. But it may be an expensive proposition that does not quickly turn into a lucrative career.

One article I came across recently provides a colorful narrative explaining that the only PhD worth getting is in economics, and pointing out the drawbacks of pursuing a PhD in other fields.  The author suggests that those who pursue a PhD in the life sciences are either “suicidal fool[s]” or “incomprehensible sociopath[s].”

Further, he cautions, “if you are considering getting a lab science PhD, please immediately hit yourself in the face with a brick. Now you know what it’s like.”

However, the author brings up several caveats, among which was my major bugaboo with the article: “if enough people read and believe this blog post, it will cease to be true. There’s a piece of economics for you: as soon as people become aware that a thing is overvalued, they will start bidding up its price.” Every time there’s a mention of a shortage in X sector, you can be reasonably sure that there will be an excess in 10 years’ time.

(Side thought: You don’t get a PhD for money. If you are-it is for the wrong reasons)

A great example of this is the purported STEM shortage touted by the Obama administration. Though the debate continues to this day as to whether that shortage actually exists, one piece of evidence stands out to me. The National Institutes of Health recently trotted out a program to help new biomedical PhDs find alternative careers in the face of “unattractive” job prospects in the field.

Regardless of the situation across STEM fields as a whole, the situation at the top seems clear: there are too many biomedical PhDs. The overwhelming numbers of resumes that flood in for nearly every industry position posted further bolsters this conclusion.

As a recruiter, I was frequently contacted by PhDs wanting to apply for positions advertized for bachelor’s-level candidates.

The conversations would go something like this: Candidate X calls to inquire about a position with Y Biotech Company. “I’m familiar with that position,” I might say, “and it’s honestly too entry-level for someone with your credentials.” I say this based on the fact that I’ve spoken personally with the hiring manager for the position to see what points they might be flexible on. Hiring a PhD to do menial tasks is not one of them.

Candidate X protests, “but I’m willing to do any kind of [grunt work] and I’m okay with the [horrible] salary. I just want to get my foot in the door in industry.” There it is. Candidate X has told me a whole lot of things about him-/herself that are not conducive to getting a job at Y Biotech.

At this point in the conversation I’m already put off. And then it happens. Candidate X drops the bomb. “Would it help to leave the PhD off my resume?”

This question has sparked numerous, sometimes heated debates—one of which has been raging on LinkedIn since 2011, with almost 400 comments (see This seems like a no-brainer to me: it’s completely unethical. Starting a new position under false pretenses is never a good thing. And nobody—not even the PhDs themselves—really believes that a PhD will be happy with an entry-level industry position involving, say, calibrating lab equipment.

Employers are savvy to this strategy: candidate X will exploit valuable company resources and training to get the critical “1-2 years of industry experience” that every job description seems to require, and then pursue a better opportunity elsewhere. Trying to convince them otherwise simply will not work.

Let’s recap again. Despite my earlier positive reflections on whether getting a PhD is worthwhile, I believe (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) that there should be far, far fewer students entering PhD programs. The job market, be it in academia or industry, just can’t support such a top-heavy pool of candidates, and there are plenty of embittered, unemployed, or underemployed PhDs to prove it.

If you do decide to pursue a PhD, you should know exactly what you want to get out of it. Choose your advisor carefully: if yours is the old-school, 24/7/365 in-the-lab type of person, you will have very little opportunity to do anything other than lab work, let alone career development. When you finish, you’ll be well prepared to be a postdoc. If you decide to pursue a career outside of academia, you will have a very hard time.

Realize that you need MORE than just a PhD. You have to squeeze as many transferable/soft skills as you possibly can out of your degree program. THESE are the skills that will allow you to make a successful transition.

EDUCATE YOURSELF about other sectors and career paths where your skills apply.  A lot of PhDs I’ve spoken to have a very narrow view of career opportunities for PhDs in STEM. They are accustomed to doing research in academia, so the default answer for industry seems to be R&D Scientist.

There are so many more opportunities out there that capitalize on your PhD training! You are severely limiting your chances of finding a job if “R&D Scientist” is the only avenue you pursue. I highly recommend checking out Toby Freedman’s book, “Careers in Biotechnology and Drug Development” to investigate the diverse career paths that are available.

Make a list of possible careers, and write down the value proposition you bring to each one. What I mean is this: just about anyone can do a Western blot or run a PCR. But do you have the sort of dynamism it takes to head up a lab, lead a project, or be effective in a customer-facing role? Did you organize seminars or conferences? Serve in a leadership role? Manage the lab? Mentor people?

Believe me: if you are up against 30 other PhD-level molecular biologists, there have to be extra qualities that differentiate you­ from the herd.

 “Was your PhD worth it?”

If you’re asking yourself this question, here’s my advice: It doesn’t matter. You got your PhD. Be proud of your accomplishment and move on: a defeatist attitude will not get you a job. Remember that YOU get to create the lens that potential employers view you through, and that starts with crafting a positive narrative to explain who you are and what you want to achieve.

Further Reading

goingtodophd        phdisnotenough        youngscientistadvice

The culture of non-responsibility must be changed

Point of view: How postdocs benefit from building a union

Hit the Ground Running: Life After Academia (The PostDocWay) 

PhD as a training of the mind

Why won’t anyone respect me for the years of work I’ve done (instead of getting ‘work experience’) and give me a job?

Enough doom and gloom Part 3: Standing upon the great infrastructure of science

About the Author:

Michelle Capes earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010 and was an AHA-funded postdoctoral fellow until 2013, when she transitioned into a private sector role as a scientific recruiter. As such, she has a unique perspective on the challenges facing academicians looking to transition into industry–both from the side of the job hunter, and as a recruiter trying to match candidates’ skill sets with available industry positions. Michelle has now ventured out on her own to found Adeptify, the brain-child of her dual passions for career advice and freelance writing

Welcome To The ‘Academic Fight Club’

Welcome to the ‘Academic Fight Club’. 

Here are the rules:

1st RULE: You do not talk about Academic Fight Club.

2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about Academic Fight Club.

3rd RULE: If someone goes emotionally limp towards academic bench science and taps out, their existence is over.

4th RULE: There are only two ways to view your future – as a successful academic PI or failure.

5th RULE: There is only one ‘fight’ – the noble pursuit of an academic PI position.

6th RULE: No discussion of ‘alternative’ careers or possibilities.

7th RULE: Pursuit of your academic PI position, by way of postdoctoral appointments, will go on as long as they ‘have’ to.

8th RULE: If you are a young, idealistic scientist in love with research, you HAVE to fight. Publish or perish.

These are the 8 Rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’.

There is a ‘secret society’ mentality of academia. As I sat in my academic laboratory, I wondered where screenwriters and innovative filmmakers would draw inspiration from with the aim to educate, entertain, and open the eyes of the young generation of blossoming scientists. The more I thought about this, the more I connected my experience, and ultimate awakening, with the 1999 film Fight Club (written by Jim Uhls and directed by David Fincher) based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The flurry of online negativity directed at NIH funding, availability of academic positions, the number of PhDs, alternative science careers becoming mainstream, and the question of versatility and diversity in PhD training is what truly got me thinking about how Hollywood and I would address these issues. As a result of the negativity, many PhDs have become disillusioned with academia, but are these issues the sole cause?

The Story

I believe there is a slow building movement to change this ‘academic fight club’ mentality, but for many, the ripples of impact may not reach in time. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar reality for many young researchers that have entered the academic machine with an idealistic interpretation of what science is all about. Maybe these thoughts are closer to imagination and unrealistic – that is a valid point. However, prior to joining most clubs, organizations, fraternities or sororities, the rules and expectations are explained in a transparent manner.

Armed with a firm understanding of the rules and expectations, one can then apply deductive reasoning so that all options can be weighted and evaluated. By following this approach, we can be expected to make logical and thoughtful decisions based on our values. The fact is that academia has their own set of rules and values.

Many times, these do not align with what we thought we signed up for because the academic rules and values were not honestly explained or completely understood until multiple windows of opportunity were missed, or worse closed. The smoke and mirrors of academia allow us to wrap ourselves in a cocoon, shut off the world around us, and build a narrow complacency shell to protect us from reality.

 When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep… and you’re never really awake.

Our story and how we ended up here is always the same. Driven by curiosity and fascinated with science at an early age, we were excited about the possibilities of research and the questions we could answer. More importantly, we were thrilled with the idea of solving tough, real world problems and leaving our mark.

Maybe the vision of watching a loved one pass away from cancer, neurodegeneration, or a heart attack struck a chord and inspired us to dedicate ourselves to the endless pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement. We excelled in our science and math courses and were advised to pursue higher education. Within the walls of our academic institutions, we fell in love with the scientific method. We were captivated by bench research and the work our hands could accomplish once our minds crystallized an idea.

We did not care about income or student loans; in fact, we could get paid to learn and do what we loved. We did not care what ‘industry’ or big pharma corporations wanted – we were doing meaningful and important work.

Surrounded by similar academic minds, we were nude in the Garden of Eden. A new set of goals were created and our scientist alter-egos were born. This was the time when we were ripe for the plucking. This was the ideal time to be tantalized with the coveted fruit, professorship. Placed ever so gently onto our foreheads, the academic carrot dangles in front us at all times, tethered to a 3’ pole just barely out of our reach.

I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.

We progressed ahead to obtain our PhD (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $22,032), as we were told, and gained a deeper appreciation for our specific area of interest along the way. We carried out challenging experiments, collecting and analyzing data at a steady pace, and published our results for peer review to the scientific community to show that ‘we were part of the group’.

It was at this time, that we started becoming more familiar words and phrases such as impact factor, NRSA, statistical significance, curriculum vitae, n-value, caffeine, pipette-jockey, PubMed, Cell-Science-Nature, science does not happen from 9-5, tenure, jargon terminology, and postdoc. We were less acquainted with the concepts of mentoring, team environment, transferable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume building, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value.

We were defined by our research without a care in the world.

That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!

For many of us, we chose the noble, academic path and secured a postdoctoral appointment (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $39,264). For those of you not in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, this is the ‘next step’ after you are awarded with the high prize, the PhD.

Think of this, for all intent and purposes, as an apprenticeship or a contract position. One key factor to note here is that many of us did, and some still do, not quite understand how to put into perspective the ‘statistical likelihood’ we would make it to the next step. PhD granting institutions create a bottleneck, because of their incentive to increase revenue, by opening more spots to those seeking a PhD at a rate disproportionate to the number of positions available (or created) for those holding a PhD. This is especially problematic in academia.

The Current 15%ers Club

A study published last year in the journal Science suggests less than 20% of U.S. graduate students in the STEM disciplines will land a tenure-track position within four to six years of completing a PhD. [This number has been reported to be as low as 15% for those in biological sciences.]

Keep in mind about 50,000 PhDs were granted from U.S. institutions alone. At present, there is no incentive to reduce this number. This is where people with less thick skin would start getting depressed and anxious and let the waterworks flow.

But hey, we are going to defy those odds because we still have that glimmer of idealism in our eyes, with fresh new horse blinders attached, and are focused on that carrot. We have the righteous hand of science and years of training on our side.

Even more satisfying, is the fact that our PIs never brought up the possibility that we would not get a position like him or her. The thought never [openly] crossed our minds…did it? Therefore, it must be getting close, right? We just need to finish this next experiment, analyze some more data, send the paper to Cell-Science-Nature, get that NRSA and K99, and click our red slippers together, close our eyes and repeat, “There is no place like home”, and boom – we are assistant professors at My Dream University.

 I am Jack’s raging bile duct.

In this academic scenario, time itself is of no issue (7th Rule). Your well-being, mental state, and sleep cycle are of little concern as you toil away at the bench and feverishly submit publications in your niche area of research under the strict guidance of your advisor. However, this may not matter because your apprenticeship will one day end and you will have what it takes to secure that full-time, well-paying job academic PI position, correct?

 Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.

The rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’ are not necessarily for your benefit

Now may be the time to take the horse blinders off and cut yourself out of the cocoon. Your value is estimated solely on your publications and independent sources of funding. Without these, you have little value on the academic market. The time invested, which at this point may be getting close to 8-10 years, does not directly correlate to your market value.

 On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

You may begin to realize that the ‘entrepreneurial startup’ you invested in was overvalued with an almost insurmountable risk. You may also start to become more familiar with mentoring, transferrable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value, not because your PI or department colleagues have brought them up to you, but because your friends with jobs outside of academia constantly ask you about these terms or skills. What happened?

 I am Jack’s broken heart.

Wasn’t this apprenticeship supposed to be a training period for me to increase my market value in the scientific community? Not necessarily. I do not believe a postdoctoral appointment should be viewed as an internship. There is no ‘company’ investing in your training and skills to ensure that you can be competitive in the open job market. During the academic apprenticeship, you are a worker bee serving under a queen bee that serves under the equivalent of Zeus.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

After blissfully floating from our undergraduate, to graduate, to postdoctoral research positions, we wake up and begin to make the transition from idealistic researcher to realistic job seeker. We reflect on our decade of experience and start to examine the job market. We come to grips with the fact that the honeymoon is over and are now faced with the daunting chore of obtaining a faculty position.

We start to accept the fact that we should have done more and are partly to blame for this situation. However, we still believe that our allegiance to the academic enterprise and the obligation of our PI to aid in helping us secure a faculty position will pay off.

 Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then, bam, it’s on the side of the road.

Sadly, this is when you begin to understand that the rules are in place to support the academic infrastructure and enterprise. The rules of the Academic Fight Club are not necessarily for your benefit, but to ensure the supply is strong and institutions continue to receive funding, while keeping secret and masquerading the demand.

We now start to wonder more about the 6th rule and question the queen bee and Zeus’ mission and long-term vision. It is now that we begin to understand the importance of peripheral vision and the value of networking. We track the trajectory of our career and start to realize that, just as in Super Mario Brothers, there may have been ‘secret’ and ‘alternative’ portals that we could have pushed the ‘down arrow’ on and been transported to a new world of possibilities outside of academia. This is our revelation.

 And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.

Does this suggest that the current academic model is broken? Do the statistics indicate it is time for a dramatic change in the way graduate school and postdoctoral appointments are viewed? Should academic advisors stop abiding by the Rules of the Academic Fight Club? Should the measure of a PIs success be their ability to adequately train and produce productive and employable researchers with transferrable skills applicable in multiple settings and not 10 Cell-Science-Nature papers? Yes.

 The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.

Seeing Reality: The System

So, where do we go from here? The next step(s) requires an honest self (past, present, and future) assessment, dedication, and serious motivation. To quote Peggy Olson (Mad Men Season 5), “It’s not a game, it’s my career.” It is now time to take charge and quit depending on others to ‘help’ you. Once you understand the business of academia and see through the rules, it becomes easier to make an educated decision on how to proceed.

You now have the mental and visual acuity of Neo (The Matrix) to see the world around you for what it is. This realization endows you with a new sense of purpose, clarity and career focus. You understand your value and what an investment of your time really means in the grand scheme of things.

You might feel like Neo in the matrix, finally opening your eyes to see how you and others fit into the system.

Maybe you re-dedicate yourself to academia because you are inspired to change the culture and create an open exchange that will benefit future generations of scientists. Maybe you become motivated to set the standard for PI achievement and mentoring. I believe this is a fantastic choice, and fully support this option. The model is broken and needs talented, well-balanced individuals to take a stand and fight for change.

Conversely, maybe you realize that the statistics are not in your favor, not because you were not successful by academic standards, but that you are not willing to keep sacrificing bits of your life for a prize associated with such an uncertain timeline. At this point, you may come to grips with letting go of the idealistic dream of academia and focus your energy to pursue a career path that allows you to utilize a skill you were never able to use at the bench.

Maybe by doing this, you fall madly in love with another way to contribute to the scientific community altogether. This realization can be exhilarating and almost overwhelming. [For those having the revelation right now finish jumping in jubilee and stay with me, we are almost to the honeypot.] However, you may still wonder what do we need to do? In the spirit of ‘makeovers’ (i.e. Ty Pennington; Extreme Home Makeover or Tyra Banks; America’s Next Top Model), I present to you, my rules for the 85%ers Club:

You’re Welcome To Join The New 85%ers Club

Rule #1: Understand the importance of effective communication. There is nothing more important in science than the ability to communicate in a clear, concise manner. This applies to scientific presentations, posters, your ‘elevator pitch’ when networking, putting together your job application or research statement, and developing your narrative when interviewing for jobs. I have been lucky enough to see Tim Miller, from Spoken Science, speak on this topic.

Additionally, sitting in on skill building workshops can also be incredibly helpful. For example, H. Adam Steinberg, of Art for Science, gives a wonderful set of lectures on visualizing your science and how to effectively present to an audience. Finally, a recent event held at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus titled ‘The Art of Conversation’ was very effective. Practice as much as you can. This will come in handy when you are interacting with your advisor, colleagues, and prospective employers.

Rule #2: Assess your skills and evaluate your career options. This is a big one. I highly recommend spending some quality time with myIDP and a career counselor. For this to really be helpful, you must be honest with yourself. Who knows, you may come to find out that you are interested in joining the 85%ers Club.

If you are interested in careers in the private sector, I encourage you to read ‘Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development by Toby Freedman. If you are interested in learning more about your options in academia, visit the NIH videocast and podcasting site in addition to pursuing virtual career centers such as the one at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rule #3: Ask for help. You cannot do this alone. You cannot expect your advisor, thesis committee, or program director to read your mind. It may be extremely helpful to look into campus organizations, committees, or small ‘support’ groups that focus on career development. For example, start a graduate student or postdoc organization and work with the campus administrators to put on professional development events or seminars.

This is also a great way to help out with Rule #4. Seek out individuals that inspire you and get in touch with them via LinkedIn or Twitter. Attend campus or community seminars focused on science or professional development and volunteer at outreach events. Seek multiple mentors within and outside of academia. For you postdocs, spend some time at the NPA site.

Rule #4: Step out of your complacency shell and network. This is not something that happens overnight. However, make it a priority to meet 5 new people a week, using LinkedIn, Twitter, your alumni directory, or at conferences and seminars. This is a great way to start building your confidence and career swagger.

For example, Madison has Biotech Happy Hours, Biotech Meetup groups, and breakfasts with leaders in the biomedical community. Collaborating with professors at your institution is also extremely important. Try to conduct informational interviews when possible. Let people know you are genuinely interested in learning more about what they do. Ryan has many great resources on this topic.

Rule #5: Determine what you are really good at. Upon completing Rule #2, you must put into practice the results of your assessment test. Once you are able to determine this, you can really focus on marketing yourself appropriately, branding and developing a niche, and defining who you are as a professional and what you are looking for in a career. Just as in academia, people will come to appreciate your skills, respect the value you add and seek your advice as an expert. This will ultimately boost your net worth.

Rule #6: Seek out niche areas that can benefit from your particular skill set. I am fairly certain a majority of people in the 85%ers Club did not find their dream job advertised online or in a magazine. They created their own position based on a need or gap they saw that only they could bridge. Really understanding Rule #5 will trigger this revelation and you will begin to see the whole chessboard and moves you can make 10 steps ahead of anyone else. Insert yourself in that position and market your expertise.

Rule #7: Do not undervalue your skills or your time. Always align things within the framework of the big picture. In my opinion, this is the most important rule. Never undervalue what your time is worth. A good way to get a proper picture of this is to use a basic calendar. For those of you that really want to keep track and learn some new software at the same time (note: this may be very useful when applying for specific jobs) tinker around with some project management software. Remember that life may not be rosy on the other side, but at least you come out knowing more about yourself and what you want.

Do not become – Jack’s wasted life

About the Author

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, The PostDoc Way

Brian is a passionate researcher, active outreach educator, and entrepreneur with over 10 years of experience in biomedical sciences. He was awarded a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2010. Shortly after, he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Neuroscience.

He is currently a postdoctoral scholar entering his third year. He utilizes a multi-disciplinary approach that combines pharmacological, biochemical, spectroscopic, and electrophysiological techniques to develop novel methods to probe the structural dynamics of ion channels in an effort to better understand their role in electrical communication in excitable cells.

Brian is also a co-founder/chair of Badgerdocs (est. 2011), a postdoctoral association housed within the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, co-chair/organizer/web administrator of PALS, a postdoctoral association sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry and Bioforward, co-adviser for the SMPH Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (est. 2012), and member of The Science Alliance, Biophysical Society, and National Postdoc Association. When he is not in the lab he can usually be found volunteering, running, bicycling, performing or listening to music.

Grad Student Advice Series: Approaching Your Advisor About Alternative PhD Careers

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.”  ~The Future of the PhD

Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

I can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.

I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.

So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:

1)    Come up with a plan beforehand

Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.

We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).

A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position).  A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.

In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.

You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).

So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?

Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.

I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment,  would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.

The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.

2)     Open dialogue: Know what to say

Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:

I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.

I said something like this:

Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”

You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.

Here is the response I received:

We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”

I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.

That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.

And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.

3)      Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities

So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself).  Now what? You need an action plan.

Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).

This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.

If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.

Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.

In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.

When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.

Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):

  1. Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
  2. Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
  3. Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
  4. Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
  5. Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
  6. Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
  7. Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
  8. Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.

Further Reading

A comprehensive overview of the many careers in the life sciences industry:

Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t

Pure research is a wonderful thing; the ivory-tower isolation, the focus, and the unhurried pace may be the only way that some problems can be attacked. In taking a job, you’ll trade that life for a steady paycheck and a universe of opportunities to work with other people on fantastic projects.

Putting it in Perspective

This article addresses the transition after graduate school into the workforce. This is important for two reasons. First, the PhD is NOT the end-game. You wrote your thesis, successfully defended, but now what? You are an “expert in your field,” but yet you might not have any career goal(s) laid out in front of you.  Second, graduate students who have spent their whole lives in academia need to know what to expect and HOW to transition into the workforce. So, what DOES and DOES NOT matter once you get your PhD?

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable. ~The Future of the PhD

The Reality

Traditional graduate programs prepare you for a life as an academic. If you are lucky enough to find a teaching or research job in a university, that’s great. But according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer than half of all PhDs will ever hold tenure-track positionsand a good proportion of those won’t get tenure. So for most PhDs, the job opportunities lie outside the academy, in the world of business and industry.

Life outside the academy can be hugely rewarding: the diversity of jobs (for profit, non-profit, industry, governmental, military, consulting, policy and on and on), opportunities for career growth and change, job mobility, and jobs in development, marketing, sales support, administration and management which go far beyond bench work or basic research.

And the pay is much better: the National Science Foundation reports that in 2011 a PhD grad in the physical sciences leaving for industry made a median salary of $100,000; those opting for academia made $54,000; and the poor post-docs came in last at $47,000. Clearly, the future for most PhDs is in non-academic jobs.

Another Graph Published in Nature jobs international salary survey, 2010

Some, but not many, grad schools and departments are starting to acknowledge that most of their graduates are headed to non-academic jobs. For example, the Visiting Scholars and Post-Docs program at UC-Berkeley (where I am a Visiting Scholar) has a robust lecture program which brings in local PhD-entrepreneurs to discuss how to prepare for the transition, as well as an industry exploration program which introduces graduates to local businesses and provides workshops in career options, recruitment processes and business cultures within the private sector.

If your university or department provides resources like these, you should take advantage of them even if you haven’t committed to leaving academia. It’s a good way to keep your options open. And there is nothing better than getting some real industry experience through an internship or external research project.

I think the infusion of PhDs into the workforce is a great thing – they bring intelligence, critical thinking, research skills and methodology. One big challenge is that being an employee is very different from being a student.

Think about it: you’ve spent 12 years in pre-college, 4 years in college, and maybe 6 years in grad school – not to mention post-doc time. So 22+ years of being a student hasn’t really prepared you for life as an employee. It’s a culture shock when everything that used to matter suddenly makes no difference and – worse – when things you never cared about suddenly have huge significance.

I know – because I successfully made the transition over 30 years ago.

I’ve got tools, assessments and links to useful resources for making the transition on my From my perspective and my work helping college students at all levels find and thrive in their first jobs, let me point out what does and doesn’t matter when you take that first job.

Your school and your degree don’t matter

The online forums are full of resentful comments from PhD job-hunters about how ‘the hiring managers don’t appreciate how smart I am’. Welcome to the real world. You should be very proud of your degree, especially if you got it from a prestigious school. It’s a good credential. I don’t mean to denigrate your achievement, but your Stanford PhD won’t get you a promotion or help you win an office argument.

By getting your degree you should have acquired skills, resources and attitude that enable you to tackle complex problems. The degree doesn’t guarantee that – and the hiring managers know it. You will have to demonstrate your skills or you won’t get the job.

And once you are on the job, don’t expect to be the glorified “go-to person” simply because of your advanced education. There are plenty of smart people out there with skills and degrees you don’t have (see below), and your solutions, comments and suggestions will have to compete with or complement theirs.

The quality of your work matters

What does matter is the quality of your work. In college, you had a choice – work really hard and get the ‘A’, or settle for something less.

At Michigan I took a summer course in the Philosophy of Science. It is a great subject but the professor was terrible. I was so bored and just wanted to sit outside in the sun. For the term paper, I sat down at a typewriter (these were the days before word processors, my friends) and wrote a stream of consciousness, 15-page tract, which I didn’t even bother to edit or retype. I was happy with the ‘B-‘.

That’s not a good strategy at work. I urge you not to make quality a dependent variable in your business work. You always have to do your best, given the time and resources allowed. Remember that you are no longer just working for yourself. Other people will be depending on what you produce, just as you will be depending on the output of others. Consider how you feel when a work product you’ve been expecting from someone else is a piece of junk. Don’t end up being that unreliable person.

Another reason the quality of your work matters is that you were hired on your credentials, but you’ll get promotions and raises based on your contributions. During your evaluation, it’s better to have a body of work of which you can be proud, rather than to be making excuses.

As a final thought on this subject, go back and read my blog “Why Do We Need All These People?”. You’ll appreciate that when the time comes to ‘right-size’ the workforce (and it always does), the axe falls on the least productive first.

Results (and profits) matter

Research is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Sure, there are lots of pressures to produce results, but you have the intellectual freedom to pursue the most fruitful (and interesting) lines of inquiry. And the results might be a deeper understanding of an arcane chemical reaction, or the influences on an author, but it does advance our knowledge of the world a little bit, even if it isn’t earth-shaking.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to give up that freedom to pursue the merely interesting – or even the very interesting – in order to pursue the practical.

Unless you work for a non-profit, your company is in the business of selling something: services or products. There has to be a buyer for what you sell. Now there are a lot of reasons that people buy stuff, but usually you need to be solving a problem they have or filling a gap between what they have and what they want. That means the marketplace is going decide what you sell, not you.

This has been a particular pitfall for many of the life sciences grad students I know who have gone to industry. They will see promising research on interesting pathways discarded for good and sound business reasons (like the market is too small, or insurers won’t pay for the therapy). No one is going to pay you to be smart – they will pay you for work that helps them generate a profit.

NIH and NSF grants don’t have to be paid back. Shareholders and investors do. If there is no business reason for the work you are doing, it will come to an end sooner or later.

Some people see the need to focus on the profitable and practical as a negative aspect compared to working in pure research. On the other hand, creating a marketable product or service ensures that you are making something of real value and of interest to people other than just yourself.

Other people matter

Probably one of the hardest things to learn as an ex-student is how to work with other people. Unless you’ve had an unusual grad school experience, you probably worked on your project by yourself. Even if you worked as part of a large lab, your project augmented the other work going on, but other people didn’t depend on your results, and you didn’t depend on theirs.

Business is a team effort, and being a team member and resolving team issues are skills you’ll have to acquire fast. You may find, as I did, that working with others who are brilliant and fun is actually the high point of your job.

There is an even bigger issue here. In your lab or department you were surrounded by people who had skills and perspectives similar to your own. Sure, the professor is more accomplished than the freshman intern, but that’s a matter of degree, not style.

You are going to find all kinds of different people in a company: people who are good with numbers, people who are good with tools, people who are good with ideas, and people who are good with people. They are all necessary.

There is a tendency, especially among technical hardware or software product developers to think that their contribution to the organization (building the product or service) is the most critical to the company’s success. I know because I was one of them.

Those of us in software development thought that sales and marketing were superfluous, because a good product will sell itself. If that’s your opinion, I suggest you move into Sales for a couple of months and try it out. You’ll develop an appreciation for the skills it takes to match a client problem to a solution, and the emotional strength it takes to recover from rejection. And you might even enjoy it – God knows some people do!

The point here is that it takes a variety of skills, personalities, viewpoints, and backgrounds to craft a successful business. Don’t make judgments on peoples’ value based on their titles, place in the organization or education.

Your boss matters

There is one person in your company who is going to matter more than any other – that’s your boss. Figuring out how to work WITH your boss – not FOR him or her – will be time well spent. In your first days, you should make sure that you understand what your boss expects of you and the best way to do that is sitting down and talking.

I think the most important thing you can do is see your boss’s problems as your own. Understand what motivates your boss and how your boss is judged and rewarded. Not the actual compensation of course, but what are the priorities? Is on-time delivery of products and services more important that the actual features? Is being on-budget more important than anything else? You won’t know until you ask.

Managing your boss is a complex issue. That’s why I devoted an entire guide to it.

Wrapping It Up

So life in the business world is different from grad school. Not necessarily better, but surely different. Pure research is a wonderful thing; the ivory-tower isolation, the focus, and the unhurried pace may be the only way that some problems can be attacked. In taking a job, you’ll trade that life for a steady paycheck and a universe of opportunities to work with other people on fantastic projects.

I meant this post to provide a realistic guide to how your life will be different in the business world. Don’t be daunted or put-off by the differences. Millions of grad students have made successful and lucrative careers outside the academy. I did it. You can too.

About The Author:

Doug is an educator, consultant and serial entrepreneur with a PhD in biology who has founded or been an early executive in four companies.  In the summer of 2011, he began “dougsguides” to help college students make the transition from academia to the business world.  He now devotes most of his time touring college campuses spreading the dougsguides message. You can like dougsguides on Facebook, follow @dougsguides on Twitter and connect with Doug Kalish on LinkedIn.

Further Reading: 7 Steps You Can Take Now To Make It Possible

  1. Start Networking Before You Get Your PhD (Not After)
  2. Stand Out From The Crowd: 7 Ways
  3. Consider Hiring an Executive Coach
  4. Don’t Make These 3 Mistakes In Your New Job
  5. Practical Solutions To Fix the Disconnect Between Academia and Current Job Market
  6. Do Your Research: Find Your Future Career On PhD Career Guide or
  7. Check out PhD Branching Points and Versatile PhD

One Step At A Time: Bridging the Gap Between Academia and Industry

Industry-Academia Interactions: Bridging the Gap

By Ryan Raver
**This is a very complex and deep topic, hence the reason for the long, informative blog post**

With Stagnant NIH funding for the past decade or so, and dim job prospects, PhDs in the life sciences are now seeking alternatives. ‘Non-traditional’ careers are seemingly becoming traditional. There are two separate worlds: Academia and Industry. Both have very different goals and mindsets.

Post-docs or grad students wishing to enter industry can only hope that they have the minimum experience required to even enter industry, but many have no experience. But with an increasingly competitive job market, overabundance of PhDs, and lack of funding we find PhD grad students entering low paying post-doctoral positions, never to really come out. Some leave science altogether due to the “post-doc crisis,” where the average post-doc can last 5-6 years. Even more disturbing, doing more than one post-doc is not uncommon.

Not surprisingly, the harsh reality that statistically only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years (according to a 2009 NSF survey), pushes newly minted PhDs and post-docs towards industry due to higher pay and better job prospects. So, why not tackle the problem BEFORE graduation or before completion of a post-doctoral fellowship? In other words, what can be done to bridge the gap between academia and industry and what steps can be taken for this to happen in this present day and age?

Until this happens, we will continue to see the gap between academia and industry grow. Professors, scientists, and post-docs will continue to have “tunnel vision” where all they know or care about is their own research, field of expertise, and work environment (academia). The real question is, if the gap were bridged, would you even need a post-doctoral position or could you just skip the post-doc and enter right into industry from graduate school?

Why Do We Need To Bridge The Gap?

The reason that there are so few jobs to be found in academe is not because there are too few colleges, universities, departments, or programs. If anything, there are too many. The problem is that the number of available jobs is vastly outnumbered by the number of people applying for them. There are simply too many PhDs produced every year for the higher education establishment to absorb them all, despite the absurd degree to which it has absorbed them into jobs that have nothing to do with traditional research and teaching. Today, universities hire doctors of philosophy to be in charge of their dormitories, alumni associations, and police departments.” (Source:

So it is important to consider all options, especially those in biotech/pharma/healthcare industry. More importantly, it is imperative that unless we start to train less PhDs every year, we need to prepare PhDs for the current job market. Otherwise, you may find yourself unemployed with a gap on your resume, or working a post-doctoral position into your late 30’s.

Today, businesses are looking for innovative solutions from the academia to help meet their business needs of higher productivity and lower costs, yet increase efficiencies. In the area of talent, the US has to strengthen its technical and management resources as these are crucial to knowledge-based industries. A market-driven approach to higher education has to be fostered in order to encourage manpower development from the grassroot level itself. The idea is to involve the private sector in higher education.

So What Gives?

In the third millennium, we have witnessed a lot of technological changes. These changes, however, have not been properly used by our graduates in order to compete in the present scenario. It is essential to have industry-academia interactions which will help to impart relevant knowledge and will be sustainable in the changing conditions.

Academic institutions seemingly place great importance and value on closer interaction with industry and R&D organizations. At the level of industry participation in technology development, some interaction has been witnessed between large public and private sector enterprises and academic institutions.

Still, industry support to basic research is virtually non-existent. Laboratory utilization by industry for developmental purposes and for product testing has seen some success. With the help of continuing education programs (CEP), participation from the industry is gradually increasing. The areas in which interaction is possible include industry support to basic research for knowledge creation, industry participation in technology development involving some exploratory work, academic intervention in solving industry problems, and laboratory utilization by industry and CEP.

Current Status of Cooperation Between Academia And Industry

1) Academics are driven by their conferences and technical journals and their need to publish.
2) Academics seldom attend industrial conferences as they feel this is below their standard.
3) Academics look down upon industrial newspapers and magazines.
4) Academics are not aware of the problems and constraints of industry.


Reasons Behind The Gap Between Academia And Industry

1) Academics and Industrialists have a different mind set, therefore both are living in two different worlds.
2) Both Academics and Industrialists are pursing different goals entirely. The Academic is striving for recognition from his or her peers. The Industrialist is striving to survive.
3) Industry thinks in terms of short range goals whereas the Academic has a long range perspective.
4) Industry prefers proven solutions with a low risk, whereas Academia is interested in creating new solutions with a high innovation rate.
5) Industry seeks the minimum solution to minimize their risk, whereas Academia strives for a maximum solution to maximize their recognition.
6) Industry is mainly concerned with costs. Academia could care less about costs, it is mainly interested in the benefits (and prestige).


Additional Reasons Explained:
The Gap between the needs of the industry and aspirations of academic community is very large. Academicians always have a strong feeling that unless these initiatives find a place in industrial sector, this interaction will be confined to only developmental activities. There is a strong mismatch in perceptions of the two on the issues related to technology development. At present, the academic community is not geared to face this challenge of translating an evolving idea into technology development.

Industry Needs and Expectations

Large industrial companies have the resources to invest in technology development initiatives. Academic participation is often needed in minor technological innovation. Small scale industries often depend on support in the areas of design, process improvement and machinery performance, etc. They also rely on processes to yield a product which already exists. In some cases, problem solving may simply amount to product testing and production enhancement in terms of quantity and quality. In such interactions, industry’s expected time frames have been immediate and investment is directed towards efforts that promise result oriented solutions.

Academia Expectations

An academician shows interest normally in problems that are intellectually challenging. His or her areas of interest lie in technology development initiatives and methods related to process and design improvement. Researchers have strong preference for working towards creation of knowledge in specialized areas. For industry-related problems, a researcher has to explore a variety of options which is time consuming.

In academic institutions, the time frame of an academician is governed by research guidance and teaching assignments.

Academicians are oriented towards R&D activities of the industry for funds which helps them to sustain their broader research interests.

Avenues For The Future

A support system is needed to ensure a focused involvement of both academia and industry. Academic institutions should develop systems and procedures to ensure that industry expectations are met without any compromise on academic aspirations. Initially, academia should conceive and take up short term, small budget projects which would instill confidence in industry and encourage it to start development projects. Industry also has to give a fresh look to its R&D efforts. This process must be guided by a complete shift from trading set up to a technologically- driven entrepreneurial set up. Academia should tilt the focus of basic research to applicative research. Research initiatives involving industry people with flexible formats could serve as the first step in this direction.

Venues should be created for close interaction starting from conceptualization down to commercialization. Setting up of technology incubation centers in close proximity of academic institutions could provide for fostering wholesome technology development.

Interaction between industry and doctoral programs

In the Pharmaceutical industry, Pharmaceutical education is a foundation for its structure. For example, R&D and pharmaceutical technologies are built up by supplying qualified pharmacists to the industry. The interaction should begin when researchers are doctoral students and should continue well after they start their careers.

Some institutions fear that if students are involved in industry work, it might distract them from their doctoral work. However, many professors and faculty are willing to put this fear aside. They may realize that allowing students to be involved with industry could have very positive benefits. Not only could it boost doctoral productivity/output, motivation, and potentially lead to a job (or even a start-up company someday), it would further foster the academia-industry relationship as the cycle continues with new post-docs and grad students.

Those who cannot secure academic positions will seek out industry positions and will need to acquire necessary skills, knowledge, and experience in order to successfully break into industry. Industry provides research topics, funding and access to data for research. Industry also provides an opportunity for employment outside the traditional academic setting.

Academia-Industry Interaction Should Be Considered As Part Of The Education

What are some examples of this? Well what are OPTIONAL coursework or classes that can be taken? The big difference here is that these classes should not be taught just by the school of business from people who lie ONLY in academia and know nothing about industry. There should be industry PhDs teaching these classes since they bring to the table real world experience and examples.

Also, with the presence of industry PhDs on campus, this should foster some sort of relationship. More importantly, this would allow for recruitment of outstanding candidates who lie in academia and are looking to break into industry. Keep in mind that grad students and post-docs aren’t the greatest at networking, so this would also allow for some exposure outside of their mundane lab environment.

Apart from classes, biotech/pharma/healthcare industry needs to be on campus with clear offerings for internships. The incentive is that you are recruiting the best and brightest to strengthen and grow your company. How can you possibly obtain industry experience while in grad school without an internship? How can you possibly compete against someone who has a PhD with industry experience and was just recently laid off?

A 3 month summer internship would dramatically increase a post-doc’s or grad students chance of landing a job in industry in this down economy. But until an academia-industry relationship is fostered on all levels (keep reading below), there will be little incentive to help struggling post-docs and grad students with offering internships and optional coursework that could give them an edge. This is definitely an employer’s market and they know it. But ignoring the problem that there is a growing gap between academia and industry will only hurt our economy further and leave more people unemployed.

A list of Sample Coursework (With Industry Sponsor): Financial Accounting Principals, Corporate Finance, Organizational Behavior, Bioscience Strategy, Market Assessment and Market Strategy, Business Operations, Clinical Trials Design, Conduct and Strategy, International Business and Global Health, Entrepreneurial Management, Applied Entrepreneurship, Product Management, Bioethics and Law, etc.

If Coursework Is Not An Option:

At the very least, companies should sponsor a series of lectures and presentations from distinguished professionals from the industry on or off campus. In addition, this could include networking events (Happy Hours), video shows on some industry projects, group discussions, debates and field trips to various industrial companies. After lectures or presentations, grad students and post-docs should have the chance to meet with the speaker and discuss potential opportunities, set up an informational interview, or further build their network.


At the completion an Elective Coursework Program (say you want to receive a minor in an industry-specific position like Product Management), grad students and post-docs should be allowed to apply for an internship. Obviously, corporate sponsors can still be selective in this case. But if a grad student is in a PhD program for 5-6 years (post-docs can last just as long) and is turned down, he or she can just reapply the following year. A 3 month summer internship could lead to a full-time position later on down the road with a “foot in the door.” After all, some experience is better than none.

Industry Team Project: Real World Experience

At the completion of one’s optional coursework, there should also be a final ‘Industry Team Project‘ where students are to solve a real-world problem in industry. An Industry sponsor should assign the Team Project.

You are getting the best of both worlds

First, you are getting the education you need taught by working professionals faced with real-world problems. Second, you are getting the hands-on industry experience you need during your doctoral or post-doctoral studies through an internship and/or industry team-based project.

Also, having an ‘Entrepreneurial Competition‘ hosted by a corporate sponsor (Burrill and Co. for example) would allow students to write a business plan, compete, and potentially turn their plan into a start-up company with help of small grants or funding. Such an example is shown here:

Going Further

The question of who holds the patent rights to a specific development is a major issue. Academic institutions are scared of losing patent rights to a particular research where industry is involved. At the same time several academic researchers profit from their research through business books, industry consulting and speaking engagements. Therefore, academic research and the pursuit of profit are not mutually exclusive.

One important way of facilitating interaction between academia and industry is for teachers to take sabbatical at business organizations in their field of expertise. Such involvement will facilitate mutual understanding of each others strengths and challenges.

In order to ensure that the teaching programs and the curriculum meet the challenging needs of the industry, senior personnel from industry should be involved as expert members of the committees which vet changes in curriculum as well as new academic programs. To provide a real-life exposure of the industrial world to its students, a “vacation training program” (similar to an internship) can be organized. The program can include industrial training of faculty and students with a built-in provision of incentives as well as for the appointment of adjunct faculty from the industry.

Provision of having honorary professors/faculty both from the industry and R&D organization gives an exposure to the students of interacting with working professionals. Several laboratories have been sponsored by the industry. Software worth millions of dollars have been donated by Technology companies.

Knowledge Transfer

The industry can hire significant number of students. This is a highly effective form of technology transfer. While working in the industry, students frequently return to universities and colleges to recruit new students.

Industry and Government Research Relationships

Many researchers are working in advisory or consulting capacities with a number of companies. In some cases principal investigators in research hold positions on the technical advisory board. Large scale collaborative projects are also being carried out in certain institutions.

Summer Camps

These can be arranged in collaboration with the industry to expose the students to various academic and extra curricular activities. As mentioned above, these can comprise a series of lectures and presentations from distinguished professionals from the industry and academia, video shows on some industry projects, group discussions, debates and field trip to some industrial companies. These camps serve as a forum for the development of over all personality, leadership, organizational skills and exemplary team work which are essential for a successful career in addition to academic activities.

Camps provide a platform for professionals to enrich the participants with their first hand experiences in the field and their professional expertise.

Provision for Scale-up Operation And Entrepreneurial Ventures

Students develop new products or processes which are restricted as bench experiments. Due to non-availability of scale up processes as a result of capital and operational cost, the research is not able to reach the market. Interaction and informal tie ups can ensure successful implementation of work developed in the institution.

Consultancy Services

Academic institutions can help the industrial companies by providing consultancy services which are sought by small-scale entrepreneurs having no access to R&D and quality control facilities. It can be in the form of evaluation of products, processes, software development etc.

Important principles for industry academic interaction

Following principles can be used as guidelines:
a) Open academic environment: It is the responsibility of the administration, the academic senate and departmental faculty to establish appropriate norms for existence of an open environment

b) Freedom to publish: Freedom to publish is fundamental to the university and is a major criterion for the research project. Faculty should be encouraged to engage in outside projects. These at the same time, should not interfere with their performance of teaching and research duties.

Closing Comments

It will have to start at one Major University and have the rest follow to adopt these sort of changes. Also, with the help of corporate sponsors, such awareness and interaction can be fostered and promoted on campuses and Universities nationwide. I personally have asked the CEO of Promega to be a corporate sponsor for UW-Madison to help bridge the gap for post-docs/grad students in the life sciences and industry. Such involvement at the minimum would include seminars/speakers from industry on campus. Many do not see the need or importance, however, someone has to make the first move. Until then, academia and industry will continue to not understand each other or see the need to have an intertwined and collaborative relationship (especially for the long-term workforce).

But until we ‘lead by example’ the gap will continue to grow and we will find life science PhDs without work, spending excess amount of time as post-docs, or leaving science altogether. It is no wonder we have “Post-Doc Professional Masters” like at Keck Graduate Institute: Keck PPM (which claims to “Bridge the Industry Gap”), but it is no surprise that Industry doesn’t even recognize this PPM certification as having any relevance at all. Why? Because you simply cannot substitute education for real-world experience. And until the gap is bridged, you’ll have to fight your way through and network your way into industry.

I will close with words from Cliff Mintz, who also shares the same idea and vision as myself:

Fixing The Problem

While there is no easy solution to fix the growing lack of U.S. jobs for Ph.D. scientists, there are several ideas worth exploring. An important first step would be for college presidents, deans, chairpersons, and tenured faculty members to acknowledge there is an employment problem for newly minted Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scientists. This, in turn, may result in curricular changes at the graduate level that would allow students and postdoctoral scientists to actively participate in additional specialized training to acquire the requisite skills to pursue nontraditional career paths.

If curricular changes turn out to be too labor intensive, expensive, or unconventional, then offering graduate students and postdoctoral scientists access to regularly scheduled nontraditional job seminars or holding annual on-site career fairs may be more appropriate. In contrast with the prevailing view that nontraditional career programs may interfere with graduate and postdoctoral training, it is likely the career insights offered by these programs may help expedite rather than hinder research progress.” ~Cliff Mintz (Author of Nontraditional Careers Options For PhD Life Scientists)

**This article was written in collaboration with Faculty Member Jamia Hamdard, Dept of Pharmaceutics, New Delhi

Further Reading

Tooling Up: Making the Cut In 2011

Broken Pipeline? Stagnant NIH Funding Threatens Future Generation of Researchers and Scientists

U.S. Pushes For More Scientists But The Jobs Just Aren’t There

Give Post-Docs A Career Not Empty Promises!

The “Post-Doc Crisis”

Nontraditional Careers Options For PhD Life Scientists

The Present Day “Post-Doc Crisis”

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