ASCB Career Development Article
Career Planning for Cell Biologists:
Industrial Opportunities in the Current Economy
By Alaina G. Levine
As a scientist, you have an exorbitant amount of career opportunities. You may not even realize the extent of what you can do, and where you can apply your specialized talents. You might not have learned in school how far and wide you can apply your expertise in a fulfilling, exciting career, but it’s never too late to school yourself.
There are two simple reasons you have so many professional opportunities. First, you create value in society. Ponder this: can you think of any organization, company, product or service that does not have at its very core some scientific or engineering innovation or discovery? I challenge you to find an answer that is not steeped in science or engineering. Since science serves as the foundation of every institution, and you are the scientist, this means that you hold an incredible amount of power – both in deciding what kind of career you would like to explore and what path (or paths) you will take to achieve your goals.
The second reason you have a plethora of career opportunities is because of your expertise in solving problems. Scientists are the ultimate problem-solvers: you can solve a problem from the ground up, you are both holistic and detail-oriented in your approach, you don’t accept things the way they are and you always seek to ask “why?”. This stringent problem-solving methodology is highly prized by industry. The purpose of any job in any organization is to solve problems, and as a scientist you already have the advantage that you were trained to solve many, many different types of problems.
So between the value you create and the problems you are able to solve, you have lots of opportunities. But where are they exactly? And how do you access them?
For those of you interested in launching a career in life sciences, where you continue contributing to biosciences (either as a researcher or in another position), there is a wide range of industry sectors that you can pursue, including:
- Medical devices
- Clean technology
- Biotechnology and Industrial biotechnology
- Food and beverage
- Cosmetics and personal care
In these industries, you can expect to find careers and jobs in the following areas:
- Research and Development
- Product Development
- Safety management
- Quality Assurance/Quality Control
- Regulatory Affairs
- Science Communications and Marketing
- Clinical trials management
- Business Development
Research and Development (R&D) usually involves the design and oversight of original experiments and investigations. The R&D mission is tied to that of the organization. But there is another realm in which industrial scientists can dwell that still affords you the chance to “do science”. In most of the other positions listed here, you can perform “scientific problem-solving”, in which you apply your scientific expertise and skills to solve problems for the customer.
If you desire a career that is beyond the bench, there are lots of other intellectually-stimulating paths to consider. If you enjoy communications, there are opportunities in journalism, medical writing, product communications, technical writing, and public and media relations. Or consider an outreach career at a university and museum. Your project management skills will come in handy if you are interested in science advocacy, as you can leverage them to land a leadership position at a science society, like the ASCB!
Careers in government are also diverse. You can work for the “usual suspects”, like the NIH or NSF, but there are also opportunities in policy in all branches of the federal, state, and local government, both in the US and in other nations. You can work as a science advisor to a congressman, or pursue a scientific problem-solving career in the FAA, FBI, CIA, and other agencies. If you are interested in science policy, consider the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship.
Outside of the life sciences industries, there are many for-profit companies that desire your unique value and talents. Consulting firms like McKinsey & Co., SAIC, and Booz Allen Hamilton appreciate your expertise and ability to solve unusual problems, and financial institutions and Hollywood prize your computational skills. These sectors pay their employees (particularly those with doctorates) very well.
It would be impossible to list every single type of company, industry and job that can be pursued with a degree in cell biology. The key point for you to solidify in your mind is that the opportunities are plentiful. But to find them and to access them, you have to do research and you have to have a concrete career development plan. You also have to constantly network. Those who build and cultivate strong, diverse networks will find access to opportunities they didn’t even realize existed.
Keep yourself open to “non-traditional” careers for life scientists. Companies in arenas like oil and gas or even textiles can benefit from your wisdom and experience. But it is up to you to articulate your value to them in a way that will get you access to these opportunities. We will discuss these methods in future articles and webinars, so be sure to check back here soon.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make your own opportunities. Some of the most fascinating people in the most exciting careers did not find their jobs through an advertisement. They networked like crazy and crafted their own career paths. You can do this too – and ASCB will show you how!
Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering career consultant, writer, Contributor to National Geographic, professional speaker, and comedian. She is president of Quantum Success Solutions, a science/engineering career and professional development consulting enterprise, and the author of over 100 articles in publications like Science, Scientific American, Smithsonian, New Scientist, COSMOS and IEEE Spectrum. She can be contacted through her website at www.alainalevine.com.