Non-academic career paths for PhDs

Non-academic career paths for PhDs

About two decades ago, PhDs often chose the traditional academic career route, where one started with a postdoc and later joined as research faculty at an institution. In the past few years, this predefined route for PhDs has drastically changed course, with up to a 10% drop in the number of PhDs who hold an academic tenure-track position1. The deficit of academic careers and increased awareness of non-academic career paths have led more STEM PhDs to choose other careers in science. In this article, I cover some of the diverse career paths that are available to PhDs, including but not limited to jobs within industry.

Industry-based careers for scientists

Industry-based positions range from bench-based research scientists to non-bench-based positions, such as business development managers. Many PhDs work as scientists in the discovery phase, in preclinical/clinical research, or in manufacturing and quality control teams at pharmaceutical and biotech firms. PhDs are also hired in the following positions:

  • Data scientists: As a data scientist, one uses various data mining techniques to predict results with huge amounts of data. These positions require a background in programming. Many data science boot camps and fellowships are available to PhDs, to equip them with data mining and programming skills for these positions.
  • Regulatory affairs: These professionals have critical roles in the pharmaceutical industry where they ensure that the company’s product is compliant with global standards. They also work to expedite the drug development process by analyzing current market standards.
  • Medical affairs: Professionals in medical affairs not only educate various departments about the science behind the drug development process but also work with clients to support the launch of new products in the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Medical science liaisons: Commonly referred to as MSLs, they have a role similar to medical affairs professionals. Their main duty is to maintain relationships with key opinion leaders in their assigned field and ensure that their products are effectively used and backed with relevant scientific and clinical data.
  • Technical product and marketing specialists: Many of us interact with people in these positions during our PhD tenure. These are the specialists who come to maintain or install research equipment at research institutions. Technical specialists also conduct customer service to help troubleshoot specific products and kits used in laboratories. Most of these positions are filled by PhDs.
  • Business development managers and consultants: Here, PhDs are valued for their ability to work efficiently by comprehending complex strategies in business and help in decision making. These positions mainly involve planning, management, and development of innovative products or services. They also work in analyzing marketing trends using their scientific and analytical skills.

Careers for scientists beyond academic research and industry

PhDs can also transition into career paths outside academia and industry, including the ones below:

  • Intellectual property and legal affairs: Scientists are actively recruited in this area because PhD training enables them to understand scientific discoveries in patent law cases and to accurately analyze the intellectual rights of a product. Many dual PhD/JD degrees are offered to help scientists prep for a career in legal affairs.
  • Tech transfer and university incubators: PhDs can also work in technology transfer offices and university incubators where they support the growth of innovative products. Positions here often involve a combination of duties as in legal affairs plus business development manager duties.
  • Science policy: Here PhDs work with federal and state government offices in policy development. PhDs can prepare for a career in science policy by gaining experience through internships or fellowships that help to develop skills essential for working with policymakers.
  • Scientific conference organization: PhDs make excellent scientific conference organizers because they comprehend the science behind such events.
  • Science communication and publishing: There are numerous careers in science communications, such as science journalist/writer, journal editor, science illustrator, medical writer, etc. Many workshops, fellowships and science communication groups offer great exposure to such career paths.
  • Library management: Positions in library management are another career option for those who enjoy reading and organization.
  • Museum scientists and public outreach: Museum scientists are often STEM PhDs. Public outreach is another exciting career option for PhDs. Volunteering at a science museum near you is a good way to explore this option now.

Transitioning from working as a PhD student in an academic setting into a non-academic career can be challenging, especially if one does not know how to start the process. Once you identify your area of interest, informational interviews are a great way to start researching a career path. One of the best approaches to start working toward such non-academic career paths is by networking and finding potential mentors who can help you work your way toward your chosen career path. Various resources, career guidance networks, and organizations help PhDs transition from academia into other career paths. ASCB offers such support to scientists by offering numerous career development courses, workshops, and courses. ASCB also has periodic informational interview posts that describe diverse careers for scientists. The Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS) at ASCB has planned variety of career development panels and seminars that will be offered during the 2019 ASCB|EMBO meeting in Washington, DC.


1.     Katie Langin (2019). “In a first, U.S. private sector employs nearly as many Ph.D.s as schools do” Science Magazine.

About the Author:

Sumana Sundaramurthy is a graduate student in David Pruyne’s Lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. She studies how formins regulate muscle development using Caenorhabditis elegans as a model. Email: Twitter: @ranjusunda