WHAT DO SCIENTISTS DO APART FROM SCIENCE?
When most people think about science in general, what comes to mind first is the traditional image of a scientist in a white lab coat, crouched over a table in the lab, looking at a colorful solution through big protective goggles. And for the most part, if we refer to the work that is being done at research labs at universities, it is not too different from that image, with a few caveats depending on each discipline (while chemistry labs and physics labs can look quite different, the organizational structure of the research remains similar). However, there are a plethora of different careers that require the participation of scientists that are not necessarily involved directly with research. This is also science! In this article we are going to explore why and how scientists often find their careers outside of academia (referred to the institutions, usually public, more concerned with education and research, as opposed to private companies where financial gain becomes more prominent) where they start and take a brief look at different professions in which scientific knowledge is essential, even if they are far away from the lab.
What does the prototypical scientific career path look like?
The typical career path for a university researcher/professor consists first of acquiring an undergraduate degree in a relevant STEM field. Ideally, during this initial step, they will start gaining some skills by volunteering in research labs in the same university at which they are studying. This will help immensely down the path to starting to acquire hands-on experience and, most importantly, networking. After acquiring the bachelor’s degree, then it is time to pursue a Master’s degree, which is usually more focused on a specialized field of interest (to note that this may not be the case in the US, but is the norm in other countries). This normally takes one or two years, and afterwards comes arguably the most important step of the whole process: acquiring a PhD, which takes on average 5-6 years to complete. There are some articles on this website talking about the different aspects of the PhD life, so feel free to check if interested! Finally, it is the moment to acquire ‘senior’ experience as a postdoctoral researcher, which is the final step before gaining full independence as a researcher. A postdoc is considered a fully trained scientist, and while it is still under supervision of the head of the lab, it is expected to develop full research projects by itself and start to apply for funding for his own projects with the objective to become fully independent. If everything goes alright, this normally takes another 5-6 years of training (although it is not uncommon at all to have to perform several postdoctoral jobs before finally landing the coveted faculty position, so it may take even longer). After this long and hard work, if this person can land a faculty position in a university, they will finally have the means to start building their own lab and perform their own independent research as long as they can secure funding. Therefore, we are looking at around 20 years of training before even starting the tenure-track process to becoming a full professor (which is another beast better left for another time)!
With this amount of time that needs to be invested, it will be surprising for some to learn that the success rate to acquire such faculty positions after successfully making it through the training is quite low; only around 10%!  This number can vary depending on the region and field of study, but is an incredibly competitive process no matter what. The main point is, there aren’t enough faculty positions available for all the PhDs that graduate each year. The current economic situation hasn’t been gentle in this regard either , as the pandemic has caused a variety of problems, such as low funding availability or hiring freezes, adding more tension to an already overcrowded job market . With these prospects it is not surprising that even prestigious scientific publications such as Nature acknowledge the issue and go as far as to ‘encourage’ postdoctoral researchers to have a ‘back-up’ plan to leave academia . Therefore, nowadays it is essential for everyone considering pursuing a PhD to look at all the alternative career paths that are available, as becoming a full researcher is not guaranteed.
What are the options for PhDs outside of academia?
Historically, universities have trained researchers to become researchers themselves, and not much attention was given to alternative career paths. Luckily, this trend is changing, and there are starting to appear different programs to train PhDs to become something else, or to make the transition to industry from academia smoother.
First, it is important to point out that not all research is done at universities. A great deal of research is also done at the level of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) , which usually depend more on private donations. Moreover, research and development in private industry, both by biotech and pharma companies among others, is also a big investment, especially in bigger companies. Therefore, there are opportunities for PhDs to put their scientific skills to the task. While the scope of the scientific projects in these cases is usually tailored to the needs of the organizations performing them, they are usually not as restricted by funding as their academic counterparts. Moreover, salaries in the private sector tend to be higher than their academic counterparts . Therefore, the major difference between research in the public and private sector, from the perspective of scientists performing it, is that academia allows for way more freedom over the scientific endeavors researchers want to pursue, while in the private companies it is restricted to the company decisions.
Also, in the context of private companies such as pharma, there are a variety of different roles that require PhD level training. For example, for the commercialization of a drug, different steps during the manufacturing process may require specialized teams supervised by scientists familiar with the specifics. In the same manner, the quality control step is also of utmost importance, and usually also involves the participation of scientists. These are different areas in which a PhD could make a career that, while still involved with technical lab work, do not necessarily include research.
The work of a scientist doesn’t have to be confined to the lab!
Outside of the lab there are also a plethora of different opportunities to make a career for PhDs! Still in the context of private companies, marketing and law departments often require scientific input to effectively communicate in their line of work and it is common now to have specialized training programs for PhDs to expand their skill set in this regard. In more specialized industries, there are also the positions of field application scientist (FAS), or medical science liaison (MSL). FAS’s are scientists that work for companies making products required for scientific research, such as equipment (microscopes, centrifuges, cabinets, etc…) or reagents (chemical compounds, media for cell/bacterial culture, etc…). The purpose of this role is to interact with the potential clients, who are also scientists, and therefore need a precise understanding of all the technical and scientific details regarding their product. On the other hand, MSLs work for pharma companies and are the link between them and hospitals and other health institutions, providing and monitoring information regarding their drugs or related therapies. As we can see, there is a great deal of opportunities for PhDs to work outside of the lab, while still maintaining an essential interaction with scientific research.
Another area in which PhDs can find a job is by writing. Drug manufacturers need scientists to write their technical details and protocols properly. In the field of scientific communication, it is evident that having scientists on the team helps a great deal. Editors of scientific journals benefit from a scientific understanding of the field of the journal they are working with. While a PhD in STEM is usually not required to access these careers, it is not uncommon nowadays for trained scientists to find a way to put their skillset to good use in other ways.
Finally, PhDs can also leverage their knowledge by being valued consultants or analysts working freelance for different companies. In fact, it is not uncommon for faculty professors to also work as consultants for different companies that are involved with their line of work.
There is life outside of academia for PhDs
While most STEM PhDs start their careers with the hope of building their own lab and producing their own research in the future, it is becoming more and more common for them to find meaningful careers outside of academia. It is true that some of these developments are forced, as the current academic job market just cannot accommodate the influx of new PhDs that graduate each year. However, there are trends that indicate a change in the mentality of new trainees who already envision a path outside of research from the start. Whatever the reason anyone must pursue a career in science, it is important to consider the vast number of options at our disposal, as sometimes it is easy to get too focused on the traditional path. Moreover, it also helps to consider the enormous number of professions that require scientists that we may have not considered. Hopefully helps to dispel the typical image of the scientist surrounded by dusty old books!
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