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5 Lucrative Career Options for Any PhD (Even Without A STEM background)

Contributing Author: Maxwell Caughron

A year before I got hired, I didn’t even know the career I currently worked in existed. My path to industry success has not been a straight line, so let’s start from the beginning…

My PhD is in Asia Pacific Studies, and after about 6 years in academia, I needed a change of pace. I can’t put into words how anxious I was about finding a job but I started looking at various career tracks. I had absolutely no idea what valuable skills I had or where to look for relevant positions. 

It was then that I found the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

I felt a bit awkward because I was different from other Associates – I didn’t have a STEM background. Still, I needed more support than my school was giving. I needed to hook up with Other PhDs looking to make the jump from journals to paychecks. 

As I went through the CSA modules my mindset began to change. My mind shifted from thinking like a lifelong academic to an industry professional. I started getting a better idea of how industry worked, and that was a major jumpstart to my job search.

Here’s where things get weird: I became fascinated with data scientist career track. I didn’t even have a stem background but I knew I could do it, I could be a data scientist.

I worked hard to develop my coding skills – most data scientist roles asked for basic fluency in Python (which I didn’t have), and an advanced degree in a quantitative field (which I sort of had). It felt way out of my league. But eventually, my dedicated study kicked in, and I started applying for jobs in earnest. 

To build up my resume and my skills, I asked my friends from all sorts of industries if they needed some contract data science work done. I picked up some work this way, and it gave me something to put in the “data science experience” section of my resume. I networked a lot, which helped me land some interviews with amazing midsize companies.

But after a series of interview rounds, I fell flat on the technical skills. I kept applying and networking. Multiple interviews later, I was still without an offer.

Then, out of nowhere, my networking paid off – I met some guys who were building a startup in the field of quantitative analysis. I wasn’t even in interview mode – we just had a few beers, and I talked about my experience. That’s all it took.

The very next day, I started working with them as a data scientist, as a PhD with no STEM degree.

Can The CSA Help Any PhD Find A Career? 

CSA has a reputation for helping STEM PhDs land their industry dream jobs. But a lot of PhDs in the Association have unique backgrounds. What it boils down to is this: PhDs study a specific niche field in academia.We think of ourselves as scientists or scholars in these tiny little areas of expertise.

As an Asia Pacific Studies PhD, I thought, there was no job out there for me. There were no “professional Asia studies consultants” or “Pacific project managers” out there – it seemed like I was out of luck. But I was thinking too narrowly.

Try this… 

You’re not a computational analytical chemist – you’re an analyst with a suite of transferable project management skills you picked up in academia. You’re not a B cell development immunologist – you’re a researcher with budget management experience from the grant money you handled for the lab.

The Mindset You Need To Transition Into An Industry Career

The academic mindset is to think narrowly, to study one specific problem only dozens of other people know exist. The industry mindset is more broad and the issues are more universal. As you make this mindshift, your view will broaden and you will see the endless opportunities and positions that you can apply for.

Look closely at your skills—the skills that actually matter. You have key skills, soft and technical, that can transfer across any industry and get you a job at any company.

CSA is not just for STEM PhDs. There is one associate who has a humanities PhD who got hired at Home Depot as a user experience researcher. I’ve seen a social scientist get hired at Hilton as a user experience analyst.

It doesn’t matter what your PhD is because you learned how to:

  • Do research
  • Analyze data

That’s it – those are the key skills you need to land a lucrative, fulfilling industry work.

A LinkedIn analysis which looked at millions of jobs and professionals showed that analytical reasoning is one of the most sought after skills for 2020 and beyond. Analytical reasoning is simply the ability to properly interpret data to better drive business decisions. If you have a PhD, you know how to research and analyze, you have analytical reasoning skills. 

This means you are incredibly valuable to employers and have a lot of career opportunities.


Companies can’t train you to be a good researcher who draws insightful conclusions from data. Even if they could somehow manage this, it would be a waste of their time and money. Good thing you’re a PhD because that means you’re a master of research and analysis. 

Research and analysis are the 2 industry skills that will get you virtually any job you want. Everything else comes second, including technical skills. A lot of companies will actually train you on the technical stuff after they hire you. So no matter WHAT your degree is in, there is a job waiting for you.

Here are 5 of the most popular industry career tracks that PhDs can get hired into, regardless of their degree and background.

1. User experience researcher/analyst

User experience roles, commonly known as “UX,” are very popular right now because virtually every business is online and they need to create a user interface which is both intuitive and gratifying. People will not buy products and services if the system is not easily accessible and gratifying. 

This is where the UX role comes in. UX analysts and researchers collect information, analyze it, and draw actionable conclusions to improve the experience of whoever is using a product or service.

In this role, you will look at quantitative and qualitative data gathered from consumer/client feedback.

2. Business development manager career

This career track might also be called “business development associate” or “business development analyst.” Whatever a company calls it, you can get into this role as a PhD. In fact, a lot of PhDs in the Association are getting hired into business development roles.

Most of these positions focus on building business-to-business (B2B) relationships. This is distinct from business-to-consumer relationships and requires a much different approach to being successful. 

A lot of businesses want to attract key opinion leaders (KOLs) who have advanced degrees such as PhDs and MDs and work at other companies. Because of this, PhDs are perfect for this role, it puts them on the same level as the KOLs, forming trusting relationships and improving communication between companies.

The best way to build relationships with those KOLs is to have advanced degree holders in business development positions mediating the communication  with other higher-level professionals.

3. Application specialist 

Depending on the field, this role could be “application scientist,” “application engineer,” “application specialist,” or something similar. Either way, this is a heavily cross-functional role.

As an application professional, you will work with sales, development, and marketing teams to teach the company’s clients how to apply company products. For example, let’s say you work for “Company A,” and they sell a product to “Company B.” 

Maybe it’s a microscope – maybe it’s equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a huge software package, or something else. Whatever the product is, Company A needs you—a high-level technical person or an advanced degree -holder—to go in there and explain how to make the most out of the product.

Application scientists serve as liaisons between the clients and the company, thus playing a crucial role in the positioning of any company or product. For more information on application specialists check out the Cheeky Scientist Advanced Program : Application Scientist Assembly.  

4. Medical writer

This role could be that of a medical writer, engineering writer, science writer, or technical writer. Believe it or not, whether you’re a PhD in the social sciences, humanities, life sciences, or engineering, you are a technical writer. 

By now, you have done at least some of the following: 

  • Written your thesis
  • Written peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Applied for and obtained grants. 

This means that you have extensive experience writing technical documents. And these roles are growing quickly.  “Content is king” – no matter what company you go to work for, they need to produce a lot of content. Much of this is technical content, which just means content that uses field nomenclature. 

You had to learn a new nomenclature when you began your advanced degree, and to become a technical writer, you’ll have to learn another nomenclature.

For a layperson, this would be a major challenge. As a PhD, it’s in your nature. For more information on medical writing, which includes technical writer positions, join our Medical Writing Organization.

5. Patent agent

Also known as “patent examiner,” someone in this role might research patents for a private business or a government office. You could even work for a law firm. Basically, patent professionals investigate whether a patent is viable. Doing research to figure out whether something similar has been patented before. 

Alternatively, PhDs can find industry work as patent writers. Patent writers will produce written patents and submit them for examination. Your background as a PhD means you can get hired as a patent writer role, which requires technical writing, industry expertise, and strong research ability.

Even if they don’t exactly fit your area of expertise 

All businesses want to patent things because it gives them an edge in the marketplace  – people can’t copy what’s already been patented.


Your PhD is in a highly specialized field. There are probably only a few dozen people you can have a truly intellectual conversation with about what you did through your PhD. But this doesn’t mean you can only find a job within the research field that you are in. Your PhD has given you valuable skills –  both technical and transferable –  that are universally applicable to industry careers across the globe. Choosing a career is  tough, but in the end it’s not so much about what you are doing but who your colleagues are, what work life balance you’d like. Start developing your industry mindset and see beyond the scope of your project, see your value and the vast opportunities you have when you have a PhD. 

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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