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6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

When you envision yourself in an industry role, what do you see?

Like many PhDs, you might imagine yourself in a research position where you are developing and performing experiments, analyzing data, presenting the data to your research team, and so on.

After all, that’s what your PhD has trained you for, right?

But if the thought of spending a life-long career conducting experiments fills you with dread, start looking beyond the bench.

There are plenty of fulfilling career paths within Research and Development (R&D) that keep you close to the innovation.

As one Cheeky Scientist member recently shared:  

I just had my first day in my new job as an R&D Project Manager.

After a day in my new job, I can say with certainty that it was a great move. I am back in a science team, and I feel like I fit in 100%. I am so excited for this new phase of my career!

Thank you, Cheeky Scientist, for giving me a sense of community and support throughout my transition process!”

Today, we’ll discuss 6 research and development roles that can offer you a challenging and fulfilling career.

Why R&D Departments Are More Than Just Research

Biotech and biopharma industries are booming.

According to a recent report from Global Market Insights, the biotechnology market was valued at $497 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.4% between 2021 and 2027.

Moreover, investment into the R&D sectors of biotech has increased by 60% since 2020.  

If you want to make the transition into industry, specifically R&D, now is the time.

PhDs are in high demand. And it’s not just for research positions.

In fact, a recent report found that only 7% of the $493 billion that companies spend on R&D annually is used for basic research. The rest is invested in applied research (15%) and development (78%).

This means that within a typical Research and Development department, most of the employees are not research scientists.

Other positions that commonly fall under the umbrella of Research and Development include User Experience Researcher, Quality Assurance/Quality Control Professional, Project Manager, Technology Assessment Manager, and Health Economist and Outcomes Researcher.

6 In-demand Research And Development Positions

If you know you want a career in research and development, but you aren’t sure which role is best for you, start by assessing what job qualities are most important to you.

What is your ideal salary? Do you want a field, in-house, or remote position? How do you feel about traveling? Would you prefer a data-intensive or writing-intensive position? Do you want to stay close to the innovation or be more on the commercial side?

Most R&D positions are in-house, data-intensive, and sit on the innovative side of a business.

Along with company fit, these are all important factors to keep in mind when considering positions in R&D.  

1. Research scientist and research engineer positions  

Research scientist and engineer roles are the most innovative roles available in industry. If you want to stay close to the science, then you’ll want to consider these types of positions.

Coming out of academia, you may have extensive research experience, but keep in mind that industry conducts research differently.

The most significant difference is how responsibilities are distributed within a research team.

In industry, a research scientist or engineer is not the person at the bench conducting the experiments; that is the job of a research technician.

A researcher in industry is more of a strategist. In this role, you will be assessing data, identifying next steps (experiments or actions), and developing the experimental setup.

You may also be responsible for operating advanced robotic systems as many large companies invest in these systems to scale up their experimental output.

In this role, you will likely work on several projects or products simultaneously, managing the experiments and the people that perform them.

Research scientists and engineers are the driving force behind a project – the ones that move a product from inception to market.

To succeed as a research scientist in industry, you have to think like a manager. While your technical skills may have helped you get the job, what keeps you in the job is your ability to move a research project forward and produce results.

So, if you enjoy managing experiments (and the experimenters); collecting and analyzing large datasets; and drawing actionable conclusions, then a career as a research scientist may be for you. 

2. User experience (UX) research positions

Have you ever liked the products offered by a grocery store, but avoided going because the layout of the store was difficult to navigate?

You loved the product but hated the experience, and so you decided to go elsewhere.

This is user experience.

Today, more companies appreciate the importance of not only offering a quality product, but a whole positive user experience. They realize that this is their key to gaining loyal customers.

User experience, or UX, research is an exciting new field that includes some of the fastest growing jobs on the market. CNN Money’s 100 Best Jobs in America places UX research positions at number 39, estimating a 19% growth rate over the next 10 years.

Not only that, but companies hiring UX researchers covet a PhD’s skill, no matter their background. What companies are looking for is someone that can collect and analyze complex datasets.

So, what does a UX researcher do?

UX researchers study how the end-user interacts with a company’s product and identify ways to improve the overall experience, making it more intuitive and satisfying for the consumer.

This means you would be assessing both quantitative and qualitative data – analyzing broad trends in large datasets while also looking at consumer behavior. This can be done by analyzing data collected from surveys or focus groups meant to provide feedback on products still in development.

If you think you would enjoy using data to inform product development, all while sitting at the intersection of innovation and commercialization, then roles in UX research may be worth your consideration.

3. Quality assurance and quality control positions

Every year, compliance issues cost companies millions.

And in an era of digitalization and automation, the need for quality assurance and compliance has risen across industries.

Quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) roles don’t often catch the eye of PhDs, but they can be some of the most lucrative positions in industry.

Any company that makes an FDA-regulated product needs PhD-level quality control and assurance professionals.

QA and QC professionals are needed in most sectors of biotech – and they are aptly plentiful.

So, what’s the difference between QA and QC?

Even though these terms are used interchangeably, they do in fact represent two distinct roles.

Quality assurance is all about prevention while quality control is there to detect the defects and anomalies that occur during the production process.

PhDs in quality assurance ensure that a company complies with the government regulations that pertain to their sector of industry while those in quality control oversee manufacturing operations, ensuring the quality of the product before it hits the shelves. This means you would be testing the product itself along with the process involved in creating the product.

Problem-solving and organizational skills along with leadership and effective communication are just a few of the skills that are required for both QA and QC positions.

If you appreciate the regulatory side of industry, or enjoy creating standard operating procedures, it’s worth looking into these types of roles.

4. Project manager positions

Most departments within a company need project managers, including Research and Development.

If project management interests you, you’ll be happy to know that the demand for project managers in most tech-based sectors is on the rise – this includes electronics, aeronautics, IT, biotech, and biopharma.

As a project manager, you are the central hub responsible for coordinating each component of a research team, ensuring that all departments involved in research and product development communicate effectively.

In this role, you would be working closely with researchers, QA and QC professionals, along with other project managers in other departments.

Project managers are involved in the entire lifecycle of a product and experience both the innovative and the commercial side of product development.

This is a dynamic role that requires a bit of business acumen and a lot of creativity.

It requires the ability to hit hard deadlines and milestones; plan and manage departmental budgets; oversee interdepartmental communication; and manage people, ensuring that all components of the team are able to complete their work.

If you enjoy overseeing research projects, collaborating with people of various backgrounds, and have strong communication skills, this may be a great career opportunity for you.

5. Technology assessment manager positions

Perhaps you’ve heard of technology transfer.

This is an industry-university collaboration by which scientific ideas and discoveries from an academic institute are negotiated and transferred to industry.

With the number of startup companies nearly doubling over the past decade, industry-academic collaborations are on the rise; and so too are the positions that aid in the process. 

This is where a technology assessment manager comes in.

Many PhDs are not aware that this position exists, but most large universities will have an office dedicated solely to managing this collaborative process.

The responsibility of the technology assessment manager is to promote new technologies and facilitate the out-licensing to prospective industry partners.

And even though this role is physically located at an academic institute, it is an industry position.

As a technology assessment manager, you would be assessing the commercial potential of a product or discovery, planning strategies before issues arise, and communicating academic work to industry professionals.

To be successful, you must possess effective communication skills, a strong commercial acumen, and a basic understanding of the legal and regulatory aspects of intellectual property.  

If you want to stay connected to academic research, but still want to be at the forefront of industrial innovation, a role in technology transfer could be right for you.

6. Health economist and outcomes research positions

Economists are needed in every sector of industry, and healthcare is no exception. 

Health economists and outcomes researchers are hired by a variety of organizations in both the private and public sector including healthcare institutions, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities.

Healthcare economists are crucial for ensuring healthcare facilities are operated efficiently and are providing the best care possible.

They can inform the allocation of medical staff, identify funding for drug research, or assist in building public health centers.

So, what does a health economist do?

In short, they examine how a medical operation’s resources are allocated. They then use this information to identify the most efficient and cost-effective ways to provide services to the largest number of patients.

In the public sector, you may be analyzing public healthcare policy to determine if the policy is achieving its intended goals.

In the private sector, you may be analyzing a company’s products or services, ensuring that they are provided in the most cost-effective way.

If you have strong analytical skills and want to use your expertise to address some of the most pressing challenges in healthcare, health economics may be just what you’re looking for.

Concluding Remarks

Research and Development departments offer PhDs a wide range of exciting positions above and beyond Research Scientist.  You can work as a project manager, a user experience researcher, a health economist, a quality control or assurance professional, or a technology assessment manager – all while staying close to the science. These positions are the most innovative positions available in industry and require strong analytical, interpersonal, and communications skills. PhDs that excel in these types of roles are good problem-solvers, adept at building strong professional relationships, able to move projects from inception to market, and can work in an innovative space while also having a keen commercial acumen. Once you have identified the career track that best fits your professional lifestyle, you will be able to make more informed decisions throughout your job search.

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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