8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

If you have a PhD, you’re among the 2% of the population who has committed to push a field of knowledge forward. 

That makes you one of the most innovative people in the world. This is something special.

As such, you deserve to work in a position where your tenacity and ability to solve problems are out of good use. Where you feel satisfied and are rewarded for your job.

That’s why I encourage all PhDs to look for an industry position, because academia is a dead end where dreams go to die.

However, you have to be strategic when it comes to your industry career. Not any move is the right move.

I’ve had many roles since my time in grad school: application scientist, consultant for fortune 500 companies, founder and CEO of my own company, and best-selling author, among others. 

This has been the right career path for me, I have worked hard to make it happen because I knew each next move would fulfill me personally and professionally and get me closer to where I wanted to be in my life. 

You can have a career that’s just as fulfilling. However, you can’t hit a target you don’t set. 

So, no matter if you’re in the middle of your PhD, have spent years as a postdoc, or are already working in industry, you need to know how to assess different positions and opportunities to determine which is the right one for you.

Determine Your Core Career Track Before Evaluating Individual Positions

There are 5 core career tracks available to candidates with an extensive technical background, such as PhDs: Information, aggregation, and patents; sales and marketing; research and development; clinical and medical affairs; and business, finance, and policy.

Each of these career tracks offers different opportunities to make an impact. None is better than the other, but depending on your desired lifestyle, one of them is better fitted for you.

You should decide which career path is right for you and then evaluate the individual positions within your desired career path based on the work qualities we will consider below.

You’re probably thinking that this is a lot of work just to decide your target position

That you’d be better off sending resumes to any position that looks like a remote match because you need a job yesterday.

I have helped thousands of PhDs transition into industry positions and I can tell you two things:

One, applying to hundreds of jobs online is a waste of time.

Two, when it comes to your industry job search, spending time planning to ensure you make the right move pays off in the long run.

Remember that you ultimately want a job where you can make a significant contribution and achieve personal and professional fulfillment. Not any job will achieve that. You’re aiming for one of the top 1% of industry jobs available. 

You won’t get that highly coveted job by winging it, you need to make an informed decision to figure out your next step and have a strategy in place to make it happen.

8 Work Qualities That Will Help You Determine Your Ideal Industry Position

Once you’ve determined your core career track, how do you determine the right individual position for you?

You need to consider the work qualities or characteristics of every individual position and contrast them to your desired professional lifestyle.

There are endless qualities that you could consider during this exercise, but in my experience, PhDs stick to 8 key qualities to determine the individual job title that is right for them.

I will discuss each of these work qualities below and I recommend that you rank them from the one that’s most important to the one that’s least important for you.

There are no right or wrong answers. The key is being honest with yourself. The more honest you are, the higher your chances of finding the right position.

Once you have your ranking in place, you can take a look at the work qualities of each individual position and contrast them to your ranking. The position with the best overlap will be your target position.

1. Salary

If you get a PhD-level industry job, your salary will be considerably higher than whatever you’re used to in grad school. That being said, some positions are compensated better than others.

If salary is a high priority for you, you should aim for positions that have salaries within the top 10%.

Keep in mind that these higher-paying positions usually come at a higher cost. They might require a lot of travel, as is the case for medical science liaison (MSL) positions.

They might require that you work extra hours – up to 16 or 18 hours a day when working on an important project – as is the case with management consultant positions.

Or they might require an extra degree or certification as is the case for IP lawyer positions.

2. Amount of travel required

The amount of travel required to excel at a position is a very important factor that you should consider when planning your transition as it’ll impact your lifestyle greatly.

If you’re a single person who doesn’t mind being on the road and adjusts well to unpredictable schedules, taking a position that requires you to travel over 50% of the time might be just what you need. 

Each trip will be an opportunity to expand your network and build relationships that might open doors in the future.

However, if you just started your family and have small children at home, taking a travel-intensive position might lead you to miss important moments with your family and create a conflict between your professional and personal goals.

So, it’s important that you figure out how much travel you’re willing to take before targeting a position.

Some, like capital equipment specialist, might require you to be on the road more than 70% of the time. 

Others, like R&D scientists, will require you to travel every once in a while, to present at a conference, for example.

Finally, some positions might require no travel at all.

3. Field positions

The third quality you should consider when determining your ideal position is whether or not you want to work in the field.

This means a position where you spend most of the time meeting with customers or key opinion leaders (KOLs), instead of working at an office or at home.

Deciding whether to take a field position is somewhat related to the amount of travel, but they’re not the same thing.

Those who work in field positions usually have territories and the amount of travel is related to the size of the territory.

If you’re an MSL working at a small company, you might have an extensive territory – think a couple of states if you’re in the U.S or Canada or a couple of countries if you’re in Europe.

In this case, you’d have to travel a lot to meet with KOLs.

However, if you’re a technical sales specialist working for a big biotech company and live in a big city like Boston or Berlin, your territory might be just that city, or even a part of the city.

In that case, you’ll spend most of your time on the field visiting customers, but will go back to your house at the end of the day, no travel required.

4. In-house vs remote positions

Many job candidates, especially in recent years, have started to seriously consider whether an in house or remote position is a better fit for them.

Some prefer the structure of working at an office and enjoy having the opportunity to interact with their co-workers in person and in real time.

Whereas others prefer the flexibility of working from home, or any location of their choosing. Having the opportunity to make their own schedules and not having to worry about commuting time.

As with all the categories in this blog, there is no right or wrong answer, but you should seriously consider which one is a better fit for you as it will greatly impact your lifestyle and work-life balance.

5. Innovation positions

All industry positions occupy a place on a spectrum of innovation and commercialization.

Considering where you want to work on that spectrum is very important as it directly relates to the professional impact you want to have.

If you opt for an innovation position, you’ll be working at the conception site of a product, treatment, or service. In other words, you’ll be working with ideas that haven’t become tangible products yet.

Positions like R&D scientist, user experience researcher, and patent examiner are innovative positions.

6. Commercial positions

At the other end of the spectrum, we have commercial positions. 

In these positions, you’ll be working with developing, manufacturing, and commercializing products after conception.

So, if you work with tangible products that are already in the market or ready to go to market, you work in a commercial position.

7. Data-intensive positions

Data analysis is one of the most relevant tranferable skills that PhDs, no matter their background, possess.

So, it comes at no surprise that many PhD-level industry positions require you to deal with data and extract insights from data.

Keep in mind that data can be quantitative and qualitative and you’ll find positions that work with both types.

Data scientists, quantitative analysts, and scientific consultants mainly work with quantitative data whereas user experience researchers and epidemiologists can work with qualitative data. All of these are data-intensive positions. 

If analyzing the results of your experiments, performing surveys, and/or running models to find answers to apparently impossible questions was your favorite part of grad school, a data-intensive position might be just right for you.

8. Writing-intensive positions

The final quality you need to consider is whether or not a writing-intensive position would be a good fit for you.

Many industry positions require that you write and edit different types of deliverables: blog posts, white articles, journal articles, grant proposals, clinical trial proposals, brochures, and educational materials, among others.

Every position that has “writer” or “editor” in its name will be writing-intensive, but positions like patents examiner, regulatory affairs associate, and science public policy advisor alro rely on strong written communication skills.

Writing-intensive positions might be a good fit if your favorite part of grad school was to write papers and grand proposals or design posters to present at conferences, or if you enjoyed participating in science outreach initiatives.

Now that we’ve covered the 8 top work qualities that PhDs consider when determining their target position, it’s time to rank them in terms of which matter the most to you. We’ll take a look at the individual positions and their work qualities in future blogs.

Concluding Remarks

To find the PhD-level industry position that better fits your desired lifestyle, you should first determine your target core career track. After that, you should rank the 8 work qualities I discussed in this blog from the most important to the least important to you and compare them to the individual positions within your core career track. The 8 qualities are salary, amount of travel required, field positions, in-house vs remote, innovation or commercialization position, and data- or writing-intensive. This will ensure that you only apply to positions where you can make a big impact and achieve professional fulfillment.

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.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly
Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 two bestselling books with Wiley and 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.

Similar Articles

4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

The number of PhDs wanting to transition out of academia increases every year. Initially, most of these PhDs were recent graduates and postdocs.  But as the crisis in academia has gotten worse, we are seeing a lot of adjunct and even tenured professors wanting to leave. They feel professionally unfulfilled in academic positions because they are overworked, work in uninspiring roles, and/or are paid marginal academic stipends, fellowships, and wages.  Far too many PhDs are unable to find any meaning or joy in their academic careers, which negatively impacts both their professional and personal lives. Unfortunately, many of these PhDs end up…

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, I thought I could jump into my first industry position ready to hit the ground running. Much to my surprise, this was not the case.   During the first few months of my new position, I felt like I was drowning. Everything I thought I knew about my field, how research is conducted, and how companies operate was turned on its head. I was not prepared for this major shift, and it showed. I waivered between trying to impress my managers and sitting mute in meetings, intimidated by everyone in the room. If I had known what…

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Nothing could prepare me for the shock I received walking into my first industry onboarding experience. Literally, everything was different from what I had experienced in academia. The processes, the culture, the pace – absolutely everything. I also had no idea what onboarding meant. I heard the word tossed around but, to me, it was just the process you went through to get all the mandatory paperwork out of the way. That was so far from the truth. My first onboarding experience lasted almost 6 months. Yet, throughout that whole process, I had no idea that I was still being…

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

PhDs in the sciences and humanities are not qualified to work in finance or business. At least that’s what I thought. That was until I started hearing more of my former colleagues talk about their transition into consulting and financial service roles. These were people who specialized in very niche areas of science. I was surprised to learn that their skills were needed in the financial and business sectors of industry. What can a PhD in the sciences or humanities possibly contribute to finance and business? As always, it comes down to your transferable skills. These sectors are seeking highly…

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I was defending my PhD in 6 months, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do. What job did I want? Where did I see myself in 5 to 10 years? My goal was to get out of academia and into industry – and as quickly as possible. Beyond that, I hadn’t thoroughly considered my options. In fact, when I finally sat down to apply for jobs, I blindly searched for open positions using standard terms: “Researcher,” “Scientist,” “Biologist,” and so on. As a science PhD, that’s what I was qualified for, right? What I didn’t appreciate…

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

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

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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:  …

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, you may think that Research and Development is the only department in industry that hires PhDs. But the reality is, your skills are needed in every area of industry. That means that every single department within a company is seeking PhD-level candidates. In fact, there are five core industry career tracks that can provide PhDs with meaningful and rewarding work: Information and Data Management (this is a broad category that includes everything from Patent Analyst and Informatics Specialist roles to Medical Writing and Data Scientist roles), Research and Development, Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, Classical Business (e.g., Management…

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What industry position can I apply to? That’s one of the most common questions PhDs ask once they decide to leave academia. What you probably don’t realize is that you have many options when it comes to choosing a career. So, the real question is not what industry position you can apply to, but what industry position is the right fit for you. Which position better matches your professional lifestyle and career goals?  In previous blogs we’ve discussed how to establish your desired professional lifestyle and how to use it to evaluate your target career track and companies. In the…

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If your job search isn’t producing results, perhaps you’re doing too little. Or, just as likely, you’re doing too much… too much of the wrong things. You may think “If I just spent more hours of the day searching and applying for jobs, I’m sure to land a job eventually.” But investing more time into a job search without a strategy is time wasted. An effective job search strategy is one that conserves our most precious resource: our mental energy.   Protecting your mental energy is the one productivity hack that every PhD needs to get hired in industry. As…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.