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Top 5 Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

From the time I started graduate school, there was only one point in the future that I could focus on: the finish line.

I was swept up in my own expectations and also caught up in what I thought was expected of me. But something I hadn’t given much thought to was what I actually wanted to do.

I was about six months away from defending my thesis. That’s when I started to give some serious thought to what would happen after I added the “Dr.” to my name. It’s when I began to admit to myself that academia was not what I wanted anymore.

Just coming to the realization was a real feat. After all, doing anything other than professorship had never been in the plan. But the challenge I faced after that settled over me felt 10 times more impossible: what do I do now?

What job did I want? Where did I see myself in 5 to 10 years? What kind of person am I even like outside of academia?

Even if I did know, vaguely, what I wanted to do, I’d never had a “real” job. What was I going to put under “experience”?

I fumbled blindly on job boards like Indeed and LinkedIn. I searched for terms online like “top PhD careers” and “what can I do with a PhD?” but the results seemed bland and vague.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t the only unprepared PhD to try and pursue a career in industry.

The Perfect Job Title Doesn’t Exist

When it comes to your job search, the temptation is to hold out for the perfect job title. PhDs leaving academia, in particular, are already fed up with working in an environment they don’t like. They’re desperate not to repeat this same cycle in industry. So they look for a role that’s almost as specific as their degree.

There’s a problem with this. Can you guess what it is?

You aren’t in that equation at all – just your skills and your career. That job search strategy leaves no room for your personal tastes, strengths, or preferences. It’s the seed of a career that is already doomed to wither and die.

Smart PhDs know you should start your job search by considering the professional lifestyle you want.

Think about whether you would have signed on to a life in academia if you knew what you know now. A love of learning does not mean you have a passion for being mistreated, unvalued, and underpaid.

So why would you jump into industry with that same naive outlook? You need to consider who you are to determine what you’re meant to do. What type of environment do you want to work in? What kind of values are important to you? Is pay more important to you, or a convenient location?

First, you want to determine the kind of lifestyle that you want. Once you do this, you’ll be able to target positions that align with that.

That’s what you should be doing right now: Find companies that match your ideal lifestyle first. Then find the best-fit job title at that company. Only then, once you’ve chosen a company you like, will you find the best-fit job for you.

Ask Yourself Lifestyle-Focused Questions To Find The Right Career Tracks

Don’t ask what you can do with your skills, experiences, and degrees. Instead, look forward. Ask yourself what activities you want to do on a day-to-day basis.

Then ask which companies are most likely going to allow you to live out that kind of lifestyle.

After that, ask yourself what the best-fit job at this company is right now. After all, they can’t consider you for a job if you don’t get your resume in for a position they have open.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you enjoy doing most?
  • Would you prefer to work in-office or remotely?
  • Are you open to traveling for work?
  • Does working with data sound preferable to you than writing all day?
  • Do you like spending a significant amount of time in meetings?
  • Can you see yourself developing new products or improving existing products?
  • Do you play a role in selling products or services?
  • When it comes to teams, would you prefer small and independent or large and collaborative?
  • Do you see yourself working in the private or public sector?
  • What kind of career growth are you hoping to achieve in the years to come?
  • Is salary important to you? What range are you looking for?
  • Does interacting with clients, stakeholders or regulatory agencies sound appealing to you?
  • Do you enjoy leadership roles?

Cheeky Scientist’s industry career guide for PhDs has a color-coded wall chart inside. If you print this or look it over online, you can see careers that appeal to your lifestyle and compare them at a glance. Feel free to use this to generate a few ideas about where you will fit best in industry.

5 Career Tracks Any PhD Can Transition Into

Your PhD has prepared you for many different careers in industry. You just need to know what those careers are called. Once you know your career options, you can contrast them with your desired lifestyle. From there, you can establish which positions you want to target in industry.

There are five core industry career tracks that every PhD should consider:

  • Sales And Marketing
  • Research And Development
  • Information And Data Management
  • Clinical, Medical And Regulatory Affairs
  • Business, Finance And Policy

These are the areas in which Cheeky Scientist has seen PhDs find fulfilling careers. They are also careers where PhD qualifications are in high demand.

1. Sales And Marketing

Sales and marketing career tracks are right for PhDs who want to communicate product information, build professional relationships, and engage in client-facing activities.

PhDs are in high demand for sales positions across all industry markets. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies, in particular, are seeking PhDs for their technical expertise. Your ability to learn complex systems will be highly valued in this role. Also valuable is your ability to communicate knowledge effectively to an audience of stakeholders, investors, and customers.

Sales and marketing positions are a great place to start your career in industry. Why? These roles allow you to establish and maintain professional relationships with researchers, healthcare professionals, and other business entities. Sales and marketing roles open doors that other jobs simply can’t.

In this career track, you’ll work with finalized products that are ready for commercialization and will have to display your client-facing skills. You don’t need to be a convincing salesperson or have a background in commission-based sales. In fact, most PhD-level sales and marketing professionals don’t actually sell anything at all.

This niche includes positions like Application Scientist, Product Manager, and Technical Sales Specialist. Many of these roles involve demonstrating how to use a product to your customers. You may also find yourself explaining a product’s value to buyers, or helping developers apply information about a client’s problem to inform product design. It’s an exciting and diverse career field that offers room for growth and some of the highest pay scales in industry.

2. Research And Development

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

Coming out of academia, you may have extensive research experience. Keep in mind, though, 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. 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.

There are many more positions to explore in this career track, however. For instance, you could become a liaison between universities and businesses in industry as a Technology Assessment Manager positions. The responsibility of the Technology Assessment Manager is to promote new technologies and facilitate the out-licensing to prospective industry partners. Even though this role is located at academic institutions, it is an industry position.

Another position that’s growing in popularity is User (UX) Research. UX Researchers study how the end-user interacts with a company’s product. They also identify ways to improve the overall experience, making the product more intuitive and satisfying for the consumer.

And that’s just two careers. There are many more, such as Quality Control or Project Management, that keep PhDs close to research and innovation without relegating them to a life chained to the bench.

No matter what branch of R&D interests you the most, your technical and transferable skills are an asset employers who are looking to out-invent and out-perform their competition.

3. Information, Aggregation, And Patents

Do you want to learn about, write about, edit, analyze, and patent the latest innovations? In this industry career pathway, that’s exactly what you’ll do. You’ll also be a steward for information related to these innovations. When PhDs approach me worried that they won’t make a difference outside of academia, this is the path I encourage them to explore.

The work that needs to be done is diverse. It can be divided into three sub-career tracks: intellectual property, communication, and information and data management.

Intellectual property deals with new inventions, proprietary information and discoveries. You’ll help companies register and protect their innovations so they can make them profitable. This track includes positions like Patent Examiner and Technology Transfer Officer. PhDs are a great fit for these roles because of their ability to understand technical subjects and experience with research.

Communication is a field that’s perfect for those who want to deal with written data. This includes positions like technical writer or editor. This position centers around communicating complex information to laypeople. From user manuals to product specs to press releases and advertisements, writers and editors help market and generate interest in a product.

Information and data management is a great career path for PhDs who are interested in extracting insights from numerical data. Roles in this concentration include Data Scientist and Business Analyst. This sub-track is a good fit for you if you like to dig through information – research and analyze existing data, draw conclusions, and come up with actionable steps based on those analyses.

4. Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

Most PhDs think that a career in the area of healthcare or medicine is reserved for MDs, but that’s not true. PhDs who want to have a positive impact on humanity – specifically the health and longevity of humanity – are qualified for roles in these sectors.

PhDs can choose from a variety of roles under this industry niche. In the clinical sector, there are positions such as Clinical Trials Project Manager, Clinical Research Associate, and Clinical Data Manager. These positions may have you organizing and overseeing clinical studies or trials, reporting on clinical trial information and medical histories, or analyzing data to find patterns that can point to new treatments.

In the medical affairs arm of healthcare, PhDs are hired into two careers most often: Medical Science Liaison and Medical Affairs Associate. If you enjoy working with people, you might be a good fit to connect your company with doctors and hospitals to teach them about a new drug, treatment, or medical device and how it can best help patients. Positions in this field for PhDs focus on supporting the medical community and ensuring they make the best use of your company’s products.

Working in regulatory affairs is a great fit for PhDs who want to specialize in a specific niche of industry. Regulatory departments are found in all sectors of industry – medical technologies, medical equipment, implanted devices, biotech, and food science, among others. In positions like Regulatory Affairs Specialist, you’ll help hold companies responsible as they innovate and create. You will be a trusted advocate and educator, ensuring that the company complies with all necessary legal and safety regulations.

5. Business, Finance, And Policy

The last career track to consider is business, finance, and policy. This pathway is a good fit if you want to analyze and solve business problems, understand business numbers, or influence scientific and business policy. PhDs are skilled analysts and can offer unique insights into classical financial and business problems. Jobs in finance and business are generally in-house, data-driven, and lean towards the commercial side of operations.

This broad career path comprises three sub-career paths: financial services, business and strategy, and research policy, funding, and government. In these fields, PhDs will find many opportunities to make significant contributions in the public and private sectors.

In financial services, you’ll be solving current problems faced by the financial sector. Financial companies are looking for people with a diverse skill set beyond numbers as technology spreads to this field. Science PhDs are particularly sought after by institutes that work with biotech and biopharma companies – they need people that understand the industry and can make sense of the science-based data. This path includes positions like Quantitative Research Analyst and Equity Research Analyst.

Working in business and strategy, you’ll find yourself solving classical business problems. While MBAs have historically monopolized business positions, nowadays, PhDs are increasingly hired into these roles. PhDs have strong technical backgrounds and are used to solving complex problems. If you’re a problem-solver at heart and are interested in solving classical business problems, you’ll be at home in business. Popular positions for PhDs include Management Consulting and Business Development Manager.

If you’d like to influence scientific and business policy, research, policy, funding, and government might be the sector for you to explore. Roles in this broad field include Science Public Policy Advisor and Grant Facilitator. If you choose this path, you’ll probably work for or in close proximity to the public sector. Because results and not necessarily profits are the bottom line of focal and political advocacy roles, creativity and problem-solving are prized commodities. Teams are often small, which means your ideas are valuable and will likely be acted on.

Concluding Remarks

Each sector of industry brings its own challenges and rewards. Just because you land a job in industry does not guarantee that you can kiss your woes goodbye. You need to find a job that aligns with your desired professional lifestyle to ensure job satisfaction.

Start your job search by determining what your ideal work day and week look like. Going into your job search with a strategy in mind will help ensure you find the absolute best fit for you. Don’t just jump into your next career blindly – consider what’s really important to you and why. Learn from your disappointments in academia, and don’t repeat those same mistakes.

Once you have determined which of these career tracks suits you best, turn to individual positions and explore these in greater detail. From there, focus your job search on positions that make the most of your unique skills and interests. This is the best and only way to make the significant contribution and achieve the professional satisfaction that you deserve as a PhD.

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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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