I have a PhD, now what?

When I was still in graduate school, as part of the student council, we organised a career workshop that coincided with the school’s orientation for new incoming PhD students. We invited an academic professor, a safety manager, a medical school lecturer, a sales and marketing professional and a team leader from big pharma, to speak on a panel and share their experiences. Overall, I thought it went well. We received good feedback from the students and even the invited industry speakers seemed to enjoy themselves. So I was surprised to hear some weeks later that the academic professor did not quite take to it. He believed the career workshop was wrongly timed and should not have occurred during the orientation of new students. Apparently because they should be focusing purely on science, career prep can come in the third or fourth year perhaps.

Wow, I thought. Really? It is true that the basis of a PhD is about extending scientific knowledge, but surely one has to acknowledge a PhD is a huge investment of personal time and money in lost working years. Not giving any thought to what career options lie after a PhD before even starting one seems pretty reckless to me. Yet it is what many students do. Many are clueless about what opportunities and paths lie in the road post-PhD. Many enter a PhD program hoping to become academic professors, not knowing only 10% of all life science PhD students get assistant professorships. So three full years can be spent being fully absorbed in one’s scientific project. You might become really good at growing cells, performing western blots, doing PCR, but so does everyone else. And when it comes down to applying for jobs, your cv lies indistinguishable in a pile of 70 other cvs from PhD graduates fighting for that industry job so they can get out of the seemingly never-ending post-doc position.

So no, I do not think we should be waiting towards the end of our PhD to decide one’s career. I think every PhD student should go into doing a PhD with their eyes wide open to the risks and opportunities. Below are various fields/positions that a fresh PhD graduate or even a post-doc with a few years experience can undertake.

  • Field application scientist/Sales
  • Senior Scientist (in a pharma/biotech)
  • Entrepreneur
  • Medical scientific liaison
  • Scientific writer
  • Product development
  • Business development
  • Regulatory affairs
  • Consultant
  • Government/Public policy
  • Patent law/IP
  • Technology transfer
  • Venture capital
  • Non-profit organisations

Of course, it may not be so easy to penetrate any one field. But being aware of the options help. And spending some time self-reflecting on what sort of job would suit you, and talking to people in these fields, would definitely arm you with the knowledge of what skill sets to develop during and after your PhD! I did not list academia though of course, it is an option. So before doing that next experiment, perhaps spend some time reading about these jobs. It is interesting to know for example that Medical Scientific Liaisons earn very high salaries (if that’s how you roll), but they require good knowledge on clinical trial organisation. So it might help to choose that PhD project where one gains knowledge on how a clinical trial is run with good access to patients and doctors. Or if you are interested in patent law, having the experience of applying for a patent or interning at a patent office might be of more relevance to you. Or if you want to be a scientific writer, get that writing experience by contributing to your weekly school magazine or starting your own blog. Taking actions like these not only help reveal if you really like doing something, but also make you stand out from the crowd when it comes down to job applications. So be proactive and yes focus on your science, but do not lose sight of your career.

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