As you come to the end of your undergraduate life sciences degree, you will ultimately be asking yourself, what next? Fortunately, there are many life sciences career paths you could take, and the hardest part may be choosing one.
If graduation is just around the corner and you have no idea what you’re going to do next, don’t panic. Yes, let me repeat, it will all be OK.
Whether you’re planning to continue your education or jump into the workforce, take some time to consider your future. Depending on the type of person you are, the time you’ll need may range from a few days to a few years. Both extremes work, but your next move will vary depending on where you lie on the spectrum.
School’s Out…for Now at Least: Alternative Life Sciences Career Paths
Soon you’ll have your new and shiny diploma and you’ll be left with some choices to make. If you’re not feeling graduate school, or you at least need a break before furthering your education, here are some life sciences career options you might want to consider.
Right off the bat, don’t be afraid to start by looking for an internship. Internships can be a great way to transition into regular employment by strengthening your resume and providing a sneak peek into a particular research environment.
Maybe you really want that genetic engineering position working with mice, but you don’t have an engineering degree or mammalian research experience.
An internship is a great way to get that experience and prove that you’re driven to learn. Or maybe you’re curious about life at a biotech/pharma company. Here’s your chance to get a taste for the job, make valuable connections, and learn new transferable skills for your next job.
Industry vs. Academia
If you’re not interested in an internship and you’re planning on pursuing a traditional life sciences career, the first two things that usually come to mind are industry and academia. While finding a position in the biotech/pharma industry is extraordinarily competitive, the average compensation is on the higher side.
Competition can be stiff for industry positions because usually, BSc and MSc graduates are competing for the same or similar spots.
Landing a job as a research technician in academia is relatively easier but the compensation is usually less. However, working in academic labs may look attractive to those trying to break into a new research field, garner strong letters of recommendation, or make connections at a particular university.
An alternative option would be to check out research hospitals, which tend to be more of a hybrid of industry and academia (leaning one way or the other depending on the institution).
If you’re not ready for graduate school but plan on attending eventually, don’t feel bad about taking some time for yourself. Graduate school of all kinds takes serious motivation and if you’re mentally exhausted from attaining the degree you just got, it’s probably best you take a breather before trying to get your next one.
Taking time off from an academic life science career is a great way to see what it’s like in the real world, experience adulthood, pay off any debts, and gain some perspective on life with new responsibilities. By taking time off, it shows that you’ve given some thought to your future and that your next steps are well intended.
If you know you’re ready to take your education to the next level and you’ve given yourself time to complete the application process, let’s talk about graduate school. Assuming your undergraduate degree is in the life sciences, there are three common ways to move forward.
Master of Science (MSc)
An MS degree usually runs for 1–2 years and includes formal coursework as well as hands-on research experience. Some schools offer a “fifth-year master’s” program, which is basically a year-long continuation of your BS including graduate coursework and often a research component.
It’s a great way to sharpen your skills in a particular scientific field while gaining an edge in the workforce.
Compared with a PhD program, the entry requirements are less competitive, the time commitment is much shorter, and in most cases, you’ll be responsible for funding.
If an MSc is not crucial to your future career, it may be hard to justify the financial investment while other options, such as PhD programs, are available. Side note: if you’re looking to branch out into business or law, getting an MSc before an MBA or JD can be an excellent combination that will set you up for a promising career.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arguably the most attractive aspect of a life sciences PhD program is that most are fully funded (at least in the United States). If you’re accepted into the program, many schools guarantee fully covered tuition as well as a yearly living stipend.
A PhD in science is often regarded as the most comprehensive training in scientific discovery. After 5–7 years of a combination of advanced coursework and original research, you’ll have established your ability to perform science at the cutting edge of human knowledge.
Obviously, a PhD will open many doors; however, it is not for everyone. It takes serious motivation, commitment, and the ability to finish successfully and, due to the hypercompetitive state of grant funding, even the most advanced degree will not guarantee your dream job.
However, if you hope to become a professor, principal investigator, or high-level scientist in industry, a PhD is pretty much a required part of your life sciences career path.
Master of Business (MBA)
If you love science but still want to express your business savvy tendencies on a regular basis, you might be interested in attending business school. Some are surprised by the fact that you don’t need a BSc in business to attend some of the best graduate business programs in the country.
In fact, business schools seek out science majors who often have the most developed critical thinking skills of all students. If you started as a science major and your true calling is business, know that the transition is well within your reach.
Off the Beaten Path
Some people enjoy science, but the traditional life sciences career paths are just not for them. If you find yourself in this category, don’t worry. There are plenty of alternative jobs for scientists available to people with a strong background in science.
Some job roles are more common, such as those in science communication or talent acquisition, while others are a bit different, and you could find yourself becoming a brewing scientist or winemaker. Cheers!
We’d love to hear about the steps on your life sciences career path in the comments.
Originally published July 13, 2016. Reviewed and updated on December 22, 2020.