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Alternative Careers For Scientists

What happens when you finally get the degree you worked so long for and then realize you really don’t want to spend the rest of your life in the lab?

Or if you get tired of working long hours with few results and low pay or you succumb to any of the other reasons that might put you off being a scientist.

One option is to hang up your lab coat and move into something else… and there are a lot of great options for people with a science background and post-graduate degrees that lead to rewarding and lucrative careers.

Here is a list of career paths you might consider if you ever decide its time to leave the lab. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but might give you a few ideas:

1. Technical Service

Technical support involves interacting with scientists over the phone to trouble-shoot problems with products or even to provide a scientific consultation on general experimental strategy and design. Since you are not face to face with other people, it makes for an easy transition for an introverted scientist in moving to a more outgoing profession. Many opportunities exist to grow in your career within a company if you want to move up the corporate ladder. Just be prepared to answer the phone 30-40 times a day and, once in a while, be berated by a customer.

2. Product manager/marketing

Product managers are responsible for taking care of a product from birth to discontinuation. The job has many responsibilities so fits best with people who are highly organized, can multi-task and lead teams. The main goal of a product manager is to make money for the company. You accomplish that goal by numerous marketing activities (advertising, attending scientific conferences, promotional giveaways, etc.), by building new products that people want and by making sure that every product is available working perfectly when received by the customer. The salary is generous but be prepared to work no less than 12 hrs a day and be under constant pressure to increase revenues.

3. BioTech Sales Representative

Who is that person who comes to your door and tries to sell you everything from tips and tubes to kits and instruments for PCR? Its your friendly neighborhood sales representative. Most, if not all sales people in biotech, have worked in the lab and some even have PhDs. If you take a minute to talk to your biotech sales rep, you will see that their true purpose is to make sure you have everything you need (from their company!) to be a success. But your success is always paramount to their sale. Of course there are those who are under intense pressure to make a sale to the point where they push too hard or some are too green in their career to understand they are trying to sell you something you don’t use. But overall, they are a bright and hard-working group of people who want to excel at their job by helping you excel in the lab. The income you can make in sales can be very high but so is the pressure to meet the revenue targets assigned to you.

4. Field Application Scientist (FAS)

The FAS role is often a perfect position for academic bench scientists looking to move into industry. The FAS is called in when a key customer is interested in purchasing a new product or is having trouble getting one to work. Working in the customer’s lab the FAS will demonstrate how well a product works, troubleshoot problems with a product or teach the lab how to use a complex instrument. The FAS may also install instruments or robotics and maintain their proper function.

The FAS travels frequently because they are assigned large territories and will need to stay at an account sometimes up to a week. Part of their role is to build solid friendships with the labs they support while helping their company win (or keep) a new account.

5. Business Development

Business development is a very exciting role that involves growing and shaping the scope of a companys’ business approach. This can mean making technical collaborations with other companies, bringing in contract work or licensing in or out technologies through to deciding on mergers and acquisitions.

Typically, this requires an MBA degree in addition to a science background but working your way up through the company ranks is another route. Business development requires a strong mix of technical knowledge and marketing experience. The person should have a good feel for the changes going on in the market and what might be the next hot technology or area of research. Your advice can have a big effect on the decisions the company makes so expect high stress and pressure.


6. Manufacturing Quality Assurance (QA)/Quality Control (QC)

The process to take a product from the research phase to market requires the ability to produce it on a large scale. You’ve successfully formulated the buffers and the procedure for a new kit in the lab. Now try building 500 of them and make sure they work exactly as good as the single one from the lab.
Or try scaling up protein expression and purification to make liters of enzyme and keep it soluble.
Or try making liters of competent cells, bearing in mind that if the efficiency falls below a set number and then you have to start all over again.
You get the picture!

Manufacturing requires precision, perfection, and focus. Manufacturing scientists do everything from production, to the QC. Depending on what the product is used for, the QC can involve complex techniques like real-time PCR, cloning, or enzyme activity assays. Manufacturing is not a glamorous job but it is critical to the success of the company because if manufacturing can’t keep up, it can cause huge losses in revenue and customers.

7. Technology Transfer

Technology transfer involves finding ways to commercialize technologies developed in the public sector (universities or government agencies). It is like the academia equivalent of business development and requires many of the same skills. Tech transfer jobs can be found either in the public institutions themselves, in companies who routinely commercialize technologies that originate in the public sector or in non-profit technology transfer organizations. Further information on working in technology transfer can be found here.

8. Science Copy Writing

Copy writers produce the copy (the written material) for marketing  products or ideas and is a great position for people who like to communicate science through writing. If you work for a biotech company as a copy writer, you would be helping product managers to communicate their message to the market about a product via a print ad, email blast, banner ad, webpage or a flyer. Copy writers and product managers work together to perfect the message before the copy goes to design for layout and imagery. This position really accentuates your creative side but be prepared to have to deal with cranky stressed out product managers.

9. Medical/Technical Writing

Another type of science writing is technical writing, which includes writing handbooks/ product manuals and application notes. This uses less of the creative side and more of the ability to communicate exactly how something should be done. If the protocol is not clear, it is the problem of the technical writer (and the product manager). More info on working in medical and technical writing is available here.

10. Science Journalism

And yet another type of science writing is science journalism. Science journalists produce content for newspapers, magazines and websites (just like I am doing now). You can either work freelance or as a staff writer, employed directly by the publication. Either way, the competition is tough. The best way in is simply to start writing and trying to get things published. You can get some additional info on science journalism here.

If you are looking to start out in science journalism, Bitesize Bio is a good place to start. Contact us for details on writing an article for Bitesize Bio!


11. Scientific Illustration

If drawing, rather than writing, is your forte then scientific illustration may be an option. Although opportunities in this field are limited, they do exist. Breaking into this field is like scientific journalism- you just have to start drawing and try to get your work noticed. Here is a great Science article on carving out a career in scientific illustration.

12. Recruiting/Head-hunter

Recruiters help companies to find suitable candidates for job openings and can work for independent recruitment consultancies or for a company’s in-house HR department. This type of job requires an out-going personality and the ability to develop a great network for candidate searches. Having a science background will help you know when a candidates skills match are a good match for an employer, but the competition for good candidates is high and part of the job is being a nudge.  Typical recruiters call or email at least 10-15 times before they accept a “no” answer!

13. Teaching

Some people are born teachers and in this case, high school teaching can be a great option. Aside from the joy of teaching (assuming it is a joy for you), the holidays are great and the pay can be pretty good too. The downside is working with teenage kids, which is an unenviable task if you ask me! Here is good article on moving from the lab to teaching.

14. Patent examiner

Patent examiners are employed by the government to review patent applications and decide whether they should be granted. Typically this involves searching literature and patent databases to determine whether the application is innovative and meets the requirements for a patent to be granted. Get more info on the role of a patent examiner here. 

15. Patent Lawyer/Attorney

Patent lawyers operate at the other end of the patent application process, working for clients who wish to file and maintain or need guidance with any aspect of patent law. This is a very well paid career, but is also high pressure and requires both scientific and law training. The level of training required to become a patent lawyer varies from country to country. More details about the qualifications required to become a patent lawyer can be found here.

If you have any other ideas, are thinking of leaving the lab… or you have already done so, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in a comment.

35 Comments

  1. Md. Sadequr Rahaman on June 15, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    I want to be a CEO of a multinational company. for instance, in audi or in google. Does the Ph.D degree needed to become a CEO such this company. I am looking forward to your feedback.Thank you in advance.

  2. Akshay on April 23, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    I am doing MSc photonics am interested in technical field and marketing field I not interested in research I need make good money within Short time anyone give me a suggestions? about my carrier which one should I choose

  3. DJ on March 16, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    I have a PhD in microbiology, did post-doc and started working in industry for the last 2 years. One thing I realize about my self is that as much as I love science, I love and crave interaction with people even more. I am tired of working with scientist, who are introverted, lack communication skills and always have headphones on. I am trying to transition to more “support” and costumer facing roles. Anybody feel the way I do? Tired of unsocial scientists dragging your positive attitude down?

  4. Shani on January 10, 2017 at 11:04 pm

    Thanks! Great article and useful comments

  5. Christopher Haggarty-Weir on June 23, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    Also Venture Capital as many firms are interested in highly talented STEM Ph.D holders with a solid technical background in their field of expertise. You should look into doing the level 1 CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) if you want to go into this. However, there are very very few jobs, so you really have to make yourself stand out. That said, if you do make it, the pay is eye wateringly huge.

  6. Arielle on May 15, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    Hi,

    I graduated 3 years ago with a B.S. in Biochemistry. I had trouble finding a job, but when I finally found one, I found that it was too stressful. I worked in a lab as a laboratory technician and was working with so many dangerous chemicals. Now I am completely confused about what I actually want to do with my life. I still love science and want to do research but it seems near impossible to find a research job that doesn’t include working in a lab. I don’t have that much experience and don’t want to give up science, but I don’t know who to talk to. Is there anyone out there that has gone through this? Or is there anyone who can give me advice about what jobs I can do that don’t involve working in the lab? I am very creative, artistic, and am pretty good at writing. Please help!

    • Walker on June 6, 2016 at 1:12 am

      Hi Arielle,

      Your story is real similar to mine. I graduated with my BS a few years ago and decided to work for a while before starting grad school. I found the job marketplace much more competitive than I thought, and having been a recent graduate, I lacked the work experience that many companies were looking for. I did get work as a technician, but I spoke to many professors who all emphasized the usefulness of having graduate education (masters or phd) to be both a good resume builder and better prepare me for the workforce. I’m working on my masters right now and am considering going into tech transfer, so I was able to secure a paid internship with the tech transfer office at my school to get work experience.

      However, if you have absolutely no desire to go to graduate school, then it might be time to ask yourself what kind of jobs can you get that require nothing more than a BS (jobs that are more advanced than a basic lab technician usually require many years of experience without a graduate degree).

      If you think that you are artistic and good at writing, then my recommendation is to look into career paths such as tech writing (I know that they describe it in this web page, but nevertheless). A great way to look into career paths is to get in contact with people who know more about scientific careers away from the bench (the career office at your alma mater is usually a great place to start). Also, talk to as many people as you can find who have scientific training but aren’t “scientists” per se. This actually is a great day and age to be getting away from the lab bench.

    • Jenny on September 7, 2016 at 1:00 am

      You are not alone! I have so many successful offers from good companies and I turn it down due to health reasons and working with 12 M acids daily is stressful. We will prevail. Now I know why no one wants to major in chemistry lol

  7. Linda on November 14, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Hi!
    I’m sort of in a limbo situation. Im a microbiologist, (10 years) and in the span of 2 months, recently, I was my company liason to a high profile company in an industry they were struggling to break into. Obtained information, scheduled meetings, provided marketing strategy and information and got my company onto the vendor list and landed them a contract that would potentially double my company’s revenue for the year. What is my position exactly. Do I continue on with my title as ‘microbiologist’ ? I analyze, but at the same time, I’m conversing with our new client, doing research, obtaining information and developing a marketing strategy for obtaining work with our new client. Marketing isn’t even in my job description.

    What am I exactly? How should I proceed?

  8. abeer30 on May 8, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    I need help, I worked as a clinical lab technologist for about 5 years, and a senior lab analyst for 3 years, I left my career for more than 10 years now for personal reasons, I ‘m trying to go back to the field in a nice new suitable way, I feel it is very tough, I’m about 45 years old now, do you have any ideas might post me?

  9. syeda on July 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Great article..Thank You. I’ve just completed my Bachelor’s in Biotechnology. I’m also very much interested in getting into television with science related issues. How do I go forth with it??

  10. djr677 on March 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks Suzanne, this was VERY helpful!

  11. priya on May 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Hi to all,
    I did my Biotech degree and not trying to find a suitable career. I don’t like to work in lab and has no creative skills. I am not suitable for marketing as well. Could someone help me with some suggestions please. I would also like to know more about information specialist in molecular biology. What postgraduate course do I have to do? In which places can I find job opportunities? What would be the salary range? Please someone help.

  12. Michael LaRocca on March 5, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Years after another commenter, I’ve got to agree that medical/technical writing is still a fine and fulfilling choice. I’ve been at it for 10 years and counting.

    • Divya on December 10, 2015 at 9:39 pm

      Thank you for sharing Michael! I am a masters student in molecular biology and would love to hear more about your work as a medical writer. Would you be interested in answering a few questions over email? I am considering career options outside of academic research and would like to be more informed about alternative fields like science writing.

  13. Collin on March 4, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    What about options for someone who doesn’t want to go on to get a PhD? I wouldn’t mind putting in the effort, but it just seems really inefficient to spend 5+ years learning how to do lab research to go into a career where you don’t use lab research skills. I’ve looked at some biotech masters programs but you loose the distinction of having a PhD. Most of the biotech patent lawyer jobs want someone with a PhD even though, IMO, the technical knowledge doesn’t extend that much farther than a person with an MS.

    • Suzanne on March 5, 2010 at 12:17 am

      Hi Collin,
      It is true that getting the PhD does give you an edge for some positions. Are you interested in science but just can’t stand the lab? With a masters you can go into marketing, such as product management or technical writing. You might consider getting an MBA instead and then you would be in a good position to apply for marketing positions at major biotechs and get a higher salary than the average product manager.
      If you are a people person, you might consider biotech sales. Life science companies need people who know the lab and the protocols and can recognize equipment in the lab so communication is better.
      If you are interested in public health and communicating science to the public, there are some good programs in this area where you can have a role in educating non-scientists and making policy on issues that affect public health.

  14. Suzanne on February 16, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Hi Tiffany,
    Like Nick, I also did not have first author publications after my PhD, due to circumstances beyond my control, but, it has not been a problem at all in having a career in biotech. Hard work, being motivated, and good networking count for a lot.

    • Meera on June 15, 2011 at 8:23 am

      Hi Suzanne

      I have published only one research paper till now and have no research articles to my pocket. I have tried to get my articles published in a reputed journal. But there has been no success till now.

      I have stopped trying now. Will it harm my career as a researcher?

  15. Tiffany on February 14, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Do you still have these options with no first author publication after graduate school (Ph.D)

    • Nick on February 16, 2009 at 9:14 am

      @Tiffany. Definitely… In my experience, publications are only of vital importance for an academic career. I didn’t publish anything from my PhD (it’s a long story) and it didn’t cause me any problems getting hired in biotech or in my current job in publishing.

  16. Derek on January 11, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Other extremely viable paths include consulting (Management & Strategy or technical), regulatory at FDA or biopharm, Medical Science Liaison, Student Affairs (i.e running a postdoc office)…also several IT firms recruit scientists as project managers to liaison between government/biopharm clients and software developers

  17. Deepak on January 4, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Great post. As someone who (after a couple of years as a scientific programmer at a startup) moved into product marketing, I highly recommend it, especially if you have a people person. Depending on the nature of the position it’s a great training ground for marketing, bizdev, strategy (what I do now) and you’re always close enough to the technical side that you can move back into a technical track later if you so desire.

  18. ivo wortman on January 3, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    I know a few folks who left the lab to do grant review work for NIH or private grant agencies and know *of* some folks who work closely with angel investors or venture cap firms as reviewers.

  19. Suzanne on January 3, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Hi Blaine,
    Thanks for sharing. That’s great feedback.

    Carrie- your job sounds interesting and fulfilling. Thanks for letting us know about that option.
    Suzanne

  20. Amy on January 3, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    Great post, Suzanne. The one area where I feel that my undergrad education was lacking was in career guidance. I knew that I loved the life sciences, but I also knew that I didn’t have the patience for research or the temperament for medicine. I lucked into a job in tech support (your #1) straight out of my undergrad, worked my way up to product management (#2), and am now one semester away from completing my MBA. Thanks for pointing out some great science career options.

  21. Eriko on January 3, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    How about if you are interested in television (for example discovery channel or PBS?) Does anyone have advice on how to break into this kind of field where one may be interested in the production of science related tv shows?

  22. David Crotty on January 3, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Well, there’s a lot more to science publishing than just writing copy and journalism. Many of us have found fulfilling careers as editors, both in the world of journals and in books.

    Also, if anyone is interested in pursuing a non-academic career, we’ve just put out a book that gives you the lowdown on hundreds of types of positions available in the biotech industry. More info here:
    http://www.cshlpress.com/link/career.htm

  23. Carrie on January 3, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Another option not mentioned is to become a science librarian, or take it further and become (as I did), an “Information Specialist in Molecular Biology”. Instead of being the one to sit at the bench and endlessly repeat in situ hybridizations, now I get to help all kinds of bench scientists by offering them bioinformatics support (via classes, consultations, and a website). Every day is different, and my weekends and evening are free! (BTW, I have a PhD in Neuroscience and a Masters in Library Science.)

    • Natalie Clairoux on April 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm

      Just like Carrie, I perform similar functions in an academic Health Sciences library. I was a research assistant for 15 years in various molecular microbiology labs. My M.Sc. degree in Microbiology-Immunology is still useful today!

    • Meera on June 15, 2011 at 8:15 am

      Hi

      Please provide me the qualifications required to become a “Information Specialist in Molecular Biology in India” as I have completed my bench work (Ph.D. in Biotechnology) waiting for my Ph.D. defense.

      I am recently working as a Senior Research Scientist in a R & D.

  24. Blaine on January 3, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    I left the lab for law school to become a patent attorney. I am currently a second year law student. It was a very difficult decision, but I haven’t regretted it once. And from what I’ve read, most scientists tend to do very well in law school.

    • Jan on November 10, 2015 at 5:13 pm

      Hi Blaine,

      How was your transition from the lab to law school? Did you gain experience or shadow a patent attorney? I currently work in a clinical and don’t want to work in the lab in the long run.

    • Elma on August 4, 2016 at 7:35 am

      I read that someone won’t need a law degree to become patent attorney! How true is it?

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