I specifically remember that feeling of aimlessness thinking about jobs outside academia.
I 100% believed people when they said that there were great opportunities out there for folks with Ph.D.s, and that I just had to find ones that worked for me.
It’s kind of like going to a new food court. There are a few restaurants there that you already know about and have heard good things about. Maybe you’ve even been to one before. But there could also be really great restaurants that make people really happy, that you’d like even more, but you just don’t know about.
That’s why you look at a list of the restaurants in the food court, understand the kinds of dishes they serve, think about what you’re in the mood for, and make an informed decision, right?
That’s similar to identifying industry jobs that are a good fit for you.
Now, the tips below aren’t going to work for everybody to the same extent, but they are all going to help you in some way or another to figure out what positions are really right for you. Some of them are things I did and found to be effective, and others are things I wish I did but I know in hindsight work well for others.
I know that we all get caught up in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives – research, meeting expectations, trying to keep our mental health afloat, and trying to stay physically healthy. Carving out some time for “introspection” might not sound that useful.
I know introspection can sound fluffy and vague, and perhaps can feel like it can be skipped for more “practical” steps and tips, but trust me, it’s worth doing, at least a little bit.
I wasted so much time and energy applying willy-nilly to jobs that I wasn’t actually that interested in because I was in a rush to get out of my lab. Literally, time and energy spent on resume prep, cover letter prep, interviews, anxiously waiting for results, all that.
The more you think up front about your interests and passions, the more accurately you’ll be able to pick out jobs that sound right to you and it’ll make the process so much smoother (even if you don’t get a particular job).
I mention this in my other post about how to get industry jobs with more overall tips, but this isn’t something you can do in an instant, or even an afternoon. It’s natural for your thoughts to process this decision in the background as you live your daily life, and it’s natural for you to change your mind a bit. Some may reach this decision faster than others. You will eventually land on a position or two that you’d be happy to get.
Job responsibility/role-related considerations:
- What’s your favorite part of grad school or your postdoc? I really enjoyed conferences. I also enjoyed learning about new things at a fast pace, particularly stuff about new drugs and diseases. These things made me realize I am curious, I am happy working with others, and I like communicating science.
- What would you absolutely dislike, or not want to do anymore? I hated that experimental results could be due to things totally outside my control and how slow the laboratory research process was – it felt really unfulfilling to me. I hated academic writing, with all the verbosity and antiquated words like “seminal” and “elucidated”. My former PI literally told me to pontificate when I was writing my dissertation! These things made me realize I should probably stay out of the wet lab and work in a more fast-paced environment that uses more practical writing skills than academic writing skills.
- What are some things you don’t mind doing? I didn’t mind giving presentations and reading papers. I was fine if those aspects were part of the jobs I was looking for.
- What do you enjoy outside of your main job of research? I tutored on the side for a few years in grad school. I actually wrote all about it in a blog post about my $500/month side hustle. I really enjoyed conveying scientific information in a simple manner for a practical purpose.
It’s starting to make sense why I got my Medical Writer job, doesn’t it?
Sit down and give yourself a few minutes to assess the above. Get your initial answers written down – doesn’t matter if it’s digitally or on an actual piece of paper. Then, go about your day and you’ll realize that you’ll still be thinking about those questions!
Having those questions in the back of your mind as you live your daily life will help you continue to identify other things you like, don’t like, and don’t mind. Continue to update the list when you have time. Not only is the list a useful tool for you to look at when thinking about job options, this exercise itself will help you be a bit more introspective and observant of your own interests and desires.
- Geographical considerations: Are you willing to relocate? Do you have a partner or children to consider when making this decision?
- Remote vs. in-person vs. hybrid: What work location/setup will help you feel the most comfortable and also thrive? Or perhaps you don’t have a strong preference; that’s okay too!
- Commute: Pretty self-explanatory as well. If you land a job in your current city, what will be the commute you can tolerate?
Even just thinking about the above in a very preliminary sense will help you get an idea of the boundaries and constraints you have regarding job options.
Also, once you start thinking about the above, when you get to the subsequent steps below, you will have a better understanding of what you want and can be more decisive, rather than asking yourself those types of questions in the moment.
2. Career flowcharts, blogs, and websites
Once you have an idea of what you like and don’t like, you can direct that information towards actually getting names of positions and roles that you might enjoy.
One of the first Ph.D. careers flowcharts/infographics I saw when I was in grad school was this one below, from The American Society for Cell Biology. The data is a bit outdated (like 10 years old), and it’s more bioscience-focused, but it was still informative for me at the time. My biggest takeaway from it and what made me feel good was that a lot of Ph.D.s went into alt-ac and industry positions!
There was one flowchart that I found extremely useful, and it’s from the career coaching site called Cheeky Scientist. They have a lot of amazing free resources on making that transition from your STEM Ph.D. to industry.
I didn’t pay for any of their services and don’t recommend any of their paid services simply because I don’t have experiences with them.
I honestly don’t think it’s necessary to pay for career counseling, just because there are so many great free resources out there.
What I really liked about the Cheeky Scientist flowchart was that there was color-coding depending on the type of role it was. I wanted something that had no travel associated with it and was in-house. You see “Medical Writer” near the upper right?
I also think this flowchart is great because it simply lists and shows a lot of the job types you can get outside of academia. Like, it’s a genuinely comprehensive list. I also love how it shows how they are similar and different by the lines and dots.
You can use it to get to a position or group of positions that you might be interested in, and then look up details using the tips below!
Blogs & Websites
There were a few really useful blogs and websites that I frequented as I was figuring my post-Ph.D. career options out. They are listed below and I hope you find them useful too!
- Versatile Ph.D. Career Finder
- The Grad Student Way
- Careers For Scientists Away From The Bench
- Top 10 List Of Alternative Careers for Ph.D. Science Graduates
- 11 Most Coveted Ph.D. Careers & Their Job Descriptions
So I didn’t network at all to directly land the job I got, but I did network during my Ph.D. and I got a lot of really valuable insight from those conversations. Yes, one of the people I networked with was a Medical Writer and that got me really interested in that role – and that’s what my job turned out to be!
Networking doesn’t have to mean you reach out to people you don’t know at all! I can guarantee you that you have a network already. It’s just that you either don’t recognize it, or haven’t used it much.
I already have a blog post about the most essential people you should connect with during your Ph.D., and some of them are about networking!
The reason I mention networking in this list of tips on how to figure out what role you should go for is because you want to hear from people who have been through the process and have roles in industry to get the best insight. They will give you the most up-to-date perspectives on various positions in industry, unlike your advisor or other faculty in academia. You can also ask them if they know of people who are in other positions that you might be more interested in!
Here are my tips on easily finding people to discuss industry/alt-ac positions with:
Your graduate program
You can hit up people who are further along in the program than you, and ask if they have considered industry or know others from your program who have graduated and gone into industry. I met these folks on campus, of course, but I also spent time with them at conferences.
Your school’s career center or graduate student center
These tend to have events and services geared towards students and workers who want to enter industry. There could be career panel seminars, resume workshops, and mentorship programs.
When I was in grad school, I attended a few of those career seminars that had panels of alumni who were medical science liaisons, medical writers, in regulatory affairs, etc. That’s where I learned about what the day-to-day is like for those kinds of industry jobs and the skills that are required of them.
I also took part in a mentorship program that connected current grad students with alumni in various industry positions. I chose someone who was a medical writer and we had 3-4 Zoom calls where I pretty much just chatted with them and got to know their lifestyle, job role, responsibilities, etc.
One of the people I talked about careers with was a faculty member who I randomly sat next to at a departmental lunch before the pandemic.
We all introduced ourselves casually as we were eating, and she said she came from a huge government policy think tank and was an assistant professor now. I thought that was really interesting (the think tank part) and I wanted to ask her more about her career experiences. She was sitting right next to me at the table so I chatted with her a bit, and then at the end of the lunch I got her email so I could contact her about it.
We set up an in person meeting and I got to hear all about her career! She basically did her Ph.D., then a postdoc somewhere else, then got the job at the think tank, and then became an assistant professor at my school.
I’m a Redditor, and I was lamenting on a random casual chat thread about how I was having a hard time finding a job and that I was finishing graduate school. People were super nice and I was able to set up conversations with 3 users who either have a spouse who was in my position or they themselves had gotten their Ph.D.s and were in industry. It was really great talking in a more casual way with people who had gone through similar experiences. It was over private messaging so it was easy to talk to them and there wasn’t as much pressure as Zoom or in-person meetings.
This also worked really well on Twitter and I hear it’s also possible on LinkedIn. People on social media can be really helpful if you are in the right niche and communities. It doesn’t hurt to reach out, so try it out! People are generally pretty friendly and like talking about themselves. Also, it’s flattering to be asked about how you’ve gotten to a place that’s envied by the asker.
Networking can sound intimidating but it doesn’t have to be! The colleagues and your career center are great places to start to look for networking opportunities. I personally don’t have any experience using LinkedIn to cold-message people, so I can’t speak on that personally. But I hear it’s also very useful!
Like I mentioned above, talking with people who are currently in industry doing jobs that are adjacent to or exactly the type of job you want to get will give you great insight and help you narrow down your list of potential positions.
4. Knowing company & organization names
Once you’ve figured out the general category of jobs that you want, you can further inform yourself by identifying major companies and organizations that employ people in that role.
For example, one of the jobs that I was genuinely interested in and got through a lot of interviews for (before getting my current job as a Medical Writer) was a Support Scientist position. They are found at pretty much any life science research supply company that sells research tools and reagents to researchers.
I thought about the experimental techniques that I was the most comfortable with, and also companies I’ve purchased stuff from. I came up with a short list of companies that I could potentially work for!
Sure, thinking of them on your own works, because I’m sure you’ve ordered supplies and reagents from many companies during your Ph.D. and postdoc. You can also look at websites that literally rank the best companies in fields you’re interested in. Here are some great sites to start with:
You need to make a free account but Glassdoor is in the top tier of career information and job search tools.
Glassdoor is very useful in that you can look up information about job roles, fields, interviews, salaries, and so much more in the same site. You can even find information about the top companies for a specific sector in your area.
Start off at the home page and search “Biotech”, and set the city to whatever you’d like. Say, San Francisco. Then, hit “Search”. You’ll see a list of all the Jobs available, and then you can switch to Companies to see the top relevant companies in your area.
Another way you can explore specific companies and see lists of companies is to go to the home page of Glassdoor and click on “Companies”. From there, you can scroll down to “Explore Sectors”. Select “Biotech” and you’ll be able to narrow it down from there!
This site is similar to Glassdoor but focused on just the biosciences. Here’s their list of the hottest biotech companies of 2022.
You can also go to the top menu and click on “Hotbeds”, and then “See All Regions”. You’ll be taken to a list of pages that tell you all about the hotbeds of biotech in various areas of the U.S. If you click on any of the hotbeds, like Biotech Beach, you can see the exact list of top companies in that area, along with information about average salaries, bonuses, and number of people in the industry in that area. It’s seriously the best site to see all the biotech companies ranked and sorted by geographical location!
Here are some direct links to geographical areas that are heavy with biotech opportunities you might be interested in:
- BioMidwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin)
- Biotech Bay (San Francisco Bay Area)
- Biotech Beach (San Diego, Southern California)
- Pharm Country (Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island)
Familiarizing yourself with the biggest names in the industry that you want to go into will help you look at job listings in a more informed manner. You’ll not only be able to recognize those company names when they pop up, you’ll also start to notice and assess other companies that might be up-and-coming (and not at the top of the lists on Glassdoor and BioSpace) that are worth checking out as well.
5. Reading real job descriptions
This one is pretty straightforward, but reading job descriptions from actual job listings is very informative. This is where you get the most details and an actual sense of what companies look for in their applicants for those roles you are interested in. Whether that’s the degree you should have to be considered, the experiences you are required to have, the techniques you should know, soft skills they want to see in you, etc.
You don’t have to apply to any unless you feel ready! Just reading them casually will give you so much to go off of when you’re thinking about how you can refine your resume and decide what to mention from your grad school and postdoc experiences.
I mainly used LinkedIn and Indeed to actually search for jobs. Having an account is super useful because you can save jobs that sound interesting and you can also track your application progress through those sites.
The job I got was listed on Indeed!
Other Job Boards
There are a ton of more niche job listing sites out there for the types of jobs you’re looking for. Here are a few more job listing sites that I didn’t necessarily use but are out there!
- Nature Careers
- Science Careers
- USA Jobs
- Your state and city government’s job boards
- Your own university’s job board/other local universities’ job boards
- Job boards/”Careers” pages on the websites of companies you’re interested in, based on the above research
It’s definitely daunting to transition from the sheltered silo of academia into the bigger world of industry jobs. Starting off, you might feel a bit aimless. It’s hard to know what to do to identify the jobs that are a good fit for you when there’s just so much out there and you don’t know where to start.
I’m not a career coach or anything, and I’ve only looked for jobs in industry for myself, but if I were to give any tips to my past self and my friends in academia, I’d give them these tips above.
They’re condensed below into 3 key points:
- Knowing your passions, skills, and what you wouldn’t mind and would mind doing in your new job will help you start off on the right foot in terms of identifying the types of roles you’re best suited for.
- Using free tools like career flowcharts and websites like Glassdoor, you can begin to name actual positions that you’d like to have, at companies that excite you.
- Finally, reading the descriptions of actual job listings (regardless of if you’re applying that day or in the future) using job boards will help you get an even better sense of what you can include in your resume and cover letter to appeal to the recruiter.
This is definitely a process. The earlier you peruse this kind of stuff, the better of an idea you’ll have of what roles to go for and that can help you design your resume and tailor it to fit those roles.
Good luck out there, and let me know how it goes on Twitter!