When I was in grad school, I didn’t know any of these jobs existed. I pretty much had no idea where to even start looking when I was considering jobs outside the university. I knew I didn’t want to stick around to become a professor or run a lab, and that I always wanted to get out into the real world after I got my Ph.D.
I also knew that I didn’t want to just keep doing labwork and research even after leaving academia, so jobs in R&D like “Scientist” at biotech and life science companies weren’t really up my alley.
If you read my blog, you know how my job search went – I hadn’t figured out the whole “industry job search” thing by the time I defended, so I had to stay on as a postdoc in my Ph.D. lab while I figured out what I wanted to do next (I go into month-by-month detail on my entire job search timeline in my Job Search Timeline post).
I eventually got my current job, with the title Medical Writer, about 5 months after defending my Ph.D. It’s going really well by the way, and maybe I’ll write about that in another post so you can get a sense of how work is like!
Looking back, I wish I knew about these 7 really cool jobs that life science Ph.D.s in the U.S. can totally get. Now, they may not all sound great to you, and that’s okay. Getting a job in industry is all about fit! So even to me, they aren’t all my ideal job, but they are all incredible roles that I don’t think people really think about when they first start considering industry jobs while they’re in grad school or their postdoc.
This is really just a list to help you get started on that self-exploration and introspection journey that will help you identify 1 or 2 types of roles that you’d want to pursue. I’m not an expert on any of these jobs, so see this list as a starting point for you to do your own research on any that sound interesting to you!
If you want a more in-depth guide with my tips on figuring out which jobs are the best fit for you, here it is: 5 Ways to Identify Stem Industry Jobs That Are a Good Fit For You
1. Technical Support Scientist
Support Scientists usually work for life science research supply companies and help the customers who purchased their products. They do things like troubleshoot, answer questions about how products work, etc. They don’t have the responsibility to sell the products; they help the paying customers after purchase. This work is usually done over phone, chat, or email.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just some basic call center role. This isn’t just any role that can be filled by someone that has a biology degree. You need plenty of research experience and the roles that I considered and interviewed for all required doctorates or at least a Master’s.
This was a role that I was seriously considering and was actually applying to when I was applying for jobs. This and Medical Writer were the 2 roles I was going for! One role I was interviewing for at a major sequencing company (want to take a guess?) had a salary that started at over $90,000! I got my current job so I didn’t continue with that interview process.
You can learn about Support Scientist roles by thinking about what companies you’ve purchased reagents from or have used machinery/tools from, and seeing if they have Support Scientist roles – you’d automatically be qualified to do pretty well in the role if you have experience with their products! Even similar companies would be worth looking into. For example, there are multiple sequencing companies, imaging companies, and cell culture tool companies. By reading job descriptions on company websites and job boards, you can get a sense of what they look for in someone applying for those roles.
Here’s an example of a video that describes this role at ThermoFisher, and it’s named “Technical Applications Scientist” – they have slightly different names but the gist is the same!
2. Field Application Scientist
A Field Application Scientist (FAS) is like a Support Scientist but they are expected to travel and go to various customers’ sites to help them use their products. You may have had FAS come to your lab during your Ph.D. or postdoc to help install new research tools like a qPCR machine, FACS machine, or confocal, and then teach you how to use them. They also usually do maintenance of those products.
FAS positions are really popular for fresh Ph.D.s and I think they are great for setting up your career to become a Medical Science Liaison (mentioned below!) and go into other roles that require experience working with customers and communicating product information. The fact you can become really familiar with certain products and have a lot of experience communicating face to face with clients can make you really valuable down the line at other companies.
If you don’t mind traveling, have a few technologies or techniques you enjoy, and want to help others do research in person, it could be a really great way for you to start your industry career. Here’s a great video explaining how one person got their start as a FAS for Qiagen.
3. Medical Writer & Editor
Here’s a great description of what a Medical Writer does from the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA):
Medical writing involves the development and production of print or digital documents that deal specifically with medicine or health care. The profession of medical writing calls for knowledge in both writing and science, combining a writer’s creative talent with the rigor and detail of research and the scientific process.What is a Medical Writer? From American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Website: https://info.amwa.org/ultimate-guide-to-becoming-a-medical-writer#what_is_medical_writing
Medical Editing is related, and they say this about Medical Editing:
Medical editing—like medical writing—is also a diverse profession. Medical editors are crucial members of the medical communication team and are tasked with multiple quality‑assurance roles, including: Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, copyediting to make writing accurate, clear, and smoothly flowing, ensuring correct and consistent data across texts and graphics, and ensuring that the content and its organization comply with the appropriate guidelines and standardsWhat is a Medical Editor? From American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Website: https://info.amwa.org/ultimate-guide-to-becoming-a-medical-writer#what_is_medical_writing
As you can see, they are both involved in the preparation of materials that go way beyond just scientific papers!
The writing style depends on the product you’re making, and you can get a sense of that below by looking at this list of some of the products that Medical Writers/Editors make, courtesy of the AMWA site mentioned and linked above:
- Abstracts for medical journals and medical conferences
- Advertisements for pharmaceuticals, devices, and other products
- Advisory board summaries
- Continuing medical education materials
- Decision aids for patients
- Grant proposals
- Health care policy documents
- Health education materials
- Magazine and newspaper articles
- Medical and health care books
- Medical and scientific journal articles
- Marketing materials
- Poster presentations for medical conferences
- Regulatory documents,including FDA submissions
- Sales training
- Slide presentations for medical conferences
- White papers
So many, right!? They also get into types of companies that hire Medical Writers/Editors and the skills you should have as a Medical Writer. I highly recommend looking through that website, and definitely the main link I shared above. Here it is again! AMWA Website: Ultimate Guide to Becoming A Medical Writer
As for my experience: The reason I wanted to become a Medical Writer was because I’ve always loved writing and conveying scientific information, but I didn’t want to do academic writing anymore – I hated it! I wanted to learn about various drugs and diseases, anything related to human health, really, as I’ve always had a passion for that, and combine that knowledge with my passion for writing to help people IRL.
You don’t have to be the best paper writer out there – I didn’t have a first-author research publication (and still don’t). What’s more important is that you fulfill the needs of the role that you’re applying for.
LinkedIn has a great Medical Writer group that I joined, and I’ll link here so you can join and explore the topic further! It’s called the Medical Writer Network: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/2104990/ It has career opportunities, insights from people currently in Medical Writing, and lots of posts that help you understand the breadth of the field. You might only be able to see it if you have a LinkedIn account…if that’s the case, this is your sign to make one!
4. Scientific Associate/Consultant
Consultants, or management consultants, provide advice and expertise to other businesses. Consulting isn’t just business, money, and marketing stuff! Ph.D. scientists are really sought after by a lot of the top management consulting firms, like McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, and Bain. Here is a list of the top Pharma & Life Science Consulting Firms in the U.S. as of 2021: https://www.consulting.us/rankings/top-consulting-firms-in-the-us-by-industry-expertise/pharma-life-sciences
The skills that you gain in your Ph.D., such as project management, problem-solving, critical thinking, and consolidation of large amounts of information are really useful in the consulting role. Of course, your technical knowledge of your field or research topic can be helpful too, but get out of the academic mindset that your knowledge of your research topic is the most important thing to help you get you hired.
Consultants are known to work really long hours and travel a lot, which is why I didn’t spend too much time and energy trying to get this type of job. But it definitely depends on the job description, and that isn’t always the case. For some people, it could be a really fulfilling and interesting role.
Here’s a great article by Science Magazine that outlines some of the key things to know about management consulting in life sciences. It also has descriptions of 2 people who went from STEM Ph.D. to becoming a consultant and a lot of links to resources like how to find companies and interview tips: https://www.science.org/content/article/science-careers-guide-consulting-careers-phd-scientists
Here’s a video with a life sciences consultant at a large firm based in the U.S.!
You can also look up job listings for scientific associate consultants! Searching things like “scientific associate consultant” and “scientific consultant” should show you current job listing results in your area so you can learn more about what they look for.
5. Medical Science Liaison
Medical Science Liaisons (MSL) work for biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies. They cultivate and maintain relationships with the people who use those products, usually physicians and scientists, at organizations like clinical research sites and hospitals.
They aren’t sales people in that their interactions with the customers aren’t driven by the need to make a sale. It’s to understand what the customer needs and how their product fits into that, with a lot more scientific discussion.
MSLs make a LOT of money. In the U.S., the average salary is around $160,000 and you will easily get over $100,000 in your first role as a MSL. They require good communication skills, technical understanding of the product, and the ability to keep up with the technology and literature surrounding it. The position also requires travel.
I remember going to a career seminar during grad school and seeing a MSL on the panel. They said that they started out in Sales and then became an MSL after 1 year. I think that’s a great way to get into the MSL career if you can’t get the MSL role right out of grad school or a postdoc.
What’s also great about the MSL role is that unlike some of the other roles in this list, it’s really easy to search for MSL positions because it’s hardly ever phrased or named as something else. It’s almost always just “Medical Science Liaison”.
This site outlines what you need to know about the MSL career in detail so I highly recommend you take a look! https://www.biospace.com/article/medical-science-liaison-jobs-the-best-kept-secret-in-the-life-sciences-industry/ They even have a direct link to their job board and listings for MSL positions.
There are plenty of great videos on this topic too, so here’s one from Abbvie:
Here’s a Q&A with someone who went from a Ph.D. in Pharmacology & Toxicology (worked in rodent models) to a postdoc in behavioral pharmacology and psychiatry, and then straight into an MSL role in CNS & psychiatry:
6. Scientific Sales
Some scientists may want to enter the world of sales after getting their Ph.D. This role can also be referred to in other ways, such as “technical sales” or “technical sales scientist”. If you are drawn to a role that interfaces with customers who are scientists and other medical professionals, enjoy the wins of closing sales and having goals & quotas to work towards, sales might be for you.
Having a Ph.D. is going to really help you stand out amongst applicants because you bring a lot of research experience and expertise to the role that’s going to look really good to both companies and customers.
Things to watch out for when you apply for Sales roles is to make sure they provide proper training and that they have a guaranteed base salary rather than a salary that’s all commission or majority commission.
Sales positions can be “inside sales”, or “field sales”. Inside Sales positions don’t typically travel or meet customers in person, and are positioned remotely or in-office. Field Sales representatives are, as the name suggests, in the field selling products and services to customers face-to-face.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed in 2020 that the median “Sales Engineer” (someone who sells complex scientific and technical products) salary was around $108,000 in the U.S., and that the job market is growing! It’s definitely a lucrative position if you are good at what you do and enjoy the challenges of sales roles.
Some ways to learn more about Sales positions are to connect with people who are currently in Sales positions on LinkedIn, reach out to Sales people that have actually sold you things in the past when you were doing research, and read job descriptions from companies that you may be interested in working for.
7. Museum Scientist
Scientist positions at museums are not very common, but I thought I’d mention it in this list so you could see that you could do a lot of cool stuff with your Ph.D.!
For example, everyone on this page that works as staff scientists for The Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA has a Ph.D.: https://www.exploratorium.edu/about/staff-scientists
One of them wrote an article about her experiences moving from academia to the museum setting: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3814140/
If you have any museums near you that you enjoy going to, or have heard about as being really awesome, it’s worth checking out their career pages to see if they have any job openings.
I’m not an expert in any of these jobs, even the Medical Writer role that I just started. The point of this list was to help you realize that there are lots of roles out there for people with life science Ph.D.s that aren’t lab-based!
If you found any of them to be interesting, I recommend looking into them further by:
- Reading real job descriptions/listings on company websites
- Reaching out to people with those roles on LinkedIn to see if they’d be willing to do an informational interview with you
- Joining professional groups on LinkedIn that have members who are in the jobs you’re interested in, like the Medical Writers Group
- Seeing if your university or institution has programs that can connect you with alumni who have gone on to have careers in those positions you’re interested in
- Checking if anyone you know IRL, like your family, friends, doctors, dentists, and even neighbor has someone in their life that is in that field.
Realize that a majority of people who get Ph.D.s don’t stay in academia and find their way into cool jobs like these, in industry! It’s totally normal to not want to become a professor, run a lab, or have anything to do with universities once you get your Ph.D.
What’s important is to look for positions that interest you and learn about them as soon as possible. That way, you’ll be more prepared to create resumes for, interview for, and succeed in the type of role that you’re interested in.