Love Research? 4 Great (Non-Academic!) Research Careers for PhDs

You know that one scene in every action movie? 

The heroes are back at their base. They’re gathered around a big table, plotting how to break into the casino vault, volcano lair, Death Star, whatever.

They’re stumped. They got nothing. Suddenly, the smart one on the team, the “guy in the chair if you will, jumps up, runs over to the computer, and starts typing like mad.

After some intense clack-clickety-clack on the keyboard, they spin around in the swivel chair and announce: “I have a plan.”

Okay, so we all know research doesn’t really work that way. Hollywood gonna be Hollywood. 

But it’s cool, right? When we were kids, scenes like that made us want to become researchers when we grew up. That passion for research careers propelled us through college and straight into a PhD program.

Do you love researching things? Do you love being “the guy in chair,” deploying expert research and analysis to tackle life’s great challenges?

Are you a PhD student looking for non-academic research careers that will put your skills to good use?

Here we review 4 great non-academic research careers for PhDs of all stripes to consider. These include market research, SEO optimization, operations analysis, and research administration.

1. Market Researcher

Market researchers have one job: to study consumers and devise ways to influence their behavior.

As a market researcher, you help businesses understand, approach, acquire, and retain customers. Your clients might include:

  • Online startups
  • Small businesses
  • Retail chains
  • Major corporations

Wherever there’s a business looking to promote their brand, attract customers, and pull in new leads, there will also be market researchers.

Typically, market research projects have a turnaround time of a couple weeks. You’ll study market trends and interview people from key demographics.

Then comes “the pitch.” You present your research findings to stakeholders and propose marketing strategies to best reach their target audience.

Anyone interested in behavioral sciences, broadly construed, will find the tools and techniques of market research quite familiar.

Anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, or other PhDs who love researching people, communities, and cultures may also be intrigued by the possibilities market research careers offer.

What job titles to look for:

  • Market research analyst
  • Insights analyst
  • Market research interviewer
  • Marketing data analyst
  • Product research analyst
  • Qualitative research analyst

Essentially, any combination of “market” and “analyst” is a market research position.

2. Operations Research Analyst

WOW the name alone of this one is enough to put you to sleep, huh?

But in fact, operations research is a challenging and intellectually stimulating non-academic research job hiding behind a very boring name.

Operations research is the science of optimizing efficiency.

Operations analysts study labor requirements, distribution systems, and other aspects of the day-to-day operations of a business. They deploy research data to improve business practices, boost the efficiency of a workplace, and maximize cost effectiveness. 

More specifically, operations research careers might involve studying how to store and ship products, schedule airline flights or bus routes, organize an office, etc.

Put simply, an operations research analyst does whatever needs doing to optimize business efficiency. It’s a perfect example of a “problem-solving” job: a research job defined not by a fixed set of tasks but by a steady stream of new and unexpected problems and challenges to solve. 

Operations research analysts frequently employ data mining, statistical analysis, and mathematical modeling in their work. If quantitative analysis is your thing, give operations research a shot.

What job titles to look for:

  • Operations research analyst
  • Quantitative analyst
  • Data scientist
  • Analytical strategist

3. SEO Specialist

That’s Search Engine Optimization to you.

SEO is the art of calibrating website content to appear prominently in Google search results. SEO specialists research keyword statistics, look for keyword trends and gaps relative to competing websites, and revise web copy accordingly. The internet is ever changing, and it’s the SEO specialist’s job to keep up and ensure a website remains relevant over the long term.

SEO is sometimes used interchangeably with SEM, for Search Engine Marketing. 

SEO concerns organic website traffic—people who find your site through Google searches. SEM, by contrast, deals with paid website traffic—designing and placing online ads targeting specific audiences based on their search histories. While SEO and SEM are technically different things, many employers will expect you to do both.

Which academics and PhDs might enjoy research careers in SEO? Well, the interesting thing about careers in SEO is that they blend quantitative literacy and creative writing skills.

There’s a fair bit of number-crunching involved in studying website analytics and keyword trends. Following the keyword research, you then must write quality web content incorporating those keywords in a natural, readable way.

If you’re interested in getting some hands on practice with SEO, start a blog! Build a basic website and practice optimizing pages for target keywords. Use Google Analytics or SEMrush to track its performance.

SEO and content writing careers are closely related. For more details, check out our post on writing careers for PhDs.

What job titles to look for:

  • SEO specialist
  • Digital marketing specialist
  • SEM & SEO lead
  • Content strategist
  • Web content developer

4. Research Administration & Development

Research administration and development is the job of procuring funds, developing strategies, and building professional relationships that enable researchers to do their work.

Research administrators work at universities, corporations, government agencies, and anywhere else research is done.

So, basically, like a researcher’s wingman?

Well, kinda.

As you might guess, fundraising makes up a huge part of research administration and development. Research administrators identify funding sources, help procure funds, and manage every stage of the funding cycle.

However, this particular research career involve far more than mere fundraising. Here is a rundown of typical research administration and development responsibilities alongside plain-English, jargon-free translations:

  • Strategic research advancement: Figuring out what research needs to be done and convincing the boss to greenlight it. This also involves forging partnerships with other entities that might be interested in supporting your organization’s research plans. Whenever universities successfully collaborate on a single scientific research project, you have research administrators to thank!
  • Research communication: Managing the marketing aspect of research, from annual reports and magazines to web content, promotional videos, etc. As a research administrator, your job is to make the research visible to the public. God knows the researchers themselves aren’t going to do it!
  • Enhancement of collaboration: Or, in layman’s terms, people-wrangling. This means getting all the researchers and collaborators to play nice together. You coordinate various research groups, facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, organize symposia, and so forth.

As with operations research, research administration is very much a problem-solving type of research career. You’re not hired to do one specific thing. You’re hired to figure out what to do, and then do whatever it takes to achieve your goals.

What job titles to look for:

  • Research administrator
  • Research and development manager
  • Project manager
  • Research coordinator


No matter your interests and aptitudes, there’s a wide variety of research-focused jobs beyond the confines of your PhD program and academic field of study.

One shared trait among all these research careers is a heavy emphasis on problem solving. You’re not hired to do a single task. You’re hired to figure out what to do, and handle the myriad, ever-shifting responsibilities accomplishing those goals requires.

That’s the name of the game with research careers. They’re complex. They’re constantly changing. That’s why we like them.

Finally, if you’re wondering how to actually make the leap from academia to a gainful non-academic research job, please check out our recent posts on working in industry and PhD career opportunities in the private sector.

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