What Can I Do With My
STEM PhD?

Do not limit yourself to academia

Many STEM PhDs transition into postdocs after completing their degree requirements. It’s common for PhDs to report pressure from their advisor and fellow lab members to follow in their footsteps.

Before pursuing a postdoc, you may want to consider whether it is the best path for you. Exploring career options will help you discover which roles fit your circumstances, interests, values, lifestyle, and goals more closely.

Explore career options well-suited for STEM PhDs

There are many alternatives to postdoc research. You are not limited to bench work!

Take the time to understand industry positions that are trending to find a position that you would enjoy.

Here are five career options to consider.

1. Science Communication

If you are a skilled communicator and love to disseminate STEM research findings to the general public, a career in science communication may be a good career option for you.

Science communicators work in a variety of roles including:

  • technical writer
  • medical writer
  • scientific journal editor
  • press officer
  • science journalist
  • director of communications

Be aware that breaking into this field may be challenging.

To prepare for a career in science communication, get as much practice writing and speaking with non-technical audiences as you can.

Here are some ideas to start:

  • Learn more about the specific industry in which you would like to work (e.g. health tech). Read white papers and industry reports.
  • Read STEM news extensively in a variety of fields.
  • Get involved! Volunteer to manage a social media account for your science lab or local science museum.
  • Follow the #Scicomm and #sciparty hashtags and build a professional network on Twitter.
  • Consider attending a Communication science workshop, such as ComSciCon.
  • Develop a portfolio of articles and social media posts to show potential employers that you are able to communicate complex ideas to lay audiences. You may want to post your articles on your personal blog where you can brand yourself.
  • Practice interviewing others to gather information. Listen to science podcasts to sharpen your skills.
  • Find out if your professional association offers media fellowships.
  • Consider entering a columnist competition or other science writing contest.

2. Project Manager

As a STEM PhD, you might have experience managing large-scale, complex research projects from start to finish. You likely had to train undergraduate or Masters students either in your lab or as a teaching assistant. You wrote grant proposals and managed a budget. All of these skills are essential to the project manager role.

Project managers solve problems and seek to increase the efficiency of processes. If you love optimizing systems, multitasking, team work, and resource management, project management may be a good fit for you.

Industry project managers set timelines on projects, manage budgets, coordinate teams, and break down tasks into defined work cycles.

They’re also valuable assets to companies as they help projects stay on schedule and within budget.

You do not need project management certification to enter the field, but you may want to become familiar with the Project Management Institute (PMI) resources to learn industry terminology. Do make sure to learn about project management software and processes. LinkedIn Learning and YouTube have a wealth of resources on the various workflows (e.g. Agile).

3. Entrepreneur

As a scientist with a PhD, you may already hold a patent. Perhaps you have published groundbreaking research that has the potential to disrupt an industry.

Technical skills combined with business know-how could lead you to start your own company as an entrepreneur.

Base your decisions on data and facts, not speculation — you are a scientist after all.

Before launching a business:

  • Conduct market research. Think about what problems your device, product or service might solve.
  • Test your hypothesis with more research. Find out what pain points your potential customers have. See if your idea answers this need using prototyping research methods.
  • Uncover your potential competitors. How is your idea different from theirs?
  • If there is a niche market waiting for your business solution, prepare a business strategy.

Many large cities have startup hubs. Connect with your local Chamber of Commerce and start networking with other entrepreneurs.

4. Management Consulting

As a STEM PhD you have honed problem-solving skills that could help you land a position at a management consulting firm. At certain companies, such as the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), up to one fifth of consultant hires come from advanced-degree candidate pools.

Consulting firms are segmented by industry (e.g. retail, health care, energy, pharmaceutical). Large firms may have broad portfolios whereas boutique firms specialize either in a specific industry or in a subset of industries. Think about your strengths and consider your interests. If you are starting out in this career, you may want to target larger firms as they tend to have more training resources for entry-level consultants. Consultants who work at boutique firms generally have at least a few years of experience under their belt.

Having specific subject matter expertise in a given industry is desirable. However, consulting firms are not as interested in your specific domain knowledge in STEM as they are in your approach to solving problems. Firms seek candidates who can think analytically and who can handle ambiguity.

A successful management consultant should also work well in teams and have exceptional communication skills. The best consultants know how to ask the right questions, gather data, and synthesize large amounts of information into actionable insights for their clients.

The typical consulting interview uses the case interview format, which may be unfamiliar to most STEM PhDs. You may want to practice this format as a way to see if you would enjoy this type of work, as the case interviews reflect the type of work you would be doing if hired.

Surprisingly, business knowledge is not required, though you should learn some business concepts, terminology, and skills before applying to positions. Firms usually provide any additional training that is required for the role.

Consultants do travel frequently, though the amount of travel can vary depending on the project and job. On-site consultants might expect to spend a whole week away from home on assignment at the client site.

Be aware that consultants tend to work long hours. A 60-hour week can be the norm due to a culture of constant feedback and deadlines.

5. Data Science

If you are highly skilled in statistical packages and programming languages, data science may be the ideal field for you.

STEM PhDs working in data science roles warn people considering this career path to expect some amount of culture shock. Not only is the pace of industry research faster than academic research (projects can span weeks or mere days), you may face experimentation challenges due to limited time and budgets.

What matters in industry is the end result, and sometimes that means compromising statistical power or settling for smaller sample sizes. Some PhDs may find it challenging to run experiments outside the controlled environment of an academic lab. For example, you may not be able to control for extraneous variables or conduct random sampling.

Science PhDs who are skilled at presenting to non-technical audiences will perform well in this field, as data scientists are required to explain the data they collect to decision-makers. They also have to convince stakeholders to apply their research findings.

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