Throughout your academic journey, you will find yourself panicking about what you should do next. This is totally normal. Everyone does it. You wish you could look into a magic 8-ball and get an answer to the ultimate question: “What should I do with my life?” Don’t worry you are not alone, most people don’t have a clue what they are doing with their lives. If you do, congratulations! However, if like me you have never been sure what to do, perhaps this will give you some hope or inspiration. Here are some alternative careers I have rounded up from people who have left academia and are now living their best life.
The most obvious route for anyone leaving academia is to try moving into industry. It offers more conventional working hours and better contracts than academia. Win, win. A similar route you can try is working at a startup company. One of my old PhD chums is now managing diagnostic research at an epigenetics startup in Cambridge. This was a tricky role to get into, most companies want you to have some management experience so coming straight from a PhD is pretty much impossible. To get this experience she worked her way up. Starting off with a job she was unsure of (working on the science curriculum) to get the project management experience other employers were looking for. The good news is that the skills she gained in her PhD have not gone to waste. Things like time management and problem-solving are invaluable for this type of job. Now she has meetings with people all over the globe; the hardest part of her job is remembering which time zone her next conference call will be in.
The sales extraordinaire
Science sales isn’t for everyone; you need that cool charismatic persona that I do not possess. However, if you do have it, run with it. Scientific sales can be quite a scary career transition – sales reps aren’t always thought of highly. I have known a few people move into science sales but one, in particular, was born to sell. He has the gift of the gab. A certain je ne sais quoi. He admits he was apprehensive about making the move over to sales – having spent 7 years progressing down an academic path that wasn’t for him. Now, he could not be happier. He still gets to do the things he loves, like discussing scientific ideas and current research. However, now he can do this with a reliable steady contract and, between you and me, the money is pretty damn good. If you can communicate well, then sales might be the job for you. All those networking and presentation skills you gained during your PhD can still be put to good use. And why not get a company car and phone at the same time?! I know I would.
This is predominantly from my own experience and I currently sit in an office surrounded by science writers who used to work at the bench. It is a common phenomenon. I did a science PhD and a postdoc – only then did I decide to leave academia. So don’t worry, it’s never too late. When I was doing my PhD I was always writing for blogs or entering writing competitions (with no success). Writing was always something I actually enjoyed doing so moving into a science writing career was a no-brainer for me. I still get to read current research and keep up to date with science. But now I can be a bit creative at times and write some articles which will hopefully make people laugh. So far, it’s a pretty sweet deal. If you think you could thrive in the world of science writing, I would try to get as much experience as you can. All experience is good experience. Write blogs, write for your institute’s Facebook page, write whatever you can! It can all go on your CV and it will give you the edge over other candidates. You can thank me later.
If you are a quick thinker and enjoy problem-solving then maybe consultancy is for you. You don’t have to go into science or pharma consultancy just because you have a science degree. You can also think outside the box. One of my friends finished his PhD in molecular biology and then moved into telecommunications consultancy. He now spends his day telling a major telecommunications company how to get their sh— *ahem* stuff together. And the people that work there aren’t all stereotypical consultants – styled hair and full of themselves. They’re actually really cool people. The best bit, instead of having one never-ending, eternal project, ie a PhD, he changes project every 3–6 months. Keeping things fresh and exciting. One thing to bear in mind is that you will have to wear a suit every day. But don’t worry, he tells me there are excellent YouTube videos showing you how to correctly iron a shirt. He is now averaging three shirts per episode of the Big Bang Theory. Nailing it!
For most people, the idea of finishing a PhD then going back to study medicine would be terrifying. Making a life choice like that takes some real grit. However, I can assure you that for some people it can and does work. I know such a person with the cojones to make this jump and she is now loving life. The financial aspects of this decision can be troubling – no more lavish holidays. On the bright side, she will soon start a second career as a doctor, leaving the job insecurity and serial short-term contracts of academia behind her. On the less bright side, there is the inexhaustible list of obscure illnesses and their treatments to learn. But the best thing for her is the patients she meets. Being able to help someone is a fantastic feeling. And it’s not like all those years of PhD study have gone to waste. Doctors keep up-to-date with the latest treatments, so knowing how to critically read scientific papers is very useful. And even the long hours of fiddly dissections will give her an advantage if she moves into surgery. The take-home message from this is if you really want to go back and study, just do it! It might be the best decision you make.
The football enthusiast
That’s right, you can move from a career in science to coaching a football team. No, I am not making this up. A guy I know went from a PhD, to working in scientific innovations in Silicon Valley to the executive director of coaching at a premier league academy for kids. If you are thinking, “Well that seems like a big leap,” you would be right. He started off as a volunteer coach and worked his way through his coaching badges. Soon he was given a chance to coach full time. It all paid off. Now he gets to do what he loves and watch the kids that he coaches to develop and learn, which is incredibly rewarding. He still uses many of the skills he gained from his time in academia including project management, critical thinking, and leadership. Now the hardest thing about his job is learning to call it soccer rather than football. So there you have it. If you have a passion in life then maybe just go with it. It could work out for you too.
The wine guy
Everyone loves wine, right? Of course they do, it’s brilliant. But have you ever considered making a career out of it? One of my friends finished his masters in scientific research and thought, “You know what? This is not for me.” He now works for a wine merchant in Australia and, as you can imagine, it is freaking awesome. He does not miss science at all. Again, this was not a direct career move. He started off studying as an artisan baker and progressed into a wine and cheese bar. He naturally had concerns that he would not be using his science degrees anymore, however, he was so interested in food that he just didn’t care. No more failed experiments. No more late nights in the lab. He still uses a lot of the skills he gained in academia. Approaching problems methodically and evaluating source information before trusting it – something science really drums into you. He is now living the dream. Except for having to explain to his family why he switched career. But who cares. Wine!
I should emphasize that there is of course nothing wrong with staying in science. We need scientists; they do an amazing job. However, if you do find yourself in a situation where you think, “Hmm maybe this science stuff isn’t for me,” don’t panic. As you can clearly see you are not alone and I guarantee* it’ll be totes cool whatever you do.
*obviously I can’t “guarantee” anything, but, hey, good luck!
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