We graduate a lot of PhDs every single year. Some would even say too many to accommodate the dearth of postdoctoral and tenure track positions in academia. According to a recent Nature article called “The PhD Factory,” even though “the number of science doctorates earned each year grew by nearly 40% between 1998 and 2008,” the vast majority of those science PhDs may never be able to take full advantage of their qualifications. And although the career paths and possibilities for PhDs are as diverse as they’ve ever been, the majority still strive for traditional tenured professorships, buoyed in part by encouragement from Universities and scientific research institutions that rely on graduate student and postdoc labor for publications and output. Unfortunately, “in 1973, 55 percent of PhD recipients had tenure-track positions within six years of earning their PhDs. In 2006, merely 15 percent of recent graduates found themselves in this position.” If you are reading this while you’re on your second, third or even fourth postdoc, you’re not alone, and are far from the minority. Some within the science community have proposed either reforming the system or shutting it down.
There is, of course, an easier path. Don’t do a postdoc. Or, if completing a very specific training or specialty is a part of your postdoc, don’t do a second one. The benefits of attaining a PhD are undeniable - from a unique, highly employable knowledge base and skill set to a high earning potential relative to college and high school degree holders. With research, creativity and organization, you can easily look into possibilities for a thriving career that doesn’t necessarily include a postdoc.
Here are several ideas:
Strong PhDs are always in-demand in the policy world, especially in disciplines where their experience, expertise and outstanding writing abilities can be applied to lawmaking and the important work of other non-government organizations. If you’re not sure whether you want to invest several years into a fellowship, I highly recommend the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship, run by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Often viewed as a precursor to other policy-related positions, the advantage of the Mirzayan fellowships is their relatively short length. At only 12 weeks, you can easily take a leave during graduate school or just after to see if you like it. A bigger commitment is the prestigious year long AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Encompassing a wide array of policy areas, including health, energy, diplomacy, global health and others, you could find yourself working right on Capitol Hill with the most important lawmakers in America. (If you aren’t currently in the United States, check to see equivalent fellowship opportunities in your country.)
With biotechnology and medical advances now impacting so many facets of our everyday lives, it’s pretty fair to say science has gone mainstream. Career opportunities in biotechnology law and patents have never been greater. Some companies will even hire you directly out of your PhD and subsidize law school while you’re working. Take a look at this tapestry of careers in patent law from different scientists to see all the different manifestations and possibilities the field entails.
Start Your Own Business
Do you have an amazing idea that you think would make a viable company? Are you naturally entrepreneurial? Why not try starting your own enterprise? Sometimes, none of the careers we’ve listed fit your skill set and ambitions. Especially if you have a biotechnology application or patented invention, you never know where it might lead. While not everyone will find the mega success of young Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook, there’s always room for a fresh new business idea, especially during times of recession.
Alternative Career Track
Analytical. Self-sufficient. Creative. Out-of-the-box. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe scientists. Rarely does a degree prepare you to succeed in such a variety of fields and job skills as the science PhD. In many ways, the critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and analysis you do transcends the specific discipline you study. There are a number of career tracks taking advantage of scientists in this regard, including finance, various areas of science writing (creative and technical), and analysts in government and the private sector.
Volunteer Services Abroad
Especially if service and policy are your areas of interest, there are a number of volunteer (and paid internship) opportunities you can take advantage of, including Doctors Without Borders, the UN (including the Peace Corps), Save The Children and other medical and science groups working abroad. Additionally, organizations such as the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, along with innumerable NGOs and not-for-profits all over the world are hiring PhDs from various disciplines, including public health, biology and biotechnology to help with global health efforts.
Just because career opportunities in traditional university settings may not be as fruitful doesn’t mean your PhD, and the skill set you earned, aren't as valuable as they have ever been. Whether your goals are to stay in the laboratory or beyond, use your PhD as a time to explore, and think creatively about all the career opportunities available to you in an era of true cross-collaboration and possibility.