What can you do with a science degree besides research?

Mar 03 2006 Published by under Mailbag

A reader asks me to dig up a post he thinks I might have written about various careers, other than research careers, that one might pursue with a science degree. As far as I know, I haven't written a post on this subject (although maybe he has a time machine and is remembering it from the future ...).
It's a very good question, though! Especially since one of my slogans is "Your major doesn't need to be your life path," I believe that science majors can do many, many things in the world of work (just like philosophy majors, only with fewer incredulous looks from bystanders).
But, it's been a long time since a science major who wasn't looking to become a philosopher has asked me for career advice. I'm a little rusty at this particular question.

"Check the internets!" I thought to myself. I found the chemistry department website at my alma mater and discovered:

What Does One Do With a Chemistry or Biological Chemistry Major?

just as unlinked to anything as it is right here. Is it a Zen koan? A dire economic worry? Probably just an indication that there's a FAQ being written right now!
In the meantime, here are some options off the top of my head:

  • Science teacher. It might require additional schooling to get certification, but goodness knows we need more science teachers who are psyched about science rather than afraid of it.
  • Technical writer. Having a knack for explaining complicated things clearly is definitely an asset here. There are some companies (especially in the tech and biotech sectors) who hire their own tech writers. There are other tech writers who work freelance.
  • Science writer/journalist. Having journalists who have seen a scientific field from the inside, and who knows how to communicate with scientists as well as with laypeople, probably means the audience can get a more accurate story about the science. This is another case where more schooling may be useful, if not required.
  • Policy guy. There's a lot of science to understand to do good public policy. Most, but not all, of the scientists I know who are doing policy got public policy degrees after their science degrees.
  • Hands-on science-demo guy at a science or tech museum. (Note that "guy" is non-gender-specific as far as I'm concerned.) Probably it's good to like people for this one.
  • Lawyer. Patent law, especially, draws in lots of people with science backgrounds. Law school is a must, of course.

And, of course, there are all sorts of non-research jobs at science-oriented companies (in sales, public relations, managing scientists, etc.).
I am leaving many possibilities out. I turn to my readers who may be science majors in non-research jobs: What do you do for a living? Does your science degree help you do it? Would you recommend it to others? What other cool jobs have you seen people with science majors doing?

Comments are off for this post

  • Bill Hooker says:

    Law school is a must
    Not really. I think it's actually more common for someone who started out in science to get in-house training with a patent firm than to take a full law degree.

  • ColoRambler says:

    ...Web software development. I've been doing this for the last 6 years now, after a pretty disastrous postdoc. In other circumstances I might have just moved on to Postdoc #2 or gone straight into some private company's lab, but I was very burned out on top of everything else. So, no more chemistry for a while.
    After a period of exploration (I also considered tech writing and some form of popular science writing), I found a job at a very small company doing telecommunications consulting and auditing just as they were starting to move much of their business to the Internet. My job started out as "write a few small custom scripts to make our internal business work better", but soon morphed into a large project that became our company's primary product.
    The same kinds of skills that make you a good researcher are very helpful here. Logical thinking skills, a good sense of organization, attention to detail, and a hefty dose of creativity -- the same combination that works well in the lab -- work pretty well here as well. The only drawbacks I've found are that I don't get quite as much intellectual stimulation out of my work as I used to in the lab, and long-term job stability may not be as great.

  • Tris Hussey says:

    Well ... I'm a professional blogger with an M.S. in Quaternary paleoecology.
    Frankly one of the greatest things I've gotten out of my science degree was the experience of my public masters defense. After that, all public speaking is cake.
    Beyond that I use my background form being able to absorb and critique information quickly and efficiently.

  • Leah says:

    so here's an even bigger question: how does one get into these fields? If you want to be a science writer, can you do that with a BS in biology and some college newspaper experience? How do you start, and where do you look?
    The job thing is what baffles me. Heck, I have a difficult time finding a tech job with just my BS in biology, since I don't have 2+ years of experience.

  • Pharma Bawd says:

    I'm a drug pusher.
    Well, I don't push drugs, I just push other people (MDs) to push drugs.
    It's a noble endeavor, it makes a lot of money for rich people's 401-k's. And my Master's Degree comes in handy, convincing doctors that I know more about an obscure back-water of science than they do.
    But I'm not bitter. Grad school is a great way to waste 2, 5, up to 10 years of your life!
    Getting an education is one of the most self-indulgent things an intelligent person can do in America. Law and medicine are OK, they lead to careers, biology is an utter waste, chemistry is OK at the moment but I have the distinct feeling that most non-academic chemistry jobs, ie: the entire pharmaceutical industry; are headed to India and China over the next two decades.

  • John Dupuis says:

    I'm a science librarian. When teaching scientists-in-training how to do research and evaluate the stuff they find on the web, it's a good idea to have a science degree yourself. When the students see that you understand their lingo, they're much more likely to trust you and come to you for help. I did computer science, so that gives me instant credibility with cs students as well as with math & engineering students.
    At out reference desk we often get grad students who really need help finding stuff but are afraid to look stupid in front of their profs. Finding and recognizing scholarly materials materials is an acquired trait.

  • coturnix says:

    Well, I have explored this question for a long time and am facing the same question myself right now. According to this I have missed my train - I am almost 40 and yet have to defend my Dissertation, get back into the lab and the world of science, persuade someoene to take me on as a postdoc and everything else.... Thus, I am having some hard thinking to do these days.
    I teach at a community college - but that pays next to nothing - half a monthly rent every two to three months. I feel I am too old to spend another 2-4 years in school in order to get a high-school teaching certificate and, financially, it is too late to get into that. I have so many ideas for creative research that I really want to do, and would hate not to do in the future. I despise industry research jobs. Or their equivalent in the military. I could not be able to survive in that environment.
    Switching to History of Science? Not enough zeal. I have an interest, but not sufficient to turn a hobby into a job. Professional science blogging? I wish...but there is no such thing (that pays, at least).
    I have no love of law (although a good friend of mine got an MS in biology and is now in law school studying patent law). What else can I do?

  • Leah says:

    wow, Pharma Bawd sounds really bitter. I'm honestly surprised at the number of negative comments I've read about pursuing a PhD. I don't expect it to be a walk through the roses, certainly, but it's not a bad goal for *everyone.* Seriously, I just want to get my PhD and settle into teaching at a small, liberal arts college where I can work with undergrads. But you need to have that PhD in biology first, so it seems like the bio degree is useful for something.