Alternatives to faculty jobs.

Sep 18 2006 Published by under Academia, Mailbag, Tribe of Science

I'm revisiting a topic I posted about half a year ago: once you have a Ph.D., what are your job options beyond a faculty job or a research position?
The last post was more about what one could do with a science major or masters degree. It didn't necessarily exclude non-standard things to do with a science Ph.D., but it wasn't specifically aimed that direction.
Here, I want to take on directly the problem of what you do with that shiny Ph.D. (in science or any other field) if, despite all your efforts, you can't land a faculty job (or can't land one you can live with). And, I'd like to get answers from people who have actually dealt with this situation. I'm not looking for speculative alternative paths that occur to you, but things you have actually done (or have seen done).

In all honesty, I feel like I may have used up most of my luck with the universe landing a faculty job at an institution I love (because my colleagues are the absolute best) in a part of the world I love (even though affording it is a perpetual challenge). I have no clue what I would be doing if I hadn't gotten a faculty job.
Aside from teaching and writing, I don't have much in the way of marketable skills. And, given that I have mouths to feed besides my own, I needed to be able to actually make a decent salary. I'm assuming that the existence of said mouths would have prompted me to come up with some plan for gainful employment, but I'm not sure that crisis-mode planning would have helped me find meaningful employment (where "meaningful" = something I could feel generally good about doing, possibly even something that intersected with my interests).
I'm guessing I might have had to drop some of those degrees from my resume to find a job (since having to pay a Ph.D. "what she's worth" might have made me a less attractive candidate to some prospective employers).
The bottom line is that I have very little first-hand knowledge about this kind of thing. Some of you reading, on the other hand, may know quite a lot about this, and it might benefit others who are reading if you could share what you know. Thanks in advance.

Comments are off for this post

  • sgent says:

    First you have the "obvious category" -- people with Ph.D.'s in psychology and sociology who go into full time health care, school testing, etc.
    Next, you have people like my uncle, who have Ph.D.'s (biochemestry in this case), but don't work in academic situations. He's the lead researcher for a fertilizer company. Probably very close to what a research based professor would do. Better money, but no tenure...
    I also know Ph.D.'s in organizational behavior that work for large companies in human resources, mathematics Ph.D.'s that work for consulting firms as fact checkers and actuaries.

  • Donn Y says:

    Back in 1976 after getting a BS in zoology/chem and an MS in botany, I finally finished with a PhD in limnology [freshwater ecology]. My dissertation topic was multivariate analyses of diatom communities [diatom are algae with cell walls of silica]. With only a few positions open and hoards of applicants - all more qualified than me - and at a time when postdocs were rare - I didn't know what I was going to do. The OSU Cancer Center was advertising for a statistician to help with clinical trials and since I had a good stat background, I applied. Since I had taught anatomy as a grad student, knew physiology, and had a chemistry background, I could understand the biological questions that clinical researchers were asking. And so... they hired me over 10 statisticians who didn't know what a cell was. That was 30 years ago and I'm doing the same work today - biostatistical support and collaboration - all on soft money. My official title is Research Scientist [as if there were another kind!]. I have my own NIH grant funding 30% of my salary, with 5-10% each as co-investigator on 12 more. Since I've served on NIH study sections and teach in national workshops, I have to refer PI's to other statisticians because I just don't have the time. This was not something I ever thought I'd be doing. I could have made more money going to the pharmaceutical industry, but pimping drugs wasn't my style. So don't think that even if you're in some arcane field like diatom ecology that you can't do something else. And yes, I still read the diatom literature and the license plate on my Subaru reads "DIATOM". Good Luck!

  • Barry says:

    Go to invisible adjunct for a start, perhaps ( That's a now-defunct blog which covered a lot of the underside of academia; what to do with your Ph.D. outside of academia was occasionally covered.

  • SMC says:

    I'd also be curious to hear how many people who get Ph.D's do so without the sole career aspiration of working in academia (nothing wrong with academia, of course - just that I've seen and heard many times recently people discussing post-doctoral work and the assumption seems to always be that you just don't get a PhD unless you have a desire to be a professor...)

  • John Dupuis says:

    For some reason, there seems to be a significant number of chemistry Ph.D.'s that get a library degree and work as chemistry librarians, either in industry or academia. They're probably the ones who like looking for stuff in SciFinder more that doing lab work. I've me a couple of them over the years.

  • I found it interesting to go to my alma mater's website and see where my fellow Philosophy graduate students ended up:
    with perhaps my favorite being the person who became employed as an ontological engineer at an artificial intelligence company.
    I don't know how many departments maintain these kind of pages, but perhaps some do, and perhaps they could be a fruitful source of inspiration.

  • Janne says:

    I'd also be curious to hear how many people who get Ph.D's do so without the sole career aspiration of working in academia (nothing wrong with academia, of course - just that I've seen and heard many times recently people discussing post-doctoral work and the assumption seems to always be that you just don't get a PhD unless you have a desire to be a professor...)
    I had absolutely no idea what kind of careers - if any - were available at all when I started. It not only was not a factor, I had zero thought about any life after graduation. I'd done my master's project at a department at the university and then started work as a programmer. When they asked if I'd like to continue for a PhD, I was only too happy to return to school rather than early mornings and database programming. I figured I'd do somethning interesting and have fun for a few years, then return to programming again, now with some extra skills making it easier to find a job.
    As for what people are doing, those I know who are not in academia are all working as specialists at companies, typically large ones. Even the most esoteric fields generally require building some practical skills and knowledge as a side effect. So a couple of Cognitive science people I know are working as interface designers and testers; they know how to do set up and run a proper test series, from designing the lab space to selecting the subjects for a specific test. Other people are similarily sort-of doing what they studied.

  • yami says:

    I'm currently working on a Ph.D. without any special desire for a research career (though that is still an option). I'm trying to pick research topics that are scientifically interesting but have potential applications in industry - in my case, sesmic hazard evaluation, geotechnical work, and/or ground water resource management. Hard to tell how it's working out, I've only been at it for a year...
    I spent a couple years as a consultant company monkey before going to grad school, and the Ph.Ds I met were generally able to cherrypick the cool projects while the routine stuff got dumped on the Masters... except for the guy who just built ground water models all day.

  • phud says:

    After a great ride in grad school, when everything was looking bright - papers in top journals, FIVE post doc offers (two of them unsolicited!), and an award - things went to hell when the one national facility I needed for my work was suddenly taken off line for over two years.
    Suddenly, it didn't matter where in the country I went, I still wouldn't be able to use that facililty to do research. I don't want to say which one it was, b/c it might give me away, but it blew me out of the water. I hadn't quite realized that I had all my eggs in this one basket, and it led me to wonder whether I wanted to take my exit now while it was essentially being handed to me or take my chances that this might (no, will!) happen again perhaps ten years from now when I have a family to support.
    It also pissed me off that after getting Nature and Science pubs and an award, I was still flat broke. Unlike a breakthrough product, dot-com, or some piece of software that you can sell millions of copies of, my big 'products' weren't going to sell and support me in the commercial sense.
    Anyway, I'm done with academia. I'm going to only make things that sell from now on. Maybe I'll get rich and give it to some institute some day, but for now I've decided that I want to make a real living that brings in real money.
    I just got a job at a Fortune 100 company, and my salary is as much as the scientist I worked for who's 10 years my senior. I expect I may go back to school in a couple of years for an executive MBA.

  • Joseph j7uy5 says:

    My ex-wife, after getting a degree in physical anthropology, ended up working for a drug company in their medical communications department. After finishing a dissertation, they knew that she could write. She had enough background in medical/chemical terminology and research methodology, that she was able to do scientific writing for them. I suspect it ended up being just as lucrative, if not more so, than an academic career would have been.
    I've known others who ended up working as drug reps, for example, a psychologist selling CNS meds.
    An ex-housemate of mine ended up working as the editor of a journal after getting a Ph.D. in archeology.

  • Laura says:

    I will be getting my Ph.D. this year. I almost didn't though because I decided after passing my exams and starting my dissertation that I did not want a faculty job. My degree is from a third-tier state university. I believe I got an excellent education in a small department where faculty actually paid attention to me. Hiring committees don't see it that way. My main reasons for not pursuing a t-t position were 1) we already had an academic in the family and the two-body problem was not one I wanted to deal with; 2) I wasn't interested in the publish or perish cycle and 3) the kinds of jobs available to me with my degree in this area were pretty crappy.
    So I took a job as an Instructional Technologist at a prestigious liberal arts college. I also teach in the writing program (my degree is in comp/rhet). When I finish my degree, I'm thinking of three possible career moves--up the ladder in academic IT (director or something), non-tenure-track teaching position (I've been offered that possibility at my current institution, or stay where I am (right now, perfectly content with that). My institution valued my degree and teaching experience. Many administrative positions in education value that so that's an option for people. Some places, especially small places, even offer the opportunity to teach or have dual appointments (running the writing center and teaching, running faculty development and teaching, being a dean and teaching). It's the best of both worlds for some people.

  • I working for a non-profit organization that fights antibiotic resistance. There are some public health alternatives for biology PhDs.

  • Blair says:

    As a Ph.D who picked an interdisciplinary field (Chemistry and Environmental Studies) that left me without a true home department in academe (where interdisciplinarians are paid lip service but not offered jobs) I can tell you of a whole batch of jobs for those of us on the outside as I have over a dozen Ph.D. friends who aren't academics (some by choice others less so). Starting with me I took my skills and went to private sector working for a mid-sized environmental consulting firm. They hired me for my expertise in environmental chemistry (each firm of this type really needs at least one person with some detailed understanding of chemistry) and QA/QC development and since being hired six years ago I have expanded my work to risk assessment (ecological and human health thanks to a belief in life-long learning) and the development and implementation of remedial plans for contaminated sites. Our small office (21 folk) includes two other PhDs, a toxicologist (who like me serves both as a specialist and a generalist) and a Ph.D. Engineer/hydrogeologist.
    If I drive down the street in my suburb of Vancouver I come across three colleagues from grad school (organic and physical chemists with specialties in metals) who work at a mid-sized biopharmaceutical company doing the fundamental research in the development of new drugs to deal with cancer, HIV and the enhancement of bone marrow. If I take the 40 minute drive to Vancouver itself I come across two microbiology/biochemistry friends (with whom I used to run in grad school) who work at two larger biopharmaceutical companies, both dedicated to anti-cancer drugs.
    On a weekly basis I come in contact with a good friend (a toxicology Ph.D.) who runs a department at a private toxicology lab that provides the chemical toxicity testing I need to complete ecological risk assessments. Another good friend runs the QA Dept at an analytical lab ensuring that the environmental analyses I depend on to make my decisions are reliable and reproducible.
    About a month ago I was at a symposium with about 20 other Ph.D.s who had all left academia for work in the environmental industry in one shape or another, about half were biologists who work in small to very small companies doing environmental impact assessment, wildlife studies prior to the awarding of development permits and risk assessment (ecological and human health).
    Our company's main office in Calgary has another seven Ph.D.s (a chemist, a couple hydrogeologists, a soil scientist and three engineers) some of whom combine research and practical work while others are purely administrative at this point in their careers. Two of the seven were the founders of the company.
    Admittedly, we have also have had a couple Ph.D.s who didn't pan out. They have been the exception rather than the rule and most of the time it is not for lack of brains but rather for an unwillingness to acknowledge that they weren't an expert in all things or a flexibility to do work (and initial training) that they felt was below them. I would suggest that the major initial flaw in some Ph.D.s is a sense of entitlement, remember the world doesn't owe you a living just because you spent more time than most in school
    To summarize, there is a huge market out here for Ph.D.s. The thing to remember when selling your talents is not necessarily the degree but the reality behind the degree. To get a Ph.D you need to have shown the ability to concentrate on a task, shown you have the capacity for original thought and that you have at least a couple warm neurons to rub together. To survive you had to be able to carry out research, become an expert relatively quickly and express yourself both in the written and the verbal form. Frankly, as an employer once you get around the sense of entitlement that a lot of Ph.D.s seem to show up with you get some truly extraordinary employees who are an asset for any company that knows how to make best use of them even if you don't work in your specific area of expertise every day.
    All my best,

  • Kristin says:

    Well, I'm doing freelance writing along with an internship in public relations right now, after leaving physics after my Ph.D. nine years ago and detours through software consulting (paid OK, but didn't set my heart aflame) and art school (thought that was the practical way to work my visual skills into some kind of a living, but then the easy availability of stock art on the internet changed that).
    Now I'm doing any and all kinds of writing (science, technology, travel, personal essays) and it feels like coming home. I'm working on some creative projects to pitch while I'm interning at the Exploratorium, but I'm exploring doing PR for a high-tech or cleantech company as well. (But I may be an anomaly in terms of my radical change in direction...I have reason to suspect that all the while I was in physics, I was actually a closeted humanities major. Read about it in my essay in the anthology "She's Such a Geek" coming out later this fall.)

  • Bob O'H says:

    My brother has a PhD in mineral processing (recycling coal tips). After that he went to work in the Civil Service in London, looking after their buildings: he once went round MI5 counting their radiators.
    He's now moved on and is managing development of the new British passports.

  • Sharlissa says:

    There are also options for those with science degrees (B.S.- Ph.D.)in non-profit or science policy work. Student Pugwash has a database of over 200 employers that work with the intersection of policy and science or ethics in science. You can check it out at The page also includes upcoming fellowship deadlines. There are a number of fellowships in Washington, D.C. intended for Ph.D. scientists. Some are on the hill; others are for nonprofits or think-tanks. Additionally, there's a student who just earned his Ph.D. from University of Chicago in physics and is transitioning into the nonprofit world. He's keeping a blog about his experiences, which can be found at

  • Tim says:

    Since Sharlissa already plugged my blog in the previous comment, I'll just pipe in to agree with everyone who has pointed out the many non-academic opportunities for PhD's. I do think there's a lot of interesting stuff out there and it's totally possible to transition to rewarding jobs in a lot of different directions.
    I just finished my degree in high-energy astrophysics (I studied exploding stars called gamma-ray bursts) and really enjoyed my time in grad school, but I decided midway through the program that I couldn't see myself doing research for the rest of my life. I was especially interested in working for a non-profit that did something positive in the world, and I was totally prepared for a low-paying job that didn't necessarily make use of my scientific training. Luckily after sending out a bunch of resumes I landed with a science-based environmental non-profit, working specifically on the issue of stopping the politicization of science in the government.
    I do think that a Ph.D. on your resume can be a little weird for some jobs (and some hiring managers), but it's not insurmountable if you can write a strong cover letter that convincingly explains why you want the job and how your grad school skills would be a tremendous asset for them. The harder part might be figuring out what (apart from research) you want to spend your time doing.
    Anyway, thanks for the cool blog. It's really interesting to read everyone's stories about life after the Ph.D.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Ph.D.s (or Masters) in the natural sciences or engineering can find lucrative satisfying work in patent law, both as non-lawyers (as patent agents who file and prosecute patent applications before the US Patent and Trademark Office) and as lawyers if you go to law school (who can do the work of patent agents, but also negotiate patent licenses and conduct patent litigation).
    After getting my Ph.D. in biology, I attended law school. After getting my law degree and passing the bar, I decided to go back to science and started a post-doc. While a post-doc (~60 hours per week) I also worked part-time (~15-20 hours per week) as a patent lawyer.
    I was a very successful post-doc, and ended up with an offer for a tenure-track faculty position, so I decided to scale back my legal practice. But if I had worked full-time as a patent lawyer after law-school, it is very likely that right now I would be making 5-to-10 times the salary I make as an assistant professor.

  • chel says:

    It's funny, SMC said:
    "I'd also be curious to hear how many people who get Ph.D's do so without the sole career aspiration of working in academia (nothing wrong with academia, of course - just that I've seen and heard many times recently people discussing post-doctoral work and the assumption seems to always be that you just don't get a PhD unless you have a desire to be a professor...)"
    I'm like totally an oddball in this thread. I never, ever wanted an academic career. My PhD is in epidemiology and I always envisioned myself working in a health department in some sort of leadership position (with maybe an adjunct position at a school of public health because I like teaching). During my job search window no really great health department position came up. But a really great post-doc position did. I wasn't even looking for a post-doc, didn't apply for any other post-docs, and certainly didn't look or apply for any faculty positions. So now, here I am doing this cool post-doc, and kinda liking it. I'm keeping my eye on the state health department, but I'm getting very tempted by some faculty position postings I've seen... We'll see.
    But I think Epi PhDs are very lucky, there are many job options for them. None of my classmates have had difficulty finding something.

  • DianeAKelly says:

    Here, I want to take on directly the problem of what you do with that shiny Ph.D. (in science or any other field) if, despite all your efforts, you can't land a faculty job (or can't land one you can live with). And, I'd like to get answers from people who have actually dealt with this situation.
    I spent several years on the standard academic path after I got my Ph.D: moving from place to place for postdocs and temporary teaching positions. But I wasn't really satisfied. I enjoyed teaching, but I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I could only reach one class at a time.
    Then I took a class in children's writing on a whim, and found out I was actually pretty good at it. I started writing freelance for companies that develop science programs for kids. After a year, my husband (a professional game designer) and I started designing games with rules inspired by real science. We helped start a company ( to publish them. In both ventures I'm still teaching, but I'm reaching a far larger audience than the 30 to 100 students in a typical classroom.
    But if you asked me 'what are you going to do with your Ph.D.?' ten years ago, I would never in a million years have come up with what I do now. Serendipity, pure serendipity.

  • Axiom says:

    Some examples from my career:
    1. Computer science research / semi-commercial.
    2. Defense contractor.
    3. Head of software development (funnily enough, the skills required to get a Ph.D. are similar to those required to make a product).
    4. Government (military) - research, development, acquisition (funnily enough, the skills required to defend a Ph.D. are similar to those required to effectively judge whether a project is something that we should spend our tax money on).
    Mom's career (different field):
    1. Government (military).
    2. Government (medical).
    3. Industry (pharmaceutical) - AIDS, hepatitis and malaria have all taken some serious hits due to my mother's work. Go Mom!
    In short, options are wide open for a new Ph.D. if they're willing to think sideways. I really had no idea that I would eventually land the job / career that I have now when I left graduate school, much less when I started.