Alternative careers for a science PhD dropout
June 22, 2010 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Alternative careers for a science PhD dropout: Specific ideas for my special snowflake job search after leaving academia. I am considering dropping out of my biomedical sciences graduate program. The only things stopping me right now are guilt at letting my advisor and loved ones down (which I’m working on), and the overwhelming fear of having to get a real job (which is where I hope you can help me!)

My background: I’m a 6th year grad student in a pharmacology PhD program. I received my MA four years ago and my BS (cell bio) in 2004. I have secured my own stipend funding through a foundation fellowship, and that expires at the end of winter, giving me eight months to finish up and defend. My advisors and committee have serious doubts as to whether that’s possible without a serious amount of overtime work and dedication. And the thought of having to spend more than 50 hours a week in lab, when it takes all the determination I can muster to even show up most days, literally makes me cry.

I’m not sure what I want to do for a living, but I know that I don’t want to work in an academic lab or in sales. I’ve read these previous AskMes, and in both of them the panicking students ended up sticking it out and getting their PhDs. But assuming that’s not an option for me, what jobs am I qualified for with a science BS and MA? I’m not looking for general encouragement in the vein of “you have a masters - what can’t you do?!”, but specific jobs outside of the lab. I’d consider being a lab tech as a stop-gap measure, but I would really really like to get out of the lab (especially academic lab) environment.

My strengths: Data analysis, writing, editing, analyzing and critiquing others’ data

My weaknesses: A general lack of assertiveness in the workplace. No clinical, managerial, teaching, or formal editing/journalism experience.

The online job searches I’ve done (FDAjobs, biospace, science careers, Kelly scientific) don’t seem to have anything available for BS/MSs with no (management/regulatory/clinical/what-have-you) experience. So, are you a bio-science All-But-Dissertation who has conducted a non-laboratory job search? Have you hired an ABD to work outside the lab? Or do you work with people like me? If so, what is your field? Is there any sort of certification or training I need to bump up my skill set? Are there websites better suited to my job search than the ones I listed?

Any advice you can give me to start out my career search (about 7 years after all of my peers) would be appreciated.
posted by twoporedomain to Work & Money (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
A family member in the same situation (including no formal journalism experience) became an editor for one of the big scientific journal publishing houses.
posted by katemonster at 9:31 AM on June 22, 2010

You could get a PharmD, right, and become a pharmacist? You'd probably be able to do a 3 year accelerated program or something.
posted by anniecat at 9:34 AM on June 22, 2010

Biomedical indexing. The link is to what I do (index for Medline). It is an excellent job for some people. It depends on whether you enjoy working alone (I do) and don't mind sitting in front of a computer all day (I don't).

It's constantly challenging and very flexible wrt work hours. My quality of life is immeasurably better since I left academia. Plus, it pays better than a post-doc. Memail me if you want any more details.
posted by gaspode at 9:38 AM on June 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

twoporedomain, don't focus on measuring yourself against your friends. Trust me. I fall into this a lot and it never helps me. It just makes me feel like a loser to go back and think about all the things I could have done differently. I don't want to overthink that and I don't think you like the feelings that kind of thing brings up, so don't do it. Be on your side.

You should also look into teaching at a community college, or maybe some kind of non-lab administrative university job. I also have a friend who was a paralegal that said lots of paralegals with science backgrounds are highly valued.

Additionally, since you're awesome at data analysis, you should look into statistical modeling, maybe market research or something focusing on pharma market research. (I'm just thinking of things off the top of my head).

You're very talented and have skills that will probably take you to interesting new places. Don't get down on yourself.
posted by anniecat at 9:39 AM on June 22, 2010

You might find some articles at Science Careers helpful, particularly Careers Beyond the Bench and Careers Trends: Careers away from the bench.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:52 AM on June 22, 2010

what jobs am I qualified for with a science BS and MA? I’m not looking for general encouragement in the vein of “you have a masters - what can’t you do?!”, but specific jobs outside of the lab.

Patent/intellectual property research, either assisting/consulting with a law firm or a biotech company trying to drive its patents through the process. You're well-positioned to understand the material and form the correct arguments to send back to the USPTO when they do initial rejections of patents.

You could also find a law firm that would pay for you to go to law school at night and then join the firm as a patent lawyer.

Or you could go to med school: you know the material, and you don't have to deal with working at a lab bench.

There are still some finance companies hiring people to do statistical modeling, as well.
posted by deanc at 10:09 AM on June 22, 2010

Best answer: when it takes all the determination I can muster to even show up most days, literally makes me cry.

Your university or students' union should have a counselling service. Talk to them. Depression, anxiety and just generally being sick-to-tears of a project are disturbingly common among PhD students, and they'll have plenty of experience in helpting people to deal with it. Even if you're set on the idea of leaving for another career, they can help you sort your head out a little.

guilt at letting my advisor and loved ones down
Your loved ones will still love and respect you if you decide to leave your studies for something else. Your PhD may have been the centre of your life for years, but it's something you do, not something you are. Your relationship with your family won't change just because you decide to do something else with your time. It might disappoint your supervisor but if, as you say, they agree that there isn't much chance of you finishing, they'll understand if you want to leave before spending more of your time and the department's resources.

My strengths: Data analysis, writing, editing, analyzing and critiquing others’ data

You sound ideal for science writing jobs. A couple of my friends work for science writing agencies. Essentially, they're given a small mountain of data (e.g. from a pharma company's research division), and their job is to double-check the analyses, write it up into a journal article, submit it and handle the editors'/reviwers' replies. Alternatively, they're sometimes asked to write technical literature, ranging from drug information leaflets for pharmacies to the weird hybrid of data and advertising that gets sent out to doctors.

You might also look into journal editing, which uses many of the same skills. I've spoken to a couple of MSc's who've worked at journals, but I'm not sure what their day-to-day jobs entailed.

Science journalism seems like another possibility. The only science journalist I know personally is an MSc; from her I get the impression that finding work as a staff journalist is really, really tough. She seems to make a decent living as a freelance though; the lean months are balanced out by the fat ones.

I get the impression that, for any science writing job, it helps to have a portfolio. Especially if you're interested in journalism, start a blog to which you can point potential employers.
posted by metaBugs at 10:23 AM on June 22, 2010

Just as a data point - I got my MS in Cell and Molecular Biology, and ended up working as an environmental consultant. I'm not suggesting that is what you should do, just wanted to point out that there are lots of careers out there that you probably haven't thought of that would be thrilled to have a new hire with an MS.
posted by tryniti at 10:26 AM on June 22, 2010

Best answer: I’m very similar to you in many ways, OP (sciences, wanted out of research, although I finished the PhD). I’m listing a few positions that I’ve had post-(fleeing)-academe. Also, I have run across people doing these same jobs (with a masters or even less), so it is possible.

The first thing that I’m going to list is medical writer (also look for terms such as “medical education associate”, “medical director”, etc.) – depending on the track, you may end up doing a lot of writing, ranging from PPT decks that can be used to teach doctors, primary manuscripts for medical journals, review articles, scientific posters. You can find these positions at job aggregators such as indeed

If you end up at the right company, you may be given lots of data from a phase III clinical trial (lists of adverse events, graphs, a summary of the protocol, etc.). You are supposed to take this and write a primary manuscript suitable for publication In a high-tier medical journal (or low tier if it is a sub-analysis of a sub-analysis, but stay with me). During this process, you will review the literature for the intro, summarize the data (some data-analysis involved), and craft/write a discussion in collaboration with the pharma company and investigators. Or, you may take this data, and write a poster for a conference, etc. To me, this work is really interesting, but YMMV.

If you want to do this, the advice that I got in this previous question helped a great deal - see Tentacle's answer. Head hunters can help you find a job. I really do think it would be easier with a PhD, though, but I’ve met people with a Masters degree and occasionally, a BA.

There are other areas of writing besides this. For example, at pharma companies, you may write the documents that describe the trial (so look for a pharma company as an employer in that case). Lots of med ed companies also write lots and lots of “needs assessments”/grants – the main tools that you need is the ability to figure out the therapeutic area, read the literature, and write it up.

The other type of position that may apply to you is a “lecturer” at a university. This may mean you teach a few classes and coordinate a lab (for example, perhaps you would teach intro biology and coordinate labs in physiology, or whatever your particular background/specialty is). If you want a position like this, I would highly recommend teaching one course on your own before you finish or decide to leave (see if you can adjunct at a nearby CC?) The bad part, though, is that there are not a lot of positions like this (probably fewer at the Masters level, but they are out there) – it may involve living somewhere that you don’t want to live and these positions are competitive – but it is something that you may want to consider and it is an option.

If you are really interested in medical writing, feel free to memail me. Also, depending on where you want to work, I know companies/head hunters in the NYC area that I'd recommend. The last med ed comapny that I worked for provided great experience/projects - great coworkers and they will hire people that are near the "entry level" but also do well on a writing test.

Also, please don't feel bad for where you are at right now. For some reason (especially in the sciences), no one talks about life and jobs outside academe. Lots of people leave, lots of people find what they want and never look back. Grad school (and academia in general) can be very isolating and it is hard to recognize that when you are immersed in it.

posted by Wolfster at 10:46 AM on June 22, 2010

Like Tryniti mentioned. There is the field of environmental consulting (I work in the industry as a geologist). There is generally a need for scientists with a good grasp of biology/chemistry. While it may not be tailored specifically to your background, it is an option. Honestly, the amount of use you get out of your degree in this field will vary from position to position, but is is a career option. Most times they are rather understanding of any differences between working in academia and working in private inductry, and they will hire you without industry experience, because your background knowledge is what they want. The particular processes and activities related to the position can be trained on the job. A Masters does make you more attractive, and will boost your initial pay.
posted by Badgermann at 10:47 AM on June 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your answers so far, everyone - both the practical advice and the emotional support. I'll probably be following up with some MeMails once I have some time to digest. I welcome more input in the mean time!
posted by twoporedomain at 12:08 PM on June 22, 2010

Heh, you could be me just earlier this year in fact (in fact you could comb through the ask mefi archives and see a panic stricken want to quit question from me too, though I had a psych/neuroscience PhD, not biomedical). The first thing I'd suggest is talking to your advisor, unlike me it sounds like your advisor might be on your side. Clearly layout how you feel, that you are thinking of quitting, and ask them to clearly explain exact what you'd need to do to finish and how long they realistically think it will take and at what level of working. At the same time, be honest about what sort of support you think you'd need to be able to finish. After that, spend a week or so thinking about that and whether you think you can do that or not. If you decide to quit, don't let anyone feel bad about it. PhD's suck, and the only reason to get one is if you absolutely NEED to have one to do what you want (which doesn't necessarily sound like the truth in your case).

Working for a journal definitely sounds like a possibility, as is teaching at Community Colleges (which only take Masters), however, depending on where you are, the feasibility of that is questionable, because here in Boston, there are so many PhDs floating around, many of those courses are being taught by PhDs. As far as lecturer positions... honestly, those suck and pay next to nothing. My university paid $3000 per course per semester. That's it. Those positions are cheap labor for the universities so that they don't have to pay for full professors.
posted by katers890 at 1:02 PM on June 22, 2010

The first thing I'd suggest is talking to your advisor, unlike me it sounds like your advisor might be on your side. Clearly layout how you feel, that you are thinking of quitting, and ask them to clearly explain exact what you'd need to do to finish and how long they realistically think it will take and at what level of working.

This is excellent advice. Find out how much work would be needed to get a presentable thesis......despite feeling like crying, youve put a lot of work into this thusfar, and if you're genuinely near the finish line, then it may be worth sucking it up a little more.

Genuinely is the key. Get some honest assesment as to whether it's actually 8 more months max, or if it's 8 months at best. You have an idea as to your thesis' worth (but confirm with your advisor): is it just that you need to polish off slogging through data collection and you'll be able to finish the story, or are there lots of high-risk expts that if they don't work will invalidate the thesis and/or require lots of make-up work to do something 'worthy'/publishable, thus wasting the 8 months - and possibly your grasp on sanity.

Re: the stress, and crying. The counselling advice is good.
Maybe the fellowship can be put on pause for medical leave while you de-stress or get counselling.

What I'm saying here is that it may be the right decision to down tools if you really can't finish either because of health problems or unfeasible goals, but maybe you CAN finish with a modicum of discomfort.
posted by lalochezia at 1:54 PM on June 22, 2010

As far as lecturer positions... honestly, those suck and pay next to nothing. My university paid $3000 per course per semester. That's it. Those positions are cheap labor for the universities so that they don't have to pay for full professors.

I work at a research laboratory that has a few ex-community college instructors with M.S.'s: they all say how much happier and less stressed they are now that they're not teaching full-time anymore.

While I mentioned IP/patent consulting for biotech companies, there's also a demand for technology analysts with the right background to work for venture capital firms looking to invest in biotech startups.
posted by deanc at 2:35 PM on June 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks again for all of the advice. There was a whole whiny backstory I initially typed but deleted for the sake of brevity (ha!). I should clarify some things that have come up, especially in katers890's and lalochezia's comments. The absolute deadline for finishing is 8 months. We are out of money, and once my fellowship is up, my tuition and stipend will not be paid. I have discussed this with one of my advisors, and his position was that while he'd like to see me finish, the amount of work left to do is significant, and they "won't give [me] a PhD as a consolation prize." He doubted whether I would be able to complete the work (and write it and defend it) in the amount of time I have left, but said that it might be possible given a huge amount of time and dedication. I'll be discussing this with my other advisor later this week when he's back from vacation, and I have a committee meeting scheduled soon where I can get more opinions.

So even if I decide to stick it out and try to finish, I might end up in the same position in March - looking for a job without a PhD. Your advice will likely be put to good use!
posted by twoporedomain at 3:12 PM on June 22, 2010

Just a quick note if you decide to go the lecturer route. I am not advocating a part time position or adjunct teaching.- yes, part time teaching pays peanuts and to survive it would require cobling together several part time positions and would be a lot of work. I would never recommend that anyone do this as a career.

The same place that you see full-time faculty positions listings (eg, chronicle for higher education), you will from time to time see full-time lecturer positions. These salaries do pay close the same that you would get as a full-time faculty member. The course load is similar to full-time faculty, but you may be asked to do something extra such as coordinate labs, etc.

I would only consider it an option if you like teaching and want to explore academia.

Academic salaries are really low. I'd only do it it if there is something that you enjoy about your field, or if you want to leave the door open just for a bit
posted by Wolfster at 6:36 AM on June 23, 2010

Best answer: Give a try to these two books

Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development
Alternative Careers in Science, Second Edition: Leaving the Ivory Tower (Scientific Survival Skills)

I am in similar scenario as yours but I don't feel guilty at all. My boss has let me down a big time. I don't do science by making deals whereas thats his/her way of doing science. And that makes me sick.
posted by zaxour at 8:46 AM on June 23, 2010

Best answer: Another valuable essay on graduate school entitled Failure is an Option. The relevant passage:
“Do something else with your life” is a hard choice for a phd student to make because they are immersed in and adopt a value system that does not value that choice. Remember here that the academic value system is not a universal value system. ... The world is big enough and diverse enough to support multiple value systems.
posted by deanc at 6:44 AM on June 24, 2010

Response by poster: Just wanted to leave a quick update in the thread, since that March deadline I mentioned has come and gone. I'm still in the program, with a little bit more funding secured to get me through the summer. So it's a little more plausible that I'll be able to finish the PhD.

I really appreciate all of your advice, and now that things are a little more relaxed in the lab I've been starting the job search in earnest, with the assumption that I'll be looking at PhD-level jobs instead of MS-level. But getting an idea of the range of options outside of academia is really really helpful - thanks again!
posted by twoporedomain at 9:20 AM on March 18, 2011

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