Business-oriented options for a scientific Ph.D.?
March 22, 2011 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Finishing a Ph.D. in the sciences and want to leave the bench behind for something that’s more “big picture” (i.e. has some elements of business, strategy, or product development). Things are getting a little time-sensitive. Looking for input from people who have made a similar switch and/or work in a related area (i.e. consulting or the business end of industrial R&D).

I’m graduating from a top-ranked university in May, with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. Having decided long ago that academia is not for me, I have been focusing my job search on alternative careers which might still capitalize on my degree.

My job hunt has gone through a few phases. I thought a lot about consulting at the start, but the Fall recruiting deadlines were too close for me to get my resume in order and learn how to handle case studies. I also looked into straight-up industry R&D positions for a few months, but came out pretty dissatisfied with my options. Patent law also had some time in the spotlight, but (for reasons which could form the basis for a different post), I’m not sure it’s the way to go.

This brings us to my current situation. The grad school clock runs out in a little under two months, and I’m no longer sure I’ll have a full-on job lined up by then. Clearly, I’m having some difficulty committing to one track at this point. I’m still interested in science, although I’d be fine with a job that used my analytical skills but not my specific background. If I did go into R&D, I’d rather come at it from a more business-oriented angle. Lately, I’ve been thinking again about consulting, since it’s fairly open-ended and would give me some business know-how to boot. However, many consulting firms don’t recruit until the fall, and I’m not having a lot of luck making inquiries with the rest. This leads to my questions:

1. Are there other jobs besides consulting that would give me some business experience and provide a little breathing room while I try to work out what I’m really interested in?

2. If I were to shoot for a consulting job, it might have to wait until the fall. What are some options I could pursue this summer which might help my chances or better prepare me for the interviews?

3. Realistically, how much time would I want to set aside to learn how to handle case studies?

4. Any suggestions for short-term jobs or internships I should look into if it starts to seem like I won’t find a long-term option before graduation? There’s always the option of staying in my lab as a postdoc for a few months, but it’s definitely not my top choice…
posted by noted industrialist to Work & Money (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
First, congrats in advance on finishing school--that's a huge accomplishment.

I have a PhD in biochem and now work in industry as a program manager. I do no lab work, but have tons of interaction with scientists and my background in the sciences is absolutely critical for my job.

After reading your question, my best suggestion for you about finding a job is to remember that from here on out, it's about you giving your (potential) employer what *they* are interested in, not the other way around.

There are many (many, *many*) managerial jobs in industry that benefit from a strong scientific and technical background. You have a lot of science experience but if you've never worked in industry before there is a lot to learn about how businesses work, about the specifics of an individual company works. The trick is to get your foot in the door and that requires that you fit a company's needs.

It might be a good idea to get a bench job to start, at a company you respect, with intention to move up and out in the next several years. If you're not sure about committing, it's pretty common for newcomers to be hired on contract to start and then taken on as FTEs when they've been established as known quantities. In that situation you're just as free to walk away form the arrangement as your employer is, and you can use that experience to network and get established professionally, to move on out from there.

Hope that helps. Good luck!
posted by Sublimity at 12:41 PM on March 22, 2011

Where do you live?
posted by thefool at 1:15 PM on March 22, 2011

I would suggest applying to McKinsey Insight Engineering & Science, if you haven't done so already, and are in the U.S. or Canada (the European Insight deadlines have already passed).

If selected, you get to experience a bit of the consulting lifestyle at McKinsey's expense, get some exposure to cases, and you'll also be able to get other Insight participants to help you practice case interviews later.

If your school has an MBA program, I would contact them to find out if they have a consulting club. Essentially members get together to practice case interviews, using cases compiled from actual interviews from past years. Note that it's up to the club whether they're okay about letting a non-MBA student be a member or use their materials.
posted by needled at 1:57 PM on March 22, 2011

I'm not a PhD but I do hire them from time to time.

First I would say that you don't have to work in academia to fully utilize your degree. Believe me there are plenty of non-academic jobs for Physical Chemists!

I don't know about consulting. Personally I would not hire a consultant who had just graduated unless their thesis happened to be exactly what I was interested in. That said I'm not a fortune-500 company that might hire McKinsey and end up with a consultant straight out of grad school. Generally I'd say get some real world/industry experience before trying consultancy.

I think one of the best ways to broaden you skill set beyond 'the bench' as you call it. Then consider going to work for a startup. If you join early on you'll have the fun of doing some real R&D, while trying to create a product and a strategy, while trying to build a company simultaneously without a lot of money or nice things to distract you.
posted by Long Way To Go at 2:16 PM on March 22, 2011

If you do go the consulting route, spend *a lot* of time practicing case interviews. McKinsey sent an alumnus of our institution back here to answer questions at the beginning of Ph.D. recruiting and I believe he said he practiced cases with his friends 2-3 hours, 2 times a week, for over a month. That's probably less practice than the B-schoolers do, too. Case in Point is the canonical case interview prep book. You really do need to do your practice with someone else, and ideally you'd do it with someone who has experience on the other side of the table. It felt a bit like a "blind leading the blind" situation when we science Ph.D. candidates practiced together.
posted by epugachev at 3:18 PM on March 22, 2011

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