What did you do with your molecular biology PhD?
May 26, 2012 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm doing a PhD in molecular biology, and I want to get a broader feel for my options when I graduate.

I'm from Europe, but currently studying in Canada, and I'd prefer to work outside the U.S. I enjoy my work (which has a strong evolutionary focus), and have always wanted to go on a career in academia.

But I've also been watching my colleagues moving from postdoc to postdoc into their forties, or struggle miserably to find a more permanent position, and I've seen the funding situation for basic science everywhere go from bad to worse (work in our field is super fun, but has absolutely no short-term applications in the real world). And lately, I've been feeling disenchanted with the general culture of academia - the lack of a life outside the lab (really, academia can feel like a cult at times), the ridiculous little interpersonal dramas, and the fact that so much time at higher levels seems to involve grant-writing or teaching rather than doing science anyway. A final thing that's been bothering me is that I feel as though after the first postdoc at the latest, it becomes a lot harder to change job (i.e. research) directions or countries than it would be outside academia, and I enjoy experiencing life in different countries. What I do still love is learning about the world around me. I'm a huge introvert, but I do appreciate the chance to work with people from many different countries, who are interested in the world at large, and with whom I can share geeky jokes.

So while I'm still looking at postdocs, I'm also looking into jobs in industry; but more importantly, I'm trying to learn more about other, less traditional career paths (science policy, teaching or academic publishing being the obvious ones), particularly ones that would allow me to travel. I've been reading up on anything I can find online, but thought I'd ask MeFi for more personal experiences.

So I'd love to hear from anyone who left academia after getting a PhD in biology, preferably on the molecular side of things. How did you find your new job? What differences did you notice in the overall culture? What about the hours and benefits? Did you actually end up using your PhD for it? Do you regret your decision at all, and why/why not? Did you find that any of the things you disliked about academia turned out to be universal? Did you find it easy or hard to stay in touch with friends from grad school who stayed the academic route?
posted by jlibera to Work & Money (2 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to check out Versatile PhD. Though it was initially started as a job board for humanities PhDs (and is clearly US-centric in its userbase), it has grown into much more and is a great resource for doctoral candidates, post-docs, and mid-career professionals (as well as individuals trying to decide whether graduate school is right for them) throughout many disciplines.

It is free to use and if you're a member of several supporting institutions you get access to even more stuff. Highly recommended, particularly in terms of exploring non-traditional career paths.

Speaking as someone who left academia after getting a PhD (albeit not in biology), I couldn't be happier with the unique path I've taken. I really enjoy teaching, and don't rule out returning to a tenure-track position at some point in the future, but for now I'm having a great time working on applied topics, strategies, and policy related to my research focus.
posted by RachelSmith at 10:06 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also left academia after completing a PhD in the biological sciences.

Before answering where I ended up, I'm going to point out a similar previous question that I asked mainly because ....there were at least a few recommended jobs that people go to after leaving academia. I'm also going to point to a book that I found useful, mainly because not only did it list jobs that were obtained by pple with PhD in the biological sciences, but it also described day to day work life, which is what I wanted to assess the potential careers.

I ended up as a medical writer (previously at companies, now independent). If you think that this is what you want to do, then I will point to this previous question, too, because I followed the advice of one of the responders (i.e. take writing tests at the place of employment) and it worked.

I think this would be viable for you (if this is what you wanted) because there are companies that employ medical writers all over the world. The majority of my colleagues at a US-based company had PhDs in the biological sciences, so it matches your background.

I will answer your specific questions. If you have followup questions, feel free to memail because this could go in any directions. Please forgive any typos, it is late and there will be even less editing.

How did you find your new job?

Does this mean finding a vacant position?

There were the 2 main ways that I found my job at companies: 1) head hunters (they arrange the writing test, interview,saves a lot of time...) or 2) applying to job listings online (and in reality, just putting up a CV on monster). If I were to do this again, I would actually send emails to companies that looked interesting..

What differences did you notice in the overall culture?

What I found painful was the cubicle life and that there was less flexibility. Even if it is a slow day, everyone is expected to mill around at their desks in a cubicle.

The environment at some of the fish bowl environments left a bit to be desired.

What about the hours and benefits?

To be honest, if you go into one of these companies, it can be insane (50 hour/week if not more, much more). Most of my friends who are in entirely different careers, though,also put in these kind of hours so it may be this culture.

Did you actually end up using your PhD for it?

I feel that I did..mainly because you need to review the literature, teach yourself a new therapeutic area, assess the studies, and write it up. Believe it or not, you may find yourself writing articles for medical journals. It is different than what you do/did as a graduate student, but the training in the sciences helped me do the work.

Do you regret your decision at all, and why/why not?

Not at all. One of the things that I wanted was to decide where I lived, and when I was looking for faculty positions, they were often in tiny, tiny towns (hello Montana, Idaho, Ohio,etc.). You didn't get to pick where you wanted to live, you had to follow the vacancies scattered all over the country.

The most important thing to me (to continue to learn biology and keep up to date with the material) is still there.

There is also the option of becoming independent and not working directly at the companies. That was the biggest plus for me...because you can select the type of work that you want to do, the hours, etc. Utopia if you are an introvert,too-no need to talk to people all day or go to meetings, etc.

Did you find that any of the things you disliked about academia turned out to be universal?

I don't think that I recognized this until many years later (now that I don't work at a company in a cube, either). To me, it is all the same; in fact, I think the offices were even more cult like (someone declares your hours, where you sit, when you come in, there is only one way of doing things, you are supposed to value "moving up into management", etc. Some companies want you to post company policies on the wall, etc.)

Did you find it easy or hard to stay in touch with friends from grad school who stayed the academic route?

Even more introverted than you are...barely got to know other grad students, so no...But if you go this route, you will make new friends who are very similar.Again,most have a PhD in the biological sciences/they tend to be introverted people/they all wanted out of academia for whatever reason. So everyone has these things in common as a starting point.
posted by Wolfster at 10:44 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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