Escape from academia
March 13, 2017 3:41 PM   Subscribe

I finished my PhD in molecular and cell biology in December. I need a job. Added difficulty: I want nothing to do with academia or benchwork (doing experiments). My whole life I have just been following the next step of school and I've come to the end of the line. I feel lost and overwhelmed. Help me find a way out!

Generally I think that I am a capable person, and that I just need a chance to prove myself.
But I'm not sure how to get a foot in the door or even which door I'm trying to get my foot into.

Relevant details
Los Angeles

Things I'm good at:
Researching and analyzing information
Coming up with a plan and carrying it out
Communicating clearly in writing and presentations
Leaning (new subject matters and how to do things)
Hands on stuff (basic car repair, fixing things around the house, etc)

The environment (especially how to combat global warming)
Transportation and infrastructure
Technology related to combating global warming
The ocean

Other considerations:
I do not know how to program or have any particular statistics/math skills. Work life balance is much more important to me than magnitude of salary.

What jobs should I pursue and more importantly how do I actually get them?
I need a job sooner than later so maybe I should sign up for a temp agency?

I have applied for a number of jobs that I am sure I could perform easily, but no response....

My whole life I have been trained to succeed within the context of an institution, but I have no idea how to hustle. Please help me figure it all out....
posted by 12%juicepulp to Work & Money (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
- Temp agency is a good bet for interim work. Don't put your PhD on your resume for that. Be prepared to talk about your experience in terms of office-related skills (maintaining protocols, organizing data, working as a team). Some temp agencies place lab positions if that's interesting, they would be lower-responsibility than research. Apply at several temp agencies. If there's a particular place you'd like to work, find out where they get temps.

- How about routine benchwork, like testing water or human samples? I've seen a decent number of microbiology jobs at the water bureau and health-related orgs. If your research involved water testing at all, working for a water department / environmental quality agency seems in line with your interests and you' be well qualified. If you have medical background, check out teaching hospitals.

- Project management jobs. You likely have related experience from running (multiple concurrent?) research projects, managing a budget, scheduling equipment time, training undergrads. The temp agency might be able to help you get related experience, tell them it's something you're interested in and they'll try to place you with project managers / PMOs.

- How many jobs have you applied for? Apply for a lot, like 4ish a week. You get better at it the more you do it, and start to think more about related fields that could work out. Get blasts of job updates from indeed and applicable government sites.
posted by momus_window at 4:26 PM on March 13, 2017

Are you open to any role in industry at all? Recently I've gotten to know a few people who have chem or bio PhDs and end up doing mid-management stuff at biotechs. Like, you wouldn't be doing any pipetting, but it would help to know the science in order to manage partnerships, grants, contracts, etc.

Sorry if this is super obvious and you already rejected it, but just to confirm, there is industry work that is not bench work. And I feel like you will have a much easier path in life trying to build on your degree rather than trying to put it behind you.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:36 PM on March 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

As per the above, Project management would be my first choice. To get into the field, look for project coordinator roles, to understand the velocity of the work and what is involved. Your background in molecular and cell biology will be a positive in projects that concern labs, health care transformation initiatives.

By its very nature, project management is generalist's work - Project Managers have process knowledge, not domain knowledge. Skills are transferrable. As a PM, I worked on IT transformation projects, but also managed the building of a cultural exhibit from the ground up, operationalization, and then demobilization of it. With your skills, you would bring deep knowledge into an application area, and also act as a subject matter expert if you were to run or coordinate projects in the health or research field.

This is a relatively easy field to get into. If this work pleases you, then there are also opportunities after a year or two to become certified as a Project Manager (PMP) as well as other certifications (Risk Management, Program Management) also available with the Project Management Institute.
posted by seawallrunner at 4:43 PM on March 13, 2017

For guidance during a similar transition, I found Versatile PhD threads, associated meetups, and "So what are you going to do with that?" helpful.
posted by knile at 4:51 PM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I totally feel you. Have you considered a postdoc in either academia or industry? If there is any chance of you being involved in research, you've got to put in your time/pay your dues.

There are funded postdoc positions in Translational Research or Technology Transfer. At UBC, there was even a hybrid business/science postdoc at the CDRD, once. Might still have. But they're all really competitive.

Neuroethics is another possibility if you want to get away from the bench.

I had a long PhD in cellular and molecular neurophysiology (after an overlong MSc) and did an industrial postdoc at a total crap bioreagents company then found myself involved in Canadian Federally regulated medical Cannabis. Kind of like a second business postdoc. The pay's about the same but there's magic fairydust equity.


There are a lot of PhDs around here who postdoc-ed out and ended up in sales. Sometimes even outside of med/sci. Famously, there's a curling rink in town who's custodianfacilities manager holds a chemistry PhD, who simply burned out from science.
posted by porpoise at 5:39 PM on March 13, 2017

Came in to recommend Versatile PhD. Everything you've described is a perfect fit for folks in that community to advise/commiserate about. You're definitely not alone.
posted by Frenchy67 at 7:01 PM on March 13, 2017

Work life balance is much more important to me than magnitude of salary.

I've been around the block in the life sciences a lot since I graduated undergrad in 2005, considered a lot more jobs, and eventually made my way back into academia, where I'm now a PhD student in molecular biology. I'm glad I'm back and I want to stay FOREVER, but it sure as hell ain't for everyone. So let me share what I know about the other side with an eye to your self-description and vague lifegoals. :D

Based on your description, I feel like you're missing a couple things in your thinking about future jobs. First, since you're coming out of academia: what does "good work life balance" look like to you? 40 hours a week, no taking work home? Something between that and what you've been doing for the last several years?

Second, if you really are looking for a job that prioritizes being able to leave work at work at the end of the day, your very marketable skills at digging deep into projects, working with ambiguity, and constantly learning on the job are often going to be at odds with the type of work you're looking to get into. So you need to ask yourself: would you be okay doing something dull for a career in exchange for work-life balance? Something where the learning curve flattens out after 6, 12, or 18 months, and you're just applying the same knowledge to slightly different problems, perhaps with very incremental updates to your skill set every year or three?

If so, I recommend project management or regulatory affairs, or if you've any interest in still putting gloves on sometime and using your "hands on stuff" skills, maybe QC in an applied/industrial setting. (Think and job search broadly if this appeals to you - bioproduction runs the gamut from insulin to beer, after all.) If you're a little more flexible on taking jobs that are less rote and might require more time, maybe product manager roles if there are small biotechs or medical device companies around you - one of the best QC/junior product manager folks I worked with in industry was a guy with a BS in Biology who used to work in a hardware store all through high school. Great problem-solver. But the work-life balance in those roles will be very setting and company dependent, and in general, the more interesting/startup-y a particular role or project sounds in industry, the more of your life they're likely to expect you to devote to it. Same tradeoff applies for nonprofits. Avoid competitive intelligence, consulting, sales, or basically anything with routine travel entirely if you're seeking work life balance; the hours per week are at least as bad as life as a PhD student, but with less flexibility.

Lastly and probably most importantly for landing a job expediently, I'd also echo Joey Buttafoucault's suggestion to build on your degree by staying in or near the life sciences rather than jumping ship entirely. You can always hop fields or industries later once you have acquired some Real World Job Skills(TM) to beef out your experience handling animals, imaging cells, or moving very small volumes of colorless liquids from one container to another.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:48 PM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Would you be interested in the military? If so, the Navy's Medical Service Corps has a biochemistry subspeciality that might work. They also have microbiologists if that's closer to what you did in graduate school.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 9:26 PM on March 13, 2017

Is a move out of the question? Would you consider a postdoc with AAAS working for a senator or doing a similar program (forget name of it) working at the CA statehouse for a rep there? Could be perfect stepping stone to the next thing.
posted by Toddles at 9:33 PM on March 13, 2017

have a look at for useful resources on transitioning
posted by coffee_monster at 6:58 AM on March 14, 2017

I'm in scientific/medical publishing, but I don't have a scientific background. Normally, publishing is super hard to get into, but your PhD might help you. Check the Council of Science Editors website for general info. Also, check their job listings to get some idea of what is available. Feel free to MeMail me, but I won't know as much about the sort of jobs you'd be eligible for.
posted by FencingGal at 7:15 AM on March 14, 2017

Nonprofit advocacy orgs are a great place to consider working. I ditched the bench in 2008 and ended up working as a scientific associate for a 501(c)(3) org that I'd been a member of for years. This is a pretty common and familiar career for former researchers. A lot of what I do: analyzing legislation for its impact on science and medical policy, publishing (review articles, public dataset analysis when I can, systematic reviews), working with companies that are interested in modernizing their approaches to developing and testing drugs and devices, commenting on draft federal policy and legislation, presenting at conferences and lectures, that sort of thing.

Your salary will take a hit, but you sound like you're prepared for that. Above all else, I wanted out of the lab. I was happy to take the paycut. Having a PhD will help you make more money than the average non-profit worker, though.

Do you have non-profit orgs whose work you appreciate, admire, or otherwise follow? See if they have open positions. If not, find a relevant contact and send them a letter inquiring about working with them and possibly pointing out what work you could do for them--hi, I have this PhD and I'd like to work for you, I see that you put out "This Fancy Report" in 2001 and it needs to be revised, and I'm an expert in the cutting edge material that needs to go in the updated version. That sort of thing.

Keep in mind these orgs are increasingly cool with remote work, so don't limit your search to just LA.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:59 AM on March 14, 2017

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