Soliciting Advice: Non-Academic Careers for Ph.D.’s

While the previous post bemoans the lack of simple world-changing ways to make the career path for aspiring academics more pleasant (other than bushels of money falling from the sky, of which I would approve), there is one feasible thing that everyone agrees would be good: better career counseling for Ph.D. students, both on the realistic prospects for advancement within academia, and concerning opportunities outside.

I always try to be honest with my own students about the prospects for ultimately landing a faculty job. But like most faculty members, I’m not that much help when it comes to outside opportunities, having spent practically all my life within academia. I’m happy to give advice, but you’d be crazy to take it, since I have no idea what I am talking about.

But that’s a correctable state of affairs. So: I’m hereby soliciting good, specific career advice and/or resources for students who are on the track to get a Ph.D. (or already have one) and are interested in pursuing non-academic jobs. This might be particular jobs that are Ph.D.-friendly, or websites with good information, or relevant fellowships or employment agencies, or just pointers to other resources. (For example: do you know the difference between a CV and a resume?) The more specific the better, and including useful links is best of all. General griping and expressions of bitterness should be kept in the previous thread; let’s try to be productive. And there’s no reason to limit it to physics, all fields are welcome. Advice that is useful for only a tiny number of people, but extremely useful for them, is certainly sought. We’re looking for things that have a nontrivial chance of actually helping some specific person at a future date.

Most of all it would be great to have input from people who actually got a Ph.D. and then went on to do something else. But it’s the internet, everyone can chime in.

I will take what look like the most helpful suggestions and collate them into a separate post. Spread the word, let’s get as much input from different sectors as we can.

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70 Responses to Soliciting Advice: Non-Academic Careers for Ph.D.’s

  1. Ashe says:

    I’ve been looking into this as I’m trying to decide what I want to do in graduate school and came across this wonderful post about science jobs outside academia.

  2. Mod Scientist says:

    This was very helpful for me, not very active any more but still some great arcives.

  3. The Intersection says:

    Here’s a tried and true non-academic science career path (science policy):
    In April, I went to an event that featured John Holdren, the President’s S&T Advisor. He made the stunningly positive comment that there is no shortage of jobs for PhD’s with policy experience/training. Fellowships can help achieve the necessary experience. I’m well on my way to making this transition.
    Jamie Vernon

  4. BFG says:

    If you are nearing your PhD or are already a postdoc, then surely you have friends and former classmates who have already left your field for other careers. Start by talking to them. Nearly all of them will be very willing to share their experiences.

    Then, as you start to narrow down your career paths of interest, keep an eye out for people with backgrounds similar to yours. Chances are there will be some, unless you’re making a really radical career shift. Do not hesitate to cold-call or cold-email these people and ask for an informational interview. One of my biggest surprises was how willing complete strangers were to talk to me in this context.

  5. S says:

    I have come across a fair number of physics Phds who make very big (sometimes kind of random) jumps for post-doc work. I even know of several very nice sounding fellowships which this sort of activity (like from theoretical physics to theoretical neuroscience via a Swartz Fellow ). I’ve also noticed that there are always lots of physics Phds in engineering departments and have wondered how exactly they got there.

    So, I would also personally (as a Phd student) also like to hear stories/advice on making transitions within academia from more competitive fields to less competitive fields. It seems like an interesting option for Phd students and I’ve always wondered if people do it out of necessity or choice and how difficult it is to find out of field positions.

  6. Anne says:

    I defended in November and started a private sector job in January. One of the things that surprised me about the job hunt was how many companies are interested in hiring people with Ph.D.s in some sort of science (mine’s in astrophysics, but I think fields outside of physics are also sought), even if their business has nothing to do with the area in which the candidate got his or her Ph.D. I was recruited by a software company, a headhunter for quantitative finance, a company that does computational drug discovery, and a company that does contract R&D for medical & security applications. None of them had anything to do with the research I did in undergrad and grad school.

    If you’re open to trying something new, there are a lot of jobs out there that value Ph.D.s not so much for the specific research you did as for the abilities to think critically and analytically, work (quasi-)independently, and take a long view of a project (and see it through).

    Another thing I found was that the sorts of jobs you can get in academia tend to be on a certain schedule (especially with fellowship application deadlines), so if you’re a few months off that schedule–again, I defended in November–it can be hard to find something that’ll be starting up in the right time frame. Private sector opportunities tend to be more evenly distributed throughout the year.

    So: keep your mind open to new and different fields, and also to new and different locations! There are a lot of opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area, given the number of high-tech companies (both established and start-up) around here.

  7. KWK says:

    The American Physical Society’s Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) is a good resource:
    They’ve been disseminating information on “non-traditional careers” for some time now:
    along with more general career advice and resources:
    I encourage any grad students in physics and related disciplines to avail themselves of these–and the many other–career-advancement opportunities the FGSA provides.

  8. Jens says:

    Not sure if I should post since my advice is very non-specific. Still, maybe a few young-ones haven’t heard it, so here goes: Whatever choice of career or career-path you are about to decide on, it is a very good idea to go for what interests you rather than what might seem a good idea at the time. I say this as someone who could have gone both ways but (due to a bunch of things) chose to go for “what seemed a good idea at the time”, career and money-wise. I have since moved work-related-wise, bit-by-bit, from my choice at the time toward my real interest, and each step has seen a general increase in my work related happiness.

    A non-concrete but friendly reminder from an elderly 45-year old to the young ones.

  9. Steve Turrentine says:

    I can give an example of a Ph.D. in a non-academic field. I got mine in East Asian Languages, specializing in Japanese with a little Classical Chinese thrown in for good measure, from UC/B, a NON-mediocre univ., I might add. I applied to more than 100 colleges & univs. over a pd. of 2 to 3 yrs. & didn’t get job one, probably due to the fact that I wasn’t a native speaker of the language I wanted to teach & also my age, since by the time I turned in my diss. I’d hit the half century mark, so I’m certainly not a typical case here. Anyway, I’ve been working as a (mostly) self-employed Japanese document translator for the past 20 yrs., ever since I was an A.b.D. & my TA-ship ran out. Luckily, Japanese translators were & are few & far between so we can get paid pretty well & we don’t have much competition, compared to the more “common” languages, such as Spanish, French, German, etc., of which there’s more than a plethora. Altho this is admittedly a narrow field at least it’s one example of the situation.

  10. TedL says:

    Go to law school. Be a patent attorney. You don’t need a Ph.D., only a technical degree, but it helps.

  11. Dr Becca says:

    Prodigal Academic just put an alternate career advice aggregator up on her blog!

  12. Keith says:

    I am getting my Ph.D. in Neuroscience this year. I have a job as a researcher with the US Army Materiel Command lined up after I defend. It is in a government research lab that does a lot of industry/academia collaborations.

  13. banerjee says:

    Even though physicists tend to disparage patent offices (e.g., Einstein), for people who are curious about science and innovation, patent law is something that’s quite lucrative. Given the number of application for patents and the craze for “innovation” in modern economies, I would recommend a few years (post PhD or during PhD) getting a patent law degree.

  14. Lloyd Knox says:

    I am also an academic physicist and found myself in the uncomfortable position of being responsible for recruiting undergraduates, and having to answer this question posed by parents, “what will Johnny/Sally do with this degree?”

    In response I created our alumni seminar series. Every Monday of spring quarter we have one of our alumni come back and tell us about what they are doing out in the world. We’ve been doing this for four years now so I have seen a great variety of things people do with a physics degree (either bachelors or PhD).

    I encourage other departments (at other universities and in other fields as well) to adopt similar programs. It has been a great way for our students to learn about life beyond the university, envision possible futures, collect career advice, and even to begin networking. For me, it’s been really satisfying to see our alumni productively engaged in the world in a variety of ways and citing the benefits of their physics training.

    Next year I’m going to video/audio record all of them and post them on the internet somehow, possibly on itunesU. I’m also talking with American Institute of Physics representatives later this week because they are curious about the program.

    From all the stories I’ve heard, it backs up what Jens says above about doing what you love rather than what may seem to make better sense for other reasons.

  15. Geoff Davis says:

    There are lots of pointers on non-academic careers (jobs, too) at , a site I set up back in my (math) faculty days and have continued to maintain since moving to Microsoft and Google.

    Back in the 90’s SIAM did a nice report on what math in industry is like. It has held up well and is likely relevant to most people in quantitative fields:

  16. EB says:

    An excellent book (!) is Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists by Peter Fiske. It’s good at pointing out the culture shifts that one encounters shifting out of academia. Out of print, I think, but the department library might have a copy.

    I also liked “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, which has some “What Color Is Your Parachute”-style exercises good for academics of all stripes considering other career paths.

    The AAS maintains the Non-Academic Astronomers Network:

    I ended up taking a postdoc, but I seriously considered industry jobs in what’s being called “data science”, particularly good for programming-savvy types.

  17. considering says:

    Strategy consulting (eg McKinsey/BCG/Bain) is definitely an option for those with a PhD in anything involving quantitative work (so most physical science, sure, but also social science if you have a bit of stats/data cred). It may feel like you need an MBA to make the switch, but you don’t — you need to have an interest/ability in solving problems and a willingness to deal with the lifestyle. Consulting pays well, lets you work on surprisingly interesting problems and with interesting people, and offers the option of a shorter-term timescale (relative to academic research) for the problems you are working on. But, it does have a hefty travel schedule and hefty demand on your time (though realistically, you’re probably spending that much time a week working if you are in grad school or a postdoc anyway). However, you do have a high probability of being able to live in a city you’d like to live in, unlike what the faculty-job-chase can promise. The best way to start investigating this option is by talking to someone you know who works at one of the companies and/or going to recruiting events (which happen on most big campuses, often even targeted at PhDs). –advice from a postdoc who has a science PhD and declined a consulting offer to continue in the field for a little bit longer instead

  18. It seems that earth science is a promising field (, especially since it has A LOT of potential for growth and there are a lack of earth scientists with good analytical skills (which certainly isn’t helped by the stereotypes people have about earth scientists). But it’s now becoming more computational, and earth/planetary science PhD programs even seem to prefer Physics students to their own students.

    I’m not sure how much of this potential growth is academic and how much of it is non-academic though.

  19. James says:

    Whilst a biologist and not a physicist I have come to realise that me and research are not a good fit. I’m hoping to move into teaching or communication but am struggling to find permanent position in those fields without further study. This scares me as I am rapidly approaching the end of my PhD. Thank you for this thread, I’m looking forward to going through the links for advice and ideas 🙂

  20. Aaron says:

    Take some time to explore your other interests as a grad student or as a postdoc, and do it in a tangible form like joining a group or sitting in on a class. Not only does this let you get a good idea about other things you might want to do, if you do end up applying for jobs outside of academia, employers like to see a real expression of interest in what they do.

  21. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I wish I had more encouraging news, but things are a little scary in biotech these days. It’s still a growth industry, but outsourcing to contract research organizations (increasingly in Asia) and academia is putting real pressure on the U.S. industry research job market. Ten years ago I would have said you’re crazy not to consider a good biotech. Now? There’s been a palpable shift in the investment climate, and patience is in short supply. I’m starting to see people who have been bought out three, maybe four times, and not getting at all rich in the process (though that’s still possible, just learn to deal with the stress).

    It’s a living, but a demonstrably harder one than it used to be. You’ll be paid reasonably well, but feeling “safe” may be a thing of the past.

  22. Ken says:

    There was a scene in “Schindler’s List” where the Nazis lined up the Jews they had just rounded up and asked what they did for a living.
    I’m an historian,” answered one of the prisoners.
    A what?” Asked the guard.
    “He’s a polisher,” said the man on line behind him.
    The guard directed him to the group which got to live.

  23. Jeremy Hurwitz says:

    Here’s a post from 2 years ago from a CompSci perspective:

  24. I chose the National-laboratory option for my career. It combines the best (and worst) of academia and industry. You still get to use the skills you learned for your Ph.D. (although with perhaps a more applied slant), you still get to publish in academic journals and go to the same conferences, but your salary is generally higher than what you would get in a university for a comparable position. At least that’s been my experience.

  25. Marshall says:

    Not a perfect solution, but a good halfway-house is to encourage undergraduates to consider study outside of physics, such as engineering, chemistry, computer science, or my own field of earth science. I was taught throughout my undergraduate years to steer away from less ‘pure’ sciences, which sadly even included chemistry and biology, but as I work closer with these fields I am continually impressed by their accomplishments. Once you get outside of fringe fields like cosmology or high-energy particle physics, the lines between the various sciences are becoming increasingly blurred and interdisciplinary, with growing industries behind them. Researchers in these areas are also probably in a better position to discuss non-academic careers.