As a first generation university student, woman in STEM and PhD, I embarked on this journey very naively. I’ll be honest with you - my lack of exposure to STEM growing up meant I had a very stereotypical view of what a career in science would look like. I thought it was just spending time at the lab bench doing research from start to end. But I could not have been more wrong.
I will never be able to thank enough the absolutely incredible community of scientists and engineers that I have connected with through social media and the contacts that I have had the honour of making here in the UK and beyond for helping me to unlock and climb out of my science career box. The networks, knowledge and my own experiences outside of the PhD lab opened my eyes to endless possibilities of what a career as a scientist could look like.
As part of this blog post, I wanted to share just seven of career options that I’ve learnt about only during my PhD as food for thought for those finishing their studies, wanting to explore other career options or wanting to learn more about what a career as a scientist looks like. Here they are:
1. Science editor
Many of us are well aware of the importance of publishing in academia and as part of a research career. But if you are sick and tired of pipetting or fixing the mistakes in your code, yet you still want to continue learning about new concepts and knowledge, then maybe a career as a scientific editor is for you. It would be your job to communicate and distribute all the latest research findings through peer reviewing articles, producing and marketing the journal and you even get opportunities to write some articles too.
2. Medical writer
This may come as a surprise to you, but some people out there actually find the thesis writing stage of their PhD enjoyable. I was one of those. So, if you prefer the writing aspect of your PhD more than the research then a career as a medical writer could be for you. As a medical writer, you get to work alongside doctors, scientists, pharma and other health professionals to develop a huge variety of content and resources. That could include patient information leaflets, website copy, educational materials, speaker briefs and presentations for conferences, medical reports, press releases and journal manuscripts for peer review to name just a few. All your work is done on behalf of your clients, so if getting acknowledgement for writing manuscripts is what you are looking for then this might not be the correct option for you. You also need an incredible eye for detail to format all content accurately, but there is a lot of potential for travel if you are looking for that too.
3. Patent attorney
If you are interested in law, and don’t want to be at the lab bench, then maybe explore a journey to becoming a patent attorney. This option would require doing extra qualifications, which sometimes you can do on the job, but you would then be able to represent clients in obtaining patents to protect their work. These could involve new methods and equipment for carrying out research or it could involve an output from research like a drug, therapeutic antibody or limb prosthetic for example, and they are just healthcare examples.
Okay - so I realised that there would be salespeople in the research world when I started along this path. But what I didn’t realise was that they all had scientific backgrounds. It seems obvious now that the individuals who were going to try and convince you that their products were better than the one you were already using must know how they are used to be able to do that. So, if you were more interested in the actual doing of experiments and fixing any problems over the results you got out of them, and if you have the ‘gift of the gab’ then I would suggest taking a look into a career in scientific sales. Clients will also come to you looking for product recommendations so it is more than just persuasion in this role. Lots of these jobs also come with a lot of company perks too.
5. Technical Support
If you have ever bought a product from a company and it is not producing the results it should be, picking up the phone or answering the emails you send to the company will be someone in technical support. This could be for reagents or equipment, but the individual on the end of the phone has extensive experience in those techniques and could advise you on trying to resolve your problems. These roles can have a little bit of lab work incorporated in if you still wanted to dabble every now and again without doing the ‘basic science’ research. So, similarly to the salesperson, if you thrived on solving the issues from your experiments in the lab, then you might want to explore if you would be a good fit for a technical support team.
6. Science policy
When doing research, we all hope that what we do will help with an issue in society and contribute towards a solution. But the likelihood that we will achieve that is not very high. But if you have an enthusiasm for science and its broader relevance for society is what drives you, then perhaps you want to take the leap in a science policy career. Many people get involved with policy to show how discoveries within a lab can benefit everyone in a community and aim to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. You will use skills and knowledge to translate highly technical scientific issues into something that can be easily understood, so clear, concise communication is key. Politicians rely on policy experts to produce scientific reports and interpret laws and bills to inform decision making. So, if you are looking to make an impact on society with your STEM career, then explore policy as an option.
7. Science communicator
This area of work is all about sharing scientific knowledge and information with non-experts, and explaining or presenting it in an easy to understand way. The term science communicator is incredibly broad and encompasses a huge variety of roles including science journalism, public engagement practitioner, museum educator, social media manager and so much more. As someone who has made the leap from lab based research into science communication, I cannot highlight the diversity within each role enough. If you are looking to move into science communication, my advice would be to read the job description thoroughly. Two jobs with the same job title might in fact require completely different day to day work, and two jobs that have the same duties could be called completely different things. A career in science communication also has so much potential - you can run events, create videos, write articles, share content on social media, work with artists or schools, in academic institutions, for charities or on a freelance basis. But it does allow you to learn about so much of the latest research from different fields and be creative with sharing that.
So, they are just seven of the ‘alternative’ science careers I learnt about during my PhD. There are seriously so many more I could tell you about - but most of these I looked into and applied for jobs in myself so I am always happy to answer any questions anyone has about these roles and what I learnt from my interviews. But I want to wrap this up by saying how we need to celebrate scientists in all different career paths. Working in science communication or medical communications rather than in an academic research lab does not make you any less of a scientist. We also need to show all the different career options to the next generation, and show them that being a scientist doesn’t just consist of working at a lab bench doing research - but you can utilise any other of your skills and passions into a whole heap of careers. Being a scientist is not just one thing, and we need to shout about that.