From science PhD to careers outside academia: what might help?

By Grant Jacobs 29/01/2013

(Update: This article is for those who want to browse and explore the topic. Those wanting to get to the meat of it may like to head straight to the Some possible questions section.)

Not just outside academia, but also outside science.

If we are to believe BugGirl’s blog post, some might describe leaving academia as escaping from the cult!

Statistics suggest this is the path of the majority of science Ph.D. graduates. What might help?


This article is intended to highlight some themes and elements to encourage discussion. This post is in part background to a session at ScienceOnline2013.[1] The original description of the ScienceOnline2013 session has been copied to Footnote 2, below. ScienceOnline conference is an ‘unconference’ – a meeting intended to dominated by the audience input.

With that in mind, I’m leaving my own thoughts to the comments, to encourage readers to do the same.

Most people reading this article and attending the ScienceOnline session are most likely already aware that 50% or so of science PhD graduates do not go on to work in science (whether in academia in or not).

Please share your thoughts – it’s the aim of this! I’d strongly encouraged a focus on practical, useful, things that might be taken up in universities. (Some may argue no changes are needed and it is the students’ issue.)

Laying out the scene

Below are a few statistics that I’ve located. They’re hardly enough to give a complete picture but they may serve as a start towards a quantitative account of the current situation. (My time to locate these has been limited: if readers know of other graphs or datasets, please let me know and I will add them as updates.) Be a little careful about comparing data from different countries – the science systems and career structures are likely to differ.

New Zealand

(Source: MoRST, click on image for original.)

Note that ~50% of those that get to a ‘permanent’ position, also leave academia. You could read this several ways, one being the ‘permanent’ positions aren’t really so permanent, a lack of want to stay on and so on. (This is why in the post that I first presented this graphic, I was particularly interested in this branch in the pathways: I wondered if there were lessons to learn about the academic career structure there.)


An informal collection of statistics on science careers in Australia can be found at Sans science that is worth read: Busting university myths for students – graduate employment rates like an ugly actress in Hollywood

ANU (Australian National University) offers careers information, including some statistics.

ANU’s graduate destinations survey claims to offer time-series data. (I’d investigate this, but as explained in the Footnote I can’t take this further.)

The UK

(Original from The Royal Society publication, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity.)

You’ll see that the broad trend is similar to within New Zealand.[3]


The NSF gathers statistics on science careers. If readers are aware of tidy summaries of their findings, let me know.


I was alerted to this graph showing a distinct rise in basic biomedical Ph.D.s awarded in the USA since the mid 2000s:

Credit: ACS Webinar:

If the USA has a similar post-PhD career progression as the graphs for the UK and New Zealand (above), this would suggest that there may be a corresponding rise in biomedical PhD graduates from universities in the USA  looking for non-academic jobs (unless there is a large number of retirements in basic biomedical academia soon). Some discussion about this graph can be found on the chemjobber blog.

Europe, rest of world

Some international statistics are available from EuroStat and UNESCO, introduced in the Science Careers blog. A brief inspection suggests that these are not so useful for our purposes, as they don’t appear to relate particular careers with what training the applicants had. It is worth noting that the unemployment rate of science Ph.D.s is low, but the question here is what they are employed doing, compared to their training, rather than were they employed at all.


An informal collection of statistics on science careers in Australia at Sans science: Busting university myths for students – graduate employment rates like an ugly actress in Hollywood

“From 1973 to 2006, for example, the number of biological-sciences Ph.D. recipients in tenure-track positions six years after receiving their degree dropped from 55 percent to 15 percent, and it continues to fall.”

(From Jon Bardin’s article at The Chronicle of Higher Education, For Science Ph.D.’s, There Is No One True Path.)

“Across all scientific fields, NSF data suggest that only about 23 percent of Ph.D.s land tenure or tenure-track positions at academic institutions within three to five years of finishing grad school.”

(From Daniel Lametti’s piece in Slate, which attracted it’s share of criticism. The figure quoted sounds too high to me.)

“Although Ph.D.s reported being challenged by and prepared for their jobs, there appears to be a disconnect in understanding exactly what those positions entail, as only 57% of Ph.D. recipients indicated that their jobs were what they expected them to be when they began their studies.”

Source: Starting Salaries and C&EN. (Chemistry and Engineering.)

Possible non-academic careers

What careers might make use of science PhD graduates?

  • Biotechnology sector
  • Science writing/journalism
  • Non-profits
  • Museum staff
  • Public or government sector
  • Teaching
  • Consultancy
  • Science administration
  • Intellectual property (e.g. patents, etc.)
  • Entrepreneur (use your science skills to spot market opportunities and make them happen)
  • Be sent to Afghanistan as a trouble-shooter, a real-life scientific detective. Seriously: the UK’s MoD hires scientists as described in rpg’s article at Occam’s Typewriter. (See quote in Skills, below.)

Readers are welcome to add their own careers to the list. More can likely be found in the I am Science series. (If you google “I am science” (including the quotation marks) you will find more material on other sites.)

These sites may provide further reading:


What have science PhD graduates to offer in non-academic and non-science careers?

Obviously, in science-based non-academic careers their science skills are relevant. What of the non-science careers?

It’s worth remembering that for some (many, most?) students there appears to be a disconnect between what academic science careers are perceived to offer and the reality. A NextScientist article summarised these as: Work at bench, focus on science, creativity v. administration, people management and finance.

“What’s more important for the MOD’s Special Advisers is the ability to think scientifically about a problem, to break it down into its component parts and, perhaps most importantly, to be able to talk about it to their military colleagues.” (From On Being Mainstream by rpg at Occam’s Typewriter.)

My Independent Development Plan, at Science Careers (part of Science magazine), offers ‘Exercises to help you examine your skills, interests, and values’.[5]

A related aspect is thinking about your work in terms of skills and marketing your abilities and talents rather than the formal qualification per se.[6]

Some possible questions (conversation starters)

These are offered as starters. Readers should feel free to make their own, too. Some of these are derived from conversations or from reading in the list cited below.

  • No one in music or hockey prepares the elite students for an alternative career. Should science be different? (Does this change who people consider are the élite from the very top researchers to “merely” holding a career position?)
  • How make awareness of wider career range an *integral* part of Ph.D., rather than a bolt-on or relying on individual staff or PIs to cover this on their own initiative?
  • Should the PhD degree evolve? Bear in mind PhDs differ in different parts of the world. (Should PhDs train for more than just academic research?)
  • What are the transferrable skills from a PhD?
  • What particular skills might complement a PhD? (Yes, even more training!)
  • What can people who work outside of academia do to assist? (Academia can seem like a closed fortress once you’ve left!)

Other resources
Offered no particular order. You could, of course, find these and many, many more yourself… I’ve left my own writing on this topic to the Other reading section at the end of this piece. If readers know of particularly good pieces, feel free to suggest them. (But better still, suggest ways for universities to address where most of their Ph.D. graduates end up – outside academia.)


Prospects (which bills itself as ‘the UK’s official graduate careers website’)

Vitae (realising the potential of researchers)

Graduate Careers (Australia)

Science Careers blog (Science Careers is a section of Science magazine)


Sans science: Busting university myths for students – graduate employment rates like an ugly actress in Hollywood

NSF, Rolf F. Lehming (1998): What is Happening to Academic Employment of Scientists and Engineers? (While older, this has some backstory, which I feel might be useful.[4])

Nature, news feature: Education: The PhD factory (by David Cyranoski , Natasha Gilbert , Heidi Ledford , Anjali Nayar & Mohammed Yahia)

Opinion pieces (mostly those with suggestions/advice)

NextScientist, Sara Shinton: 3 Questions You Should Ask Your PhD Supervisor Before Choosing A Career In Science?

Anthene Donald writing at Occam’s Typewriter: So You Don’t Know What You Want To Do Next?

Nature (editorial): Fix the PhD

The Chronicle of Higher Education: For Science Ph.D.’s, There Is No One True Path

Science Careers Blog: The Worth of a Science Ph.D. (Beryl Benderly, in reply to Daniel Lametti’s piece, Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time?)

Case histories

While it’s interesting to read other’s stories, bear in mind we’re looking for practical suggestions to move forward, not dwelling on what is or might have been! I’m not endorsing these: different people will want different things – I’ve tried not to be (too) biased to my my point of view. (There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of these accounts on-line. Let’s focus on what can assist students.)

Vitae has a database and links on their graduate career stories project. You can filter results by research subject.

Anonymous: The truth of the academic job hunt – even one with a happy ending (The Guardian. See also comments.)

Writer Emily Willingham: The day I decided to leave academia

From Occam’s Typewriter, rpg: On Being Mainstream

blog.devicerandom: Goodbye academia, I get a life.

rxnm: Journal Editors and Alt-Career Shaming

Quips / quotes
(Conversation starters, if you will. I would add more or delete this section (see Footnote) but this isn’t a bad starter, especially given it was live-tweeted!)

Dr Krystal tweeting the #EMCRForum (‏@dr_krystal):

Create a CV or biography that is tailored for purpose. Highlight transferable skills: management, communication, advocacy

Alternative careers: Need to shift out of academic mindset – Reframe your CV to highlight your skills & what you have achieved.

Clay: When looking at your career pathway – Consider what you do NOT want to do, as well as what you WANT to do.

Retaining credibility is important. Researchers claim “Administrators don’t get us” Need to continue to be relevant to research.

Make things happen & grab opportunities. Key positions are often not advertised. Arise from saying “I want to work in this space”

“Network! Network! Network!” says Moira Clay @loscienziato “Without being a stalker”

Scientists are life long learners with strong problem solving skills – valuable to public service. Hawes at #EMCRForum


This has gone out loosely than I would like owing to a sore eye. I’d like to have drawn material out of the resources I’ve linked to and present them directly, but it’ll have to do. (Of all things, while jogging last night a bee or wasp flew into my face, got trapped between my glasses and my good eye, then stung my eyelid. Ouch! While my eyelid hasn’t swollen up enough to stop me seeing easily, it is tiring working with a sore eye so this isn’t as tight or direct as I’d like it to be.)

1. I was invited to co-moderate on the non-academic careers session but am unable to attend.

2. Here’s the introductory description of the ScienceOnline session:

Alternative Careers ARE the Mainstream! Taking Your Degree to a New Level

Moderated by Kevin Zelnio and Grant Jacobs

Only 2-10% of PhD graduates in any given year will ultimately end up in the coveted, grail-like, tenure-track position. Only a smaller proportion still will actually receive tenure. Despite this, we keep training scientists from the start of their careers that this should be the aspiration. When so few graduate students ever make it there, or even WANT to make it there, how can the norm for a science career be a tenure-track academic? Out in the wider world many science graduates are on the front lines where policies get shaped, public opinions get changed, pseudoscience gets debunked, and where we aide our academic colleagues in creating real hope and change. In addition to commercial science, many science graduates run non-profit conservation organizations, form patient and health advocacy groups, work to improve law, develop software and new analytical tools and advise movers and shakers in a wide variety of sectors. There’s a veritable Nerd Army always looking for a few good Sci’s. But how to get there, from the universities to these non-academic careers?

This session will draw on the collective wisdom of those attending to provide ammo for those unsure of their place in this world. Scientists are more broadly trained than we often give ourselves credit for and can leverage many of scientific skills in other areas. Questions we hope to address include:

  • How do we make students aware that they most likely will not be doing research science after their degree?
  • Where and how can students and early career people find emotional support for getting off the academic career meth? Need to move from personal stories (such as #IamScience) to practical paths.
  • What are our transferable skills and how do we shift from our research focus to marketing our abilities and talents?
  • How do we teach students to think more entrepreneurially and highlight the wide variety of scientific careers that may be more readily accessible to them?
  • What are the sectors that hire science graduates? Examples from industry, biotech/pharma, science writing/journalism, freelance/self-employment, non-profit and government.

The title is the original, although the agenda has slightly changed — try not to be limited by it.

3. There’s a footnote in a piece showing this graph noting that “The 53% who appear to leave science after their PhDs actually leave academia – many of them move into science related posts outside universities.” I have to admit this confuses me, as ‘non-university research’ is already accounted for. Perhaps they mean non-research non-academic science positions?

4. I’m keen on the idea that you ought to know the history of the topic you’re looking into. It seems to me that a lot of discussions on this topic are lacking this perspective. I would like to see articles from science historians on science careers, institutions and career structures – I feel they might have useful perspectives to add. (Note that’s very much about people who do science for a living, rather than those that don’t, but it would provide a useful framework to understand how the present scenario has arrived. For what it’s worth Richard Holmes The Age of Wonder touches on this a little and other biographies of scientists give an impression of what things might have been like for famous (or famous-to-be) scientists in their time.)

5. I haven’t tried this. I would be interested to hear what others think of it.

6. Let me break my rule of not offering my thoughts for a moment. I’ve previously touched on that students might use their university studies to learn what their strengths are and to focus on what might be a ‘fit’ to the skills they have. A common theme I’ve seen is students taking the next step without considering the full range of options and what might make a good ‘fit’ to their skills, aims, situation, etc.

Other articles on Code for life about non-academic careers:

Science PhD career preferences surveyed

Career paths, redux — the academic research career is the exception

On alternatives to academic careers and ’letting go’

’Other’ career paths — #IamScience

Scientists’ other lives

Universities and (lack of) showcasing use of science degrees

Advice for students heading to university

Career pathways for NZ science Ph.D. students

0 Responses to “From science PhD to careers outside academia: what might help?”

  • Hmm, we are quiet 🙂

    Loose thoughts, then.

    Several things –

    Awareness before enrolling in a Ph.D. program. Try encourage students to have some idea of their longer-term goals, for example.

    Training within in a Ph.D. Not to replace the current style of Ph.D. training, but augment it.

    Bridging out to a wider range of careers towards the end of the Ph.D. (Ideally you want that first job lined up well before the thesis is submitted.)

    While I’m writing, there’s some discussion at the New Zealand Assoc. of Scientists: (See also my earlier posts on the topic.)

  • Interesting compilation. A huge obstacle is to make it OK to not be a TT faculty member–i.e. changing the culture of Academia. I also think these numbers should be shown to each PhD student. They should know their odds at the beginning.

  • Michele – thanks for the link.

    Amy – it’s something I’ve thought about myself. (It’s hard not to ruminate on this topic!) I think there is much larger picture that ought to be looked at, including the whole career structure. For me how funding agencies define their targets is an important element, as they’re carrying a model of an idealised career structure in their exclusion criteria. (Or what I’ve come to consider exclusion criteria.) Others are suggesting that fewer PhD students should be taken on. One of many recent takes on this is this by Professor Paula Stephan at Chemistry World:

    For those new to twitter, those @alias things Amy and Michele added after their names are their twitter accounts. I’m @BioinfoTools (the name of my computational biology consultancy).

  • I’ve added an update to the article to include a graph showing a distinct rise in the number of basic biomedical science PhDs awards in the USA since the mid-2000s. If the USA has a similar post-PhD career progression as the graphs for the UK and New Zealand, this might suggest a corresponding rise in biomedical PhD graduates from universities in the USA looking for non-academic jobs (unless there is a large number of retirements due soon).

  • […] harder. And then there’s what happens after you get into industry. Grant Jacobs writes that (in the sciences in NZ at least), many doctoral students leave to industry after getting their … and many of those who do leave within a few years. See this terrifying diagram). And then […]

  • I’m a current PhD student interested in a career outside of academia. I recently started investigating science writing as a potential career path and have come to realize that there’s a lot of career options for a PhD outside of academia and industry that I was unaware of. The question as to how this kind of information can be integrated into PhD training is a good one. A seminar series featuring people from a diverse range of science careers is one possible avenue. Also, it would be helpful if courses from other departments were cross-listed, for example science policy or environmental writing courses.

  • Hi Jenna,

    Good to hear you’re looking at all the possibilities.

    Seminars (or workshops) are one thing that might help. One little exercise I can imagine these doing is to simply have those attending write down their qualifications in terms of skills (rather than certificates or whatnot), then take a list of jobs and see how many of the skills they can match with what the jobs use. It sounds like something out of high school (!), but it gets you thinking about the jobs from a skills point of view rather than “Ph.D.”

    Your mentioning science policy raises a question: how many universities have courses specifically offering training in this?

    For what it’s worth, I think science writing, while interesting (well, I think is it interesting), is also a pretty hard thing to make a decent income off. At least that’s the impression I get from others.

    (Just so you know – now your first comment here has been approved here, your comments will come through without having to wait for me to moderate them.)

  • Scicurious has added another element that might help – PIs (Principal Investigators, heads of research labs) maintaining contact with those who have moved to work outside academia as contacts to assist future students or post-docs who want to do the same:

    She suggests that people within academia tend to forget those who move outside it, but suggests that they actually know quite a few and should make use of those contacts.

    Worth checking the comments that follow, too.

  • […] The other daunting thing is the intensity of the competition. For most specialized scientific topics, there are far more PhD degrees than job postings: across all of science, doctoral degrees outnumber faculty positions by a ratio of 12 to one. An advertisement for a fellowship or junior faculty position will routinely draw hundreds of applications, and only 1%-2% of graduates will eventually land a coveted professorship. […]