The Road Less Traveled: Alternative Career Paths for PhDs
Advances in modern biology, genetic discoveries, and personalized therapy continue to excite and attract a growing number of students into medical research. Although scientists are trained at great length and expense to excel in academic research, extensive competition for academic positions is becoming increasingly challenging. The 2014 National Academics report indicated that of the 65 percent of PhD graduates who continued into postdoc positions in academia, only 15 to 20 percent were able to secure tenure-track faculty posts. The academic bottleneck that trainees face can be attributed to a reduced number of positions, due to limitations in National Institutes of Health funding. Traditionally, consideration of alternative career paths was considered a “failure to succeed” in an academic environment. Lately, however, there has been a paradigm shift, with emerging success stories in a variety of nonacademic careers.
Although there are many alternative career options, the pathways to success in these areas are not readily apparent. Laboratory research training is relevant to careers in the biotech industry, start-ups, clinical research, scientific journalism, and teaching. Additionally, scientists are well suited for roles in consulting, project management, medical science liaising, market research, product marketing, clinical and regulatory affairs, and technology transfer. Developing an early understanding of the academic route versus alternative paths certainly helps to build a successful plan for successfully fulfilling the career of one’s choice. It is important for trainees to realize that the skills acquired during PhD, including delivering presentations, medical writing, and project management, are also relevant to many nonacademic jobs. Trainees should keep an open mind throughout their training and recognize the numerous ways in which they can contribute to an array of intellectually challenging fields.
To guide our fellow trainees, the ASH Trainee Council organizes career development sessions at the ASH annual meeting, which allow trainees to interact with leaders in nontraditional fields. For further guidance, we captured the experiences of three young scientists just making some pivotal career decisions:
- Dr. Leah Hogdal from Harvard Medical School describes her decision to leave her post doc position at Vanderbilt University, for a senior scientist role at a biotech startup: “I am a bit risk-averse, so the inherent risk of joining a startup made me a little nervous. I took several courses on science entrepreneurship during graduate school/postdoc, and I enjoyed learning about the business side of science. The biggest difference from academia is that I have had to learn to wear many hats. I’d say 50 percent of my efforts go toward research projects, 30 percent to writing grants, 15 percent to customer projects, and 5 percent to marketing.”
- Dr. Lana Dinic from Harvard Medical School discusses her decision to leave academia for a consultancy role: “The decision to transition out of academia was hard to make because I was very passionate about my field of research. Ultimately though, my restless personality saw a better fit in consulting. Indeed this transition seemed challenging at first due to the rapid pace of consulting and quick turnarounds, yet it allowed me to get exposed to a multitude of different biomedical topics.”
- Dr. Cheryl H. Andreoli from Roswell Park Cancer Institute describes her decision to leave academia for a scientist role in the U.S. Navy: “While I was interviewing for postdoctoral positions I felt the deep desire to serve our country instead, just as four generations of my family had done. I learned about the Naval Microbiology Officer program and never looked back. As a naval scientist, I travel the world assessing and building labs, running surveillance projects in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and fostering scientific relationships with foreign countries.”
In summary, the roles described here involve a significant scientific component and demonstrate the variety of ways in which trainees can contribute to the medical field.