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Eight Alternative Career Paths for PhDs

Let’s face it: Academia is not for everyone. But if you have already put the time and effort into getting a PhD, you may feel trapped. The good news? You do not have to stay in academia to make the most of your PhD. Instead, pursue one of these eight career options instead.

Aug 27, 2018
  • Student Tips
Eight Alternative Career Paths for PhDs

Let’s face it: Academia is not for everyone. But if you have already put the time and effort into getting a PhD, you may feel trapped. The good news? You do not have to stay in academia the make the most of your PhD. Instead, pursue one of these eight career options instead.

1. Start-up founder

Have a brilliant idea for a startup or have other entrepreneurial aspirations? Your PhD may uniquely prepare you to found your own startup -- especially if it is in science, according to a recent Forbes article. Writer Anna Powers suggests several reasons why science PhDs are positioned to succeed as entrepreneurs, including their problem-solving abilities; strong work ethic; and perseverance.

“In essence science education, especially in the later stages where independent research is required, is the best preparation for entrepreneurship because it teaches one how to think about problems and how to solve them. In pursuing a science PhD, one learns how to think creatively about solving problems with the data given while also learning to persevere, to keep moving forward without giving up after one failed try,” argues Powers.

2. Consulting

Management consulting jobs are in big demand, and while MBA grads usually come to mind when we think of these sought-after positions, PhDs are also a good fit due to their strong analytical skills and ability to break down 'big picture' problems, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Don’t have any business experience? Don’t worry: If you’ve got the math competence, many larger firms will put you through 'business boot camp' to get you up to speed.

3. Finance

As with management consulting jobs, while your PhD may not specifically relate to the world of finance, your quantitative skills and technical expertise will open up several career options in finance, such as quantitative analysis and equity research., a leading international job board for academic, research, science and related careers, says, “Financial organizations from global banks to investment banking specialists to private trading companies will welcome applications from PhD graduates who can demonstrate relevant expertise and experience for roles requiring quantitative and research skills. Some of the larger organizations even have dedicated positions and internship schemes specifically for PhDs.”

4. Law

Depending on your field of study, your technical expertise may make you suitable for a position as a scientific advisor and/or patent agent at an intellectual property firm.

“Most scientists who become patent professionals are attracted by the prospect of staying close to cutting-edge science without being tied to the bench or to one particular project. Greater interactions with a range of people, regular working hours, generous compensation, and job stability are among the advantages academics find in the patenting world,” according to Science magazine.

Of his experiences in leaving the lab behind, chemical engineering PhD Jing Fung Tan says, “We get to exercise our creativity when inventors come in with their inventions and we try to help them…to develop it if possible, if not, [to figure out] how best to protect it...In science, to me it was very black and white -- either the experiments work, or they don’t -- whereas when I started getting into the [patent] profession, I realized that they introduce a shade of grey. It’s not exactly wrong, but neither is it completely correct, so there is always room for argument in any situation.”

5. Museum scientist

Scientists with natural history degrees may find exciting opportunities awaiting them at museums. The benefits of a museum job are many. Nature says, “Scientists who work in museums enjoy a dynamic mix of laboratory and field research, collection managing, outreach and education, and exhibition design.”

And while the work of most academics does have potential to make an impact, museum scientists have the chance to see the results in a much more immediate way. “When I work on an exhibition, I realize that maybe a million visitors a year will see it. That’s an incredible opportunity, says John Flynn, chair and curator of fossil mammals at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

6. Science outreach

Another non-academic job with the potential to help promote science? Science outreacher. Science magazine explains, “Science outreach careers bring science to the public in many settings, whether it's by putting on special programs at the university, giving workshops in the community, or going into school classrooms. It's a teaching gig, with the widest possible audience.”

7. Science writer

Writing skills are a must as a PhD student. They can also come in handy after you complete your PhD if you are thinking of working outside the academy as a science writer.

Enago Academy suggests, “Popular science communicators have science and media qualifications with a passion to cover exciting new developments in science and technology (Pearson 2017). Moreover, the platforms for science communication are also expanding beyond the traditional newspapers to print, online, TV, radio, podcasts, and videos. The field is clearly undergoing rapid change with the growing opportunity to produce quality digital and print content.”

8. Product manager

We live in a world rife with disruption world. And playing a significant role in bringing innovative new products to market are product managers (PMs).

According to tech site CIO, “Project managers play the lead role in planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing projects. They are accountable for the entire project scope, project team, resources, and the success or failure of the project.”

Integrative Academic Solutions’ Chris Humphry says of this exciting path, “Project management as a discipline is great in so many ways: it gives you a framework for making and delivering something new from scratch. You get a fantastic feeling when you take an idea on a scrap of paper and see it through all the stages of development until customers are actually using it!”

One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to landing a non-academic job as a PhD? While your expertise is very much in demand, making the case for your candidacy is ultimately up to you. advises, “Articulate and evidence your key competencies and experience in a well-written, concise CV or in an online application. Make sure that you tailor your application to the specific job role.”

Learn more about studying for a PhD.

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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