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

By Sean Carroll | May 18, 2011 2:05 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Top Posts
  • http://twitter.com/mzskeptica Ashe

    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. http://www.scienceboard.net/community/perspectives.20.html

  • Mod Scientist

    This was very helpful for me, not very active any more but still some great arcives. http://alternative-scientist.blogspot.com/

  • The Intersection

    Here’s a tried and true non-academic science career path (science policy):
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/08/23/updated-policy-fellowships-for-scientists-engineers/
    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.
    Cheers,
    Jamie Vernon

  • BFG

    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.

  • S

    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.

  • Anne

    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.

  • KWK

    The American Physical Society’s Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) is a good resource:
    http://www.aps.org/units/fgsa/
    They’ve been disseminating information on “non-traditional careers” for some time now:
    http://www.aps.org/units/fgsa/careers/non-traditional/index.cfm
    along with more general career advice and resources:
    http://www.aps.org/units/fgsa/resources/career.cfm
    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.

  • Jens

    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.

  • Steve Turrentine

    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.

  • TedL

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

  • http://scientopia.org/blogs/drbecca Dr Becca

    Prodigal Academic just put an alternate career advice aggregator up on her blog! http://theprodigalacademic.blogspot.com/p/non-academic-science-career-information.html

  • Keith

    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.

    http://www.arl.army.mil/www/default.cfm?page=31

  • banerjee

    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.

  • Lloyd Knox

    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.

  • http://www.phds.org Geoff Davis

    There are lots of pointers on non-academic careers (jobs, too) at http://www.phds.org/ , 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: http://www.siam.org/about/mii/

  • EB

    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: http://members.aas.org/career/nonacademic/bycareertype.cfm

    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. http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/06/what-is-data-science.html

  • considering

    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

  • http://www.atmos.uw.edu/~achen89 Alex K Chen (Simfish InquilineKea)

    It seems that earth science is a promising field (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v473/n7346/full/nj7346-243a.html), 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.

  • http://diseaseprone.fieldofscience.com James

    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 :)

  • Aaron

    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.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    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.

  • Ken

    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.

  • Jeremy Hurwitz

    Here’s a post from 2 years ago from a CompSci perspective: http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2009/12/academia_vs_industry_an_update.php

  • http://www.twitter.com/quietphysicist the quiet physicist

    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.

  • Marshall

    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.

  • Lisa Gorski

    I have a PhD in Microbiology. Didn’t want an academic position where I’d write grants all the time, and didn’t want to work 14 hour days in industry. I found a Federal job. I do basic research for the Agricultural Research Service, the research arm of the USDA.

    It’s in between academia and industry. I run my own research program within the mission of the Research Unit. I publish, I’m pretty autonomous in my research projects.

    I have job security, access to top equipment and technology, and an able to satisfy my scientific curiosity and have a life

    I could certainly make more money in industry, but I have control of my projects and I work a normal work day

    All Fed jobs are listed at http://www.usajobs.gov

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/bioephemera bioephemera

    With all due respect, I suggest taking TedL’s advice at #10 (become a patent attorney) with a grain of salt. Law school is an expensive* three-year commitment, and for most new PhDs, it’s not a good first resort. It’s a good option to consider, but there are easier, faster, and cheaper ways to escape the lab (like policy fellowships). Further, your PhD will be of limited advantage to you in the legal sector. While scientists will likely be relatively underrepresented in law for the foreseeable future, a science PhD is only directly advantageous if you intend to enter a very specific legal subfield, mainly patent law (and who knows, you may change your mind when you start reading the caselaw – patent law is kind of insane). Even in patent law, as TedL notes, you don’t need the PhD. And your PhD will rarely earn you higher salary or seniority when you graduate, because most law jobs are lockstep – everyone enters at the same rung. Unless you genuinely had independent interests in law, politics, policy and writing, and have considered a legal career path very carefully, it’s a far safer decision to try a patent *agent* position first (which requires an undergrad technical degree but, unlike a patent attorney career, no law degree).

    *some law schools will give you a lot of financial aid, but they are not always the best schools to attend, particularly in this job market. Say what you will about grad school, but at least in the sciences you rarely finish in debt to the tune of $100K. . . !

    PS. Thanks for doing this – and thanks for the link, too. ;)

  • Pingback: Soliciting Advice: Non-Academic Careers for Ph.D.’s | Cosmic Variance | Freelance and Blogger Jobs World()

  • Postdoc

    Two friends started a website where physicists who left academia can report their experiences. Check it out: http://www.beyond-physics.org/ or on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/beyondphysics

  • LindaCO

    Another gushing thanks for a timely post. I’ve been working in a lab as a government contractor for five years post- Ph.D., but am not getting renewed next year. I want to work in the field of science communication and will check out these links.

  • Cosmonut

    I did a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago (I audited Sean’s cosmology classes while there) and joined a quant desk at Morgan Stanley.

    If working in an investment bank doesn’t disgust you, you can find a lot of resources including sample interview questions at http://www.wilmott.com

    One tip – Good programming skills in C++ are a big bonus.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    Couples have special challenges figuring out how to pursue two careers and start a family. My wife and I decided to start our family while we were in graduate school. After completing my Ph.D., I was at-home-dad for several years, then went into teaching, and am finally getting back into research now that my son is in his teens and more independent. Meanwhile my wife was able to focus on her career as a primary care doctor and is doing quite well. If having kids is a high priority, consider it.

    Advantages: Having and raising kids earlier is physically easier. You can still “do it all,” just not all at once. I have been really involved with my son’s life. (I taught his math class in 3rd grade, and will probably have him again in calculus based physics in high school.) I met a wonderful variety of other parents. When our son leaves for college we will be in our early forties, young enough to enjoy a few decades of kid free time together.

    Challenges: Intellectually isolating, but the internet helps. (I taught an on-line string theory course.) Sometimes I feel like I’m not really contributing because I don’t bring in much income, but my wife strongly protests this view, since I has made her life so much easier. It is hard to get back up to speed after a decade out of research.

    Economics: Saved a ton of money on child care. Earned some money tutoring and teaching. Wife’s career progressed more quickly. Since we’ve been living on one income for a decade, there isn’t any panic for me to start pulling in a full income as I get back in. I can try different things and have been part-time on a couple of research grants.

    Many couples put off having kids for the right time only to find that it isn’t ever the right time to have your career totally disrupted.

    Special note to men: This advice is for you, not for you to give to your wife / fiancé / girl friend. Do you think she hasn’t though of this? Really, don’t be stupid. If she does stay home know that when it isn’t working for her anymore, you need to support her reentry to work, even if it means a big disruption to your career.

    Special note to women: Maybe you should suggest this to your man. More men should be at-home-dads, and many never even think of it. Mention mountain biking.

    If you are thinking about this, feel free to contact me. I have a unique name, so The Google should lead you to me pretty quickly.

    Good Luck!

  • http://mirror2image@wordpress.com Serge

    Computer vision/image processing in industry! There are enough CV researchers in academy, but woeful shortage of engineers with strong math background in industry. BTW that’s create huge gap between academic proof of concepts and industrial implementations. Math background should be really strong – statistics, functional analysis, numerical methods (esp convex/nonlinear minimization) elements(actually big chunks)of algebr. topology and differential geometry, differential equations and method borrowed from physics directly- physics Ph.D toolset seems fit perfectly. The only problem could be recruiters may not recognize relevant experience

  • Andrew

    I actually landed and took one of those academic tenure-track jobs (in physics), and eventually left for industry. So I’ve seen both sides, and now occasionally hire. A few pieces of advice:

    1. From an industrial hiring perspective, the easiest time to switch out of an academic track is generally right after your PhD, i.e. without taking a postdoc. At that time, (a) you can still be hired cheaply enough that it’s OK to bet on just the potential of your intelligence and math skills and spend a little on training you (b) you are young enough that you’re seen as still having most of your most productive technical years unused and (c) there’s less worry that you’ve become “too academic” and impractical for industry work. Note that, relative to grad student scales, “hired cheaply” is still a hugantic step up.

    1.5 For your own sanity, the best time to switch is probably also right after the PhD. To my mind, spending five years in a PhD program doing interesting work is unquestionably a net positive thing to do in life; any years spent in a postdoc are much trickier to evaluate the net positivity of.

    2. Keep your resume for industry-type jobs to a page. I’m going to assume you have references available upon request, so you can buy yourself a line or two by not putting that on there. And the age-old advice is true, that what you really want is to find a way to bypass HR and get your resume onto someone’s desk who will actually read it. For a newly-minted PhD this may be difficult, and you may find yourself just having to trust to the tender mercies of HR.

    3. Use your university’s career office. I got several very interesting offers through mine; so it can really work.

    4. Re: patent law: I can attest that 10 years ago, if you were going this route, you would become a patent agent immediately, and the law firm would pay for your (night) law school to become a patent attorney. Perhaps it’s changed now in the offers, I don’t know. Kind of brutal work schedule for the first few years, but certainly a lucrative way to go.

    5. National labs have many pure-research positions (even the weapons labs) and pay scales are indeed generally higher than academia. So certainly they are worth looking into. In physics, MIT Lincoln Lab is an interesting place that functions in some ways like a national lab and hires many physics PhD’s.

    6. Don’t be afraid to ask your professors who they recall has gone on to do other things, and then to simply call those people up. I’d certainly take your call if you’d gotten my name this way. (Calling works better than emailing. Email is too easy to postpone responding to.) If the professors only remember where they work, but don’t have a phone number, find that place and call the front desk!

    7. Remember the world is full of interesting problems, not all of which get addressed in academic settings. Of the group of physics grad students I knew well, ten years later those who have left academia work in cell phone technology, medical physics, telescope design, airport security, business analytics, and finance; others I knew less well have gone into science journalism, bioinformatics, and environmental consulting. I’d guess that roughly half are making use of some of their real physics knowledge (though generally not the most detailed knowledge of their thesis), and that roughly half make very little use directly of physics. So don’t over-constrain yourself when thinking about what to do next.

    (Added after seeing Cosmonut who commented while I was writing)
    8. Seconding Cosmonut that for any technical job, you really want to be able to show you can code in C++ (including a possible quiz on it.)

  • this could be you

    Taxi driver. Janitor. Telemarketer…

  • http://garrettlisi.com Garrett

    Do what you love — life is too short and precious not to. Use your brain and education to make money when you need it, but try not to need it much. Make friends instead, they last longer. Be bold, and creative. After many years, if you’ve succeeded in your true work, it will pay off in more than just money.

  • http://www.unitaryflow.com/ Cristi Stoica

    After graduating at the University in Bucharest, I had to take a job. Being math teacher did not pay my (modest) bills, so I became computer programmer. After gaining some experience as employee, I tried freelancing, in the idea that I can work a few days weekly and continue with my passion: mathematical physics. From my experience, freelancing means that you have for each job another boss, to which you have to be available all the time. So, unless your passion is to work 24/7, I’d suggest something with less responsibilities.

    I was lucky to find a nice and (relatively) well-paid job to make geometry algorithms in C++ for a company which creates cad/cam software. They allowed me to work 3 days/week (and, of course, being paid at 60%), to take my masters degree, and to do my PhD studies. So it seems that you can have both.

    Actually, I don’t really think so. Both career and research advance slower when you compromise. I agree with Garrett that you should avoid such compromises, if you can. I can’t, because I have debts. Now I ended that job after >7 years, and I can focus on my PhD thesis, but I will have to find soon another (non-academic) job. And this thought reduces drastically my focus :-)

  • BFG

    Since people are saying specific things about particular fields they’ve moved into, I suppose I should mention energy as a good option for physical sciences PhDs. A number of national labs (like Berkeley and Oak Ridge) do work in energy production, delivery, efficiency and the like, with some applied research and some technical analysis to support policy. This is where I’m headed for the time being. Many of these jobs require an engineering, chemistry, or materials science degree, but others just want an advanced degree (often a PhD) in the physical sciences.

    This is obviously a much bigger area than just the national labs, though. In the private sector, energy is very much a growing and evolving sector at the moment, with the need to develop new storage and delivery systems for alternative energy and the development of the smart grid. In the public sector, municipalities are increasingly working to move toward alternative energy, reduce their overall energy use, and make better use of the smart grid, with the attendant need for people to help run those programs. Again, many of these jobs require a specific technical background, but not all of them.

  • solution architect

    A lot of software companies, from one or two-person shops to large enterprise code factories, exist to sell software to other companies and businesses. The types of software and software services sold differs greatly from products aimed at consumers. They are generally much more complex with many different options and configurations available to fit the customer’s particular deployment needs. Many of these companies selling complex software and services solutions employ solution architects. The solution architect works closely with customers to understand needs, use cases, and requirements and then architect a solution that often leverages a number of software tools and services that might be sold by multiple different companies. The need to carefully upgrade or replace existing deployments without significant downtime often requires complex and clever solutions to thorny problems. Ph.D. scientists with strong software experience can find the role of solution architect challenging and rewarding. Often the solution architect is teamed up with a sales person and does not have to do sales directly.

  • giganotosaurus

    re: #34, Andrew’s point 7 is excellent. For my part, I did the standard PhD in biological physics, then post-doc, and then….10 years in pharmaceutical research doing structural biology. Contrary to advice given to me by my profs, I was convinced that industry was the way to go. Anyhow, the academic funding statistics back then were not good.

    After those 10 industry years, I went back to Academia (tenure track stuff), primarily b/c of my research interests. And, sadly, funding stats are even worse. But I feel that I’m able to pursue problems closer to my convictions.

    Nevertheless, in those 10 industry years, it was very educational to see the broader range of options (such as those listed by Andrew) for PhDs. Had I stayed in industry, it is quite likely I would have gone into something else other than structural biology, and with great enthusiasm. The world is indeed broader than grad student –> postdoc –> prof.

  • ed

    I did physics ph.d -> postdoc -> finance

    Whatever career path you choose make sure you choose it because you really want to do it, and not because of some external pressures (and definitely not because that’s the most profitable option – I have a couple of friends who went into finance because of the money and they hate their lives).

    Both during and after choosing which option you want to pursue, you need to read a lot, study a lot, ask any friends who chose a similar path about it, etc. When you start going to interviews one the very first things people would want to see from you is commitment to your new path, and while your ph.d is a valuable asset it’s worth nothing if you don’t demonstrate such commitment (via reading relevant papers, books, or doing whatever is relevant for that career – you want to be a programmer, participate in some open source projects, you want to be a journalist – write some articles for your local/uni newspaper, etc).

    Finally, some people commit the sunk cost fallacy and continue sinking more of their lives and resources into their (initial) academic route even when it’s abundantly clear that they neither want that option nor are they particularly successful at it. If you ever find yourself saying – “… but I spent so much time and energy doing a ph.d in …” – you’re likely committing said fallacy – so realize that you are, and don’t do that :)

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    A couple of years ago, I did a blog series profiling people with science degrees and non-academic jobs, and I’ll start it up again. If you have an interesting job that requires a science background, and would like to share it with blog readers, send me an email, and I’ll send you a few short questions, then post the answers on the blog. Details at the link.

  • AnotherSean

    I was a graduate student in physics that one day found himself in law school in order to secure employment. Interesting that I still spend much of my free time thinking about science. I’m probably more useful as an attorney, and because my intersts were theoretical I wonder how many
    opportunites I’ve truly missed. Nothing limits your ability to simply think accept your own priorities.
    I know Gauss and Einstein gave simillar advice. My guess is they knew far better than me that scientific creativity cannot be truly repressed.

  • http://www.qwertyous.blogspot.com/ John R Ramsden

    Depending on your specialization, and if you don’t have too many skeletons in the cupboard or anarchist leanings or suchlike, perhaps applying to work at the NSA or NRO would be worth considering.

    (Substitute suitable acronyms depending on your nationality.)

  • Sleeth

    My father and uncle both had PhDs in Physics and spent their entire careers working at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque.
    A friend, Phil Bredesen, received an undergraduate degree in Physics from Harvard, then founded HealthAmerica Corp. before becoming mayor of Nashville, and then Governor of Tennessee.
    Due to family reasons, I stopped short of completing my PhD., but now have a job in the physics dept. at a major research university and am often asked by many postdocs and grad students how I got my job (answer: starting at the bottom and working very hard).
    A lecturer with a Ph.D. who has taught courses for the physics dept. where I work is headed to medical school in the fall.

  • Tracy Thomas

    I chose a career path outside of academia immediately following my Physics PhD. Lots of good advice above. Here’s some more specific advice, resources, and wish-I-had-that
    1) Identify your transferable skills. If you’re still a student with a bit of time to go, you may identify a gap that you can remedy while still finishing your research work
    2) Give some serious thought to what you really want to do
    – What Color is My Parachute is one good place to start
    – Figure out not only what field you want to work in, but if you want to work for a large or small company, what is important to you in a company culture, etc. How to find this out? see the next step.
    3) Network! I saw this mentioned above. Specific networking tips
    – Join LinkedIn. Connect with people you knew from college, people you know now, find out where they are
    – Find local user/interest groups in your community and attend their events.
    – Conduct informational interviews to research what types of non-academic jobs you might like. Lots of references, but here’s one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Informational_interview
    4) Find job search resources and training
    – Fermilab offered a resume-writing and career advice class to grad students when I was there. The class was taught by an outside consultant. Search for these resources in your grad school or research lab environment
    – Read “Ask the Headhunter” http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/ – a really horrible looking web site, but valuable information
    – Highly consider Dale Carnegie training. I took the Leadership Training for Managers when I first became a manager. The basic Dale Carnegie course teaches interaction skills – don’t get those in grad school either.
    5) Go to your local Toastmasters chapter for a stint. Not kidding here – seriously, when have you worked on how you present yourself in grad school – not at all? It’s a skill that everyone needs. Being able to master the Toastmaster skills of Listen, Think, Speak are invaluable to a career anywhere.
    6) Get your department to start an alumni networking group. If no-one in the department wants to start this, start it yourself – good resume material, right there. I wish my university had done this or I had known I needed it. There’s plenty of people who left your university’s department for non-academic jobs. Find them and network with them.

  • http://www.qwertyous.blogspot.com/ John R Ramsden

    There must be several books on this; for example the following looks useful:

    “Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower”; Cynthia Robbins-Roth ed); Academic Press; 2nd ed, 2005

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alternative-Careers-Science-Scientific-Survival/dp/0125893760

  • JohnT

    From personal experience I can recommend publishing (in the physical sciences). That includes books and/or journals, and commercial publishers as well as societies and other not-for-profits. The job keeps you in touch with the field, you continually interact with the best brains in the sciences, and your fellow-workers (most of them with little scientific training and who are scared of talking with important professor-types) think you are marvellous.

  • Jon N.

    I got my PhD in experimental particle physics in 2007 and since then have worked in two non-academic fields.

    First I worked for an oil services company working on nuclear well logging tools. Companies in that field have small research departments in a variety of different fields for sensor technology including nuclear physics, nuclear magnetic resonance, electromagnetism, accoustics, fluid dynamics, chemistry and even gravity measurements. However, in any given field there aren’t many working on it. There are two major companies everyone’s favority bad guy Halliburton and the much lower profile Schlumberger. There are several other competitors, but they are smaller in size and do much less R&D.

    From my experience with that, my advice for a PhD student is that breadth within your field is a real asset. In industry they aren’t enough researchers on a project or in an area for there to be much specialization. Learn all the basic detector apparatus or measurement apparatus in your field well (even if it seems hopelessly primitive compared to what your cutting edge experiment is using). Know how to do an experiment on your own. Know how to do modelling and data analysis on your own. The scale of experimentation in the oil services industry was much closer to grad student labs rather than dissertation project. One issue I encountered was that most of the people working in the field had decades more experience than me since hiring could have decade long dry spells.

    In the downturn I was laid off from that job due to my part of my project was moved from my location. I then got a job in a very different field, operations research. I work on inventory theory for a government consulting firm primarily contracted to do Defense Department work. The more traditional path for this kind of work are programs focused on this including operations research and systems engineering or applied math programs. The work is more interesting than it might sound. Basically we’re building models of the demand process and then try to build policies that we can optimize to determine when our clients should buy more material.

    Here the important skills in my background are computer programming, monte carlo modelling, statistics and math skills. Since so much of the work in this field is driven by the Defense Department the ability to get a security clearance is a big plus.

  • old and dying postdoc

    One thing I’d like to know is how much the age matters. I considered leaving academia right out of PhD and did some industry job search but decided to do postdocs when I mistakenly thought I was going to waste my education unless I stay in academia. From that job hunting experience I know demands in knowledge industry are there for PhDs fresh out of grad programs, but I’m not so sure any more what my prospect is now that I’m litterally rotting away and just getting old, possibly becoming the unemployable academic type. Has anyone actually been successful making transition to industry after they reach 40, for example? I heard from a friend who made that transition younger, and he said some companies do have unwritten cut off for age when they consider resumes from candidates in academia.

  • Limmo

    I left academia to go into industry after my first postdoc, just to go back to academia a couple of years later. Make no mistake: while the topics that are being worked on outside of academia are generally not less interesting, it is the for-profit environment that can make your job less satisfying. The fundamental question I think is not academia/industry but rather for-profit/non-profit. If you decide to go non-profit: there are other jobs out there than being at a university. If you decide to go for-profit: get a hobby that makes you life fulfilling.

  • spyder

    After Jon N.’s comments, i would just like to add, there are a number of jobs out there for which a physics ph.d. is useful and in some cases required well outside of academia. Think bigger about the world. BFG mentioned the energy world, which is vastly expanding, especially overseas. Medicine is also an ever-expanding field along the physics spectrum. I have a good friend who is a particle physicist for the reactor industry, another field about to bubble up. The sound reproduction industry is also another place to look, as the highest end of the equipment is pushing the boundaries of acoustic spaces. And there are many more.

  • Phil

    What’s the point in worrying about this stuff anyway, it’s May 21st!!!

  • http://omegaleague.com Alpha Omega

    Why do all you nominally intelligent, scientifically and technically skilled people think so small? Why are you only suggesting ways to become servants and slaves of existing power structures? Why not use your intelligence to try to take over the world, control its wealth, dominate it genetically and memetically, etc? Your brain is, after all, a weapon of survival and Darwinian dominance above all. Use it for the thing it has evolved to do, and seize power from the rampantly breeding morons who threaten to hasten the failure of intelligent life in this tiny region of spacetime known as present-day planet Earth!

  • Gary M

    #54 AO makes a cogent point before veering off into the deep end.

    Not a single one of you has expressed the confidence to work for yourself.

    Which is why I wouldn’t hire any of you. You’re like my kids still wanting to live at home on my nickel.

    Not. Happening.

  • http://omegaleague.com Alpha Omega

    That may have been off the deep end, but my experience with the modern academy is that it breeds a sheep-like, neutered, PC mentality which is ill-suited to anything but institutional slavery. Julian Assange actually considered becoming a physicist at one point, but when he saw the wretchedly servile nature of the modern scientist he changed his mind and opted for a far riskier, but also much more interesting path. I don’t see the point of pursuing a PhD in times like these anyway unless you have an extreme gift; over-specialization is the death of any species when its environment changes, and the environment is clearly changing.

  • JT

    NASA??? Buehler?? Anyone?

    I’ve found it to be a great mix of physics, engineering, and management that fits me personally much better than anything I could have found in academia (in theory — I never went that path)

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/bioephemera bioephemera

    @ Gary M & AO: believe it or not, not everyone wants to “work for themselves.” I wouldn’t enjoy being an entrepreneur (nor a PI, for that matter). Plus, I have personal reasons for preferring a more stable job situation. I was thus never tempted to start my own company or get an MBA, even after watching my PI found several companies. But don’t worry: people who want that sort of path are seeking it out. I just saw one of my good friends last week, a fellow bio PhD, who’s going to business school, entering VC, and will likely be running his own firm(s) in 5-10 years. He recommends informational interviews and VC/consulting internships as ways to explore that career space.

    As a separate matter, Gary, I find it interesting that you feel the need to obliquely insult all those of us who have supported ourselves (and/or our families) since we were 18. It’s really not your place to decide whether the career I choose is worth my time, is it? And last I checked, none of us had asked you for a job. Try to keep the conversation constructive, eh? :)

  • max

    @old and dying postdoc. Maybe you should try looking up Rob Knop? He switched from academia to work for a tech company some time in his 40’s, I think. I’m kinda surprised he hasn’t poster here yet, though I guess he says his departure was bittersweet.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Well, let’s see—put your Ph.D. on hold, become a world-famous rock guitarist, then get your degree 35 years later.

  • Gary M

    58 bioephemera,

    23 years, I earned my living teaching Astronomy.

    17 years, I’ve earned my living working for myself.

    3 times the annual income.

    YMMV

  • Ashwin

    One of the most fascinating ways to spend a post-PhD year outside academia is to become a Science Policy Fellow in the US Congress, State Dept., or other parts of the government. Several professional societies sponsor fellows under the umbrella of the AAAS. You go to Washington to bring scientific advice and understanding to the government, and in turn, you become aware of how science is funded, how it is used in policy, and what career options there are in the field of science policy and politics. Not enough Caltech grads take this incredible opportunity! About 1/3 of the fellows return to academia, so it’s not necessarily a one-way ticket.
    http://fellowships.aaas.org/
    http://www.aps.org/policy/fellowships/congressional.cfm
    P.S. greatly enjoyed your talk at JPL today!

  • SS

    There is a cultural pressure in Physics (definitely in Theoretical Physics) to totally focus on your field through out your grad school – to do just your research and not explore the outside world. Of course, there are (good) reasons for this. However, this is quite interesting because such pressure doesn’t seem to exist in Engg schools. In Engg schools, it is perfectly ok for a top PhD student to do a summer intern at Google or D E Shaw or GE or McKinsey , etc. The summer internship is not seen, usually, as an indication that the student is somehow disinterested or planning to leave the field.

    In Theoretical Physics, it is not quite that easy for a student to explore during grad school what lies outside. This sadly works against those who might eventually decide to switch careers. For one thing, it gives them a very skewed pereception of what the real world jobs might be like, and for another, they remain at a slight disadvantage compared to the Engg students who might have done internships.

    The point is, it would be vastly advantageous to the field if Physics Departments across the US were more open to the PhD students doing summer internships in “real world” – just like Engg students. This would give the students a better feel for what lies outside, prevent unfortunate notions of what the real world jobs might or migh not be like, leave them better prepared for any eventual switch to a real world career.

  • Blair

    In reading your post and some (but admittedly not all) of the comments I have come to the realization that 1) I had a far-sighted Thesis advisor and 2) you have started this discussion off at the wrong spot.

    My supervisor was a very far-sighted man who had us start thinking about what we were going to do with our PH.D long before we had finished earning the doctorate. He would look at each student, evaluate their make-up, ability and desires and then would help us on a path. For the students on the purely academic stream it was a typical program of applicable courses and research. For individuals like myself, who were not as obvious a fit in the academic route he ensured we took additional courses in business and/or management. It is recognized in the private sector that folks with Ph.Ds are going to do science for some portion of their careers but they will also be running businesses as well so understanding how businesses operate and business theory were considered a complimentary part of our education. While our colleagues attended the academic conferences we were sponsored to attend industry conferences and were encouraged to make contacts. Our supervisor would attend when he could and facilitate the contacts. Because he had been doing this for a long time he had the contacts and so virtually everyone who wanted to got a private sector job offer before their thesis was complete.

    So my point is to start much earlier. As a supervisor make you students spend more introspective time earlier in their careers and make plans accordingly. If you wait until after they have completed their studies to set them on the path then you, as their supervisor and mentor, have done them a disservice.

    I have been in the private sector for a decade and am very happy out here.

  • nicholas suntzeff

    I have taken a one year Fellowship at the US Dept of State, embedded as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Human Rights. I “pass” on all the science that comes through our Office, things such as science that is quoted in UN resolutions. I have attended a number of UN meetings on Disaster Risk Reduction, and even voted in the General Assembly for the US.

    There are very very few scientists at State, and we need many more scientists working in public and foreign policy. The best way to get involved is through the AAAS Fellow program mentioned above and the APS program. The AAS also has a policy fellow every few years.

    It is annoying to constantly be asked “Why are you doing THAT?” as if doing academic astronomy is the acme of what an astronomer should do. I use my science experience every day, and the intellectual challenges are excellent. I get to work with incredibly interesting and smart Foreign Service Officers. I get to participate on Task Forces when the US is facing a crisis such as in Libya or supporting Japan in the recent nuclear disaster.

    Scientists and diplomats approach problems differently, and between us is a creative friction that leads to better US foreign policy and humanitarian response. You can, with an astronomy PhD, participate in helping Human Rights around the world, and many other worthy humanitarian projects at State, USAID, AAAS, USGS, FEMA, NIST, World Bank and the myriad of civil societies in DC. Academic astronomy is only one path for a fulfilling career in astronomy and science.

    Nicholas Suntzeff
    VP, American Astronomical Society
    Jefferson Science Fellow, Bureau of Human Rights, US State Dept.
    &
    Texas A&M University

  • FromBlackHolesToBlackScholes

    As a recent Physics PhD who now works on Wall St., I felt that I ought to give my $0.02:
    Banks and other financial firms will always continue to hire physics PhDs. However, the work culture and the interview process is very different from what a typical grad student might be used to in a university setting. Here’s some unsolicited free advice for those who might be inclined to switch.
    1. Learn how to program in C++: In a large fraction of cases, you might naturally learn programming because your research requires it. In other cases, try to take a course in computational physics/math that forces you to program.

    2. Be extremely fluent with undergrad-level math: Most firms that hire quantitative PhDs are looking for people with extremely strong basic math skills who can solve problems quickly and correctly. Make sure you brush up on standard topics like calculus, linear algebra, numerical techniques, probability, statistics etc. Being able to do “order-of-magnitude” calculations will help you immensely. A typical job will *not* require you to solve a path integral or Einstein’s equations for a spacetime with multiple singularities.

    3. Develop good oral/written communication skills: The industry is fast paced. Time literally *is* money. Learn how to communicate the gist of involved and complex ideas to an audience that only has a basic knowledge of the subject. 10/12 min talks at conferences like APS/AAS etc. is great practice. Develop the habit of using proper grammar and structuring your written communication — this includes emails, research notes, papers, articles etc.

    4. Write a resume that fits in 1 side of an A4/letter sized paper (use at least size 10 font). There are plenty of free resume examples online.

    5. I agree with an earlier comment that the best time to switch is just after your PhD. Several firms go to major campuses specifically to interview and recruit grad students.

    6. Try to take 1 or 2 elementary finance courses at your university. This will give you a good introduction to the area. Note that most faculty who teach finance probably have some industry experience as well.

    7. If possible, do an internship. Several firms offer full time positions to successful interns.

  • Pingback: Unsolicited Advice: Non-Academic Careers | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Trey

    I recommend sitting in lotus position and contemplating non-being.

  • D W

    I have read the comments and suggestions here. Most of them seem to be from successful professionals, but some are also written with a hint of the charmed career. Clearly no one believes that is the norm however I wonder if the practical aspect missing here is the messy role the real world can have on shaping and sometimes trashing carefully made plans and just how then you can adapt to that. I don’t have the answer, but I am an experienced PhD and well acquainted with that question. A comedian once said that when you come to a fork in the road you should take it. I concur with that advice.

  • Kati

    @Gavin Polhemus

    GREAT post!

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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