Forks in the road (a short guide to career options in science)

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There are many different careers to be had in science, of which academia only encompasses a fraction. Here’s an overview of the whole spectrum.

We talk of science as if it’s a career, but really it’s a world – and within that world, there are many, many different career opportunities. For people going down the orthodox route of scientific bachelor degree to scientific Master’s and then maybe beyond, academia – and academia in the sense of “the path to tenure” – is frequently but erroneously presented as both a default and a preferred career option.

It’s not.

It’s not the only career option within academia, and it’s certainly not the only career option in science. There are in fact a very broad range of fully-fledged scientific careers to be had well beyond the cloistered environment of the university department or research institute. And then there’s the still-wider and possibly limitless range of non-scientific careers in which a scientific mindset can be usefully employed to significant advantage.

With that in mind, what TIR is presenting here is by no means a definitive guide, but hopefully a roadmap of sorts that will let you decide where in that vast ecosystem you’d like to make your niche. We highlight in general terms what the main habitats are, the pros and cons of each. We’d very much like to make this an organic document, so by all means do get in contact if you have thoughts, recommendations, and alterations that you’d like to put forward – we’re pretty sure this will need a few edits! 

So, with those provisos, let’s begin…

Broadly speaking, science careers fall into one of the following categories:
Academia (research + teaching)
Industry
Publishing
Administration, funding & policy
Communication/outreach
Teaching
Law

The first five are all primary science careers that any scientist can move into without additional training, and then acquire the extra skills required on the job. The last two are slightly more removed in that they do require some extra training. We’ll deal with them in reverse order.

Law
Patent disputes, intellectual property, and much more. Science in any country operates within the legal framework of the society that hosts it, and that means that there are people needed to clarify, articulate, protect, and maybe even explore those boundaries.
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Bachelor or Master’s (undergraduate) level.
Pros:
All the plus points of a corporate career (wages not the least of them), the opportunity to work on and shape the way in which new technologies and discoveries interface with society, varied work portfolio.
Cons:
Will require some re-training, unless you already have studied law. The move into the corporate world may not be for everyone, and even within legal circles, intellectual property and patent disputes have a reputation for being rather…dry.

Teaching
An opportunity to inspire the next generation, over and over and over again. As science and technology permeate society ever more, the need for a scientifically literate workforce and electorate will only increase.
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Undergraduate level, but more experience will help with older age groups.
Pros:
Offers an opportunity to connect with people and get a sense of making a difference that’s all too rare in research-heavy work. Direct contribution to society. In some countries, an extremely well-provided career option in terms of job security, working hours, and lifetime care.
Cons:
Can get repetitive, and has high level of time commitment during term-time. Level of intellectual stimulation may depend on which age groups are being taught. Will require some re-training. Not valued equally by all countries, which can be demoralising.

Communication/outreach
Popularising and advocating for science within society. The herald of new discoveries, and translator of complexity, the voice of science to the masses. Communicators are the science community’s ambassadors to the lay public, articulating progress, advocating support, and raising awareness.
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Postgraduate probably best, given the need to understand and articulate a wide range of potentially complex issues; also provides extra credibility (although note that David Attenborough only studied science to undergraduate level).
Pros:
You get to enthuse about science all the time! Lots of travel opportunities. Plus, there’s a growing awareness of the importance and need for people to present a positive, affirmative image of science’s work and value, especially in the face of numerous anti-science campaigns.
Cons:
Structured career path not really defined as yet. Contributions may not always be valued by scientific peers. Usually requires chronic exposure to social media, with obvious risk of psychic contamination. If done full-time, may produce a “shop window” effect – you are promoting work that you haven’t done, so you’re slightly distanced from the habitat whose interests you are promoting.

Administration, funding & policy
Keeping the wheels turning. Administration is a label that’s hard to define – it covers everything from running PhD programmes, to coordinating the budgets of universities and institutes, to ensuring that individual laboratory purchases are facilitated smoothly – and that’s just within academia. It also means being involved at policy level, running science budgets, overseeing funding allocations, and steering the scientific activity of a whole society.
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Postgraduate at least, probably, and for certain positions post-doctoral and even faculty experiences are very helpful.
Pros:
Good job security, usually. Important contribution that may involve strategic decision-making. Wide range of possible options.
Cons:
As with communication, an actual career path isn’t so well-defined as yet, and in addition these kind of positions tend to only occasionally become available. This makes it hard to gain experience early on, and sometimes hard to progress once you’re established. May require more experience at entry-level than other careers.

Publishing
Commanding the means by which scientific information is disseminated and consumed. Custodian for information quality. Curator of past discoveries.
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Postgraduate.
Pros:
Structured career path, from junior editor all the way to the top. Like communication, this is a fast-growing and extremely dynamic area of science whose role is being redefined and diversified far beyond its quotidian requirement of organising and overseeing peer review. Lots of travel opportunities. Decent level of job security.
Cons:
High level of English required, at least for now. Travel requirements may be a burden. Risk of the “shop window” problem (see Communication/outreach).

Industry
Whether it’s biotech or pharmaceutical, it’s industry that takes the raw materials of scientific discoveries and turns them into a societal product. Industry has long been seen as the go-to option for scientists leaving academia, but it’s not always as simple as that. Whether or not you hold a PhD will determine what kind of positions will be open to you, and in addition the choice of whether to do a PhD in either academia or industry deserves serious thought. Probably the key attribute for an industry career is having a “problem-solving” attitude, as much of industry is focused around targeted goals (how to increase yield, make a new drug, optimise or repurpose an existing one).
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Undergraduate. Doing a PhD in academia doesn’t hurt, but any postdoctoral years on the clock can be a handicap; doing a PhD within industry may be the best option if you know that this is the sector you want to stay in, as it lets you learn exactly what’s needed in your area.
Pros:
Better job security than academia (at least in terms of getting a permanent contract), opportunity for rapid advancement, structured career path, sense of actually contributing something to society, more applied angle to the work.
Cons:
Permanent contracts don’t protect you from strategic decisions made in Head Office, less sense of ownership over projects, less independence.

Academia
The life of the mind. Universities and research institutes carry out research and teaching, at different ratios (sometimes a mix, sometimes only one to the exclusion of the other).
Minimum level of scientific training required:
Postgraduate, but postdoctoral experience required for those aspiring to tenure. The key attribute in academia is “curiosity”, a desire to learn about the natural world, and disseminate what you’ve learnt.
Pros:
Intellectual freedom, scientific independence, huge variety (research, teaching, writing, reading, and much more), international environment.
Cons:
Only around 1% of PhDs end up in tenured positions, and permanent positions that aren’t professorships (staff scientists, facility managers) are sometimes even rarer. Having a career Plan B is a must as the attrition rate is so high. Salaries not really proportionate to the level of training. Success requires a degree of luck, and rate of advancement can be very slow. Often not as fun as it’s cracked up to be.

 

As noted above, any feedback is very welcome – and if there are any other categories that you think should be added, then let us know. Good luck with finding your niche, and don’t forget to have fun!

 

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