Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Neeley Remmers

Have you ever been asked the question, “Oh, you’re getting your PhD, what do you plan on doing with that?” I get asked that question on average 5 times week or more when I’m trying to explain to someone outside of scientific research what it is I do. Explaining the career-path of a scientist is no easy task because quite frankly, there is no defined career-path like for our profession like there is for other professions. For example,  if you’re ambition was to become an M.D. the path is has been cleared for you – you go to medical school, take your boards, do a residency, complete a fellowship, and finally get a position as an attending physician. However, for those of us who either have or are obtaining our PhD’s in science, there is no yellow-brick road for us to follow. Ask any professor or senior scientist how they got to their current position and you’ll find that no two career paths are the same.

One reason for the lack of a clearly defined path may be because there are so many different options available to scientists once they have obtained their PhD. Yes, there is the standard academic research route where after graduate school, you do a post-doc at one of thirteen different institutions to build up your pedigree, get promoted to assistant professor, apply for an R01 or a transitional K grant and get hired at an different institution as an associate professor (provided you were awarded the grant), and continue on the tenure-faculty track until you are promoted to a tenured, full professor. Unfortunately, not every one of us who get our PhD in science will follow this route because there simply aren’t enough faculty positions. In fact, only about 25% of us coming out of graduate school will get a faculty position at a research-intensive academic institute. So what are the rest of us supposed to do? Fortunately, there are a number of different career options for scientists who have a PhD. The best well-known options is doing research at either a big pharmaceutical company or a biotechnology company. These are great options as well, but I am going to focus on the lesser-known options.

Science Policy

Raise your hand if you have legitimately been following sequestration and the actions of Congress…okay, I think I see a few. For those of you who raised your hand, you may want to think about a career in science policy. Did you know a number of professionaly societies, like AAAS, offer fellowships to post-docs in science policy?

Intellectual Property and Patent Law

How many of you seem to have a propensity to debate (or as I like to call it, “friendly discussion”) with EVERYONE even if they have a valid point? You may want to think about going into patent law. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t HAVE to go to law school to get into this field; however, if the thought of getting your J.D. intrigues then by all means go for it. For those of you who don’t want to go to school for 3 more years, there is another option. Again, there are fellowships available through the US patent office, for example, that allow you to study patent law and become a patent agent. Additionally, you can work for a tech transfer office at a University to get some experience, take the exam to become a patent agent, then work for a law firm, pharmaceutical company, or biotech company.

Science Communication

How many of you actually enjoy giving presentations and writing papers or grants? Perhaps a career in science communication is right for you. This field is a little harder to get in to, but if you were able to publish more than once during your graduate career and presented at any number of conferences (even if they were small ones put on by your institute), you should have ample experience to get into this field. This option allows you to still be a part of research but instead of working at the bench, you get to be the face of the research by writing about and presenting the findings.

Entrepreneurship

Last question, I promise, how many of you are intrigued by creating a product that fills a need and then turning that product into a successful business? My friend, you are an entrepreneur! Entrepreneurs are a rare breed that have the ability to recognize a problem that everyone complains about and come up with a product that successfully solves that problem. Prime example, Gaia Shamis started Scizzle to make it easier to find all the latest articles pertaining to your research area.

What else?

There are many more options that I don’t have the time to write about, and with all these options available you may be wondering where to you even begin to choose on a career-path that is right for you? A great starting point is going to www.myIDP.sciencecareers.org. MyIDP is a tool for scientists to find out what their likes and dislikes are in regards to science and which career is best suited for you based on these results. After it produces your results, it also provides information about each career and different websites you can visit for more information. Thus, it is a great tool to help you get started building your own yellow-brick road that will lead you to your dream career.