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OMG, So Many Science Careers

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

Last month, I spoke on two different career panels to roomfuls of young scientists. Every time a student raised a hand to speak, I noticed they all had the same question about jobs in science: “May I have one, please?”

As general as the panelists tried to keep their advice, the questions had a predictable undercurrent: Those aspiring young scientists didn’t just want to find out what it was like to work in science. They wanted us to say, “Okay. You win. I’ve got 50 open positions, and I’ll offer them to all of you today. Who wants health insurance?”

Sometimes it seems that grad school mentors convince their young science students that they have only two career options: They can become academics, or they can become disappointments.

For example, there was the classic (and, in my experience, largely useless) question about how we each found our current jobs. I could tell that the students really wanted to hear stories about how we noticed a posting on Science Careers or, answered an ad, and survived competition with 200 random applicants—because that’s their own best idea for how to land a position. Instead, each of the panel members talked about how we found our own careers through serendipitous meetings, friends-of-friends, and good old blatant nepotism.

And so we lectured to disappointed students—some of whom had actually come equipped with stacks of resumes—telling them how great our lives are, what a typical day at work entails (which was the opportunity for each person to say, “At my company, there is no typical day!”), and how they might find themselves in similar careers, most likely by killing us and taking our jobs.

What did impress me, though, was the breadth of careers available to scientists. Even though none of the panelists showed up looking to find new employees, apparently our science training prepares us for a number of semi-related careers beyond the usual few. For example:

Academic scientist

If you like grant writing, writing grants, and obtaining grants via writing, you may enjoy life as an academic scientist. You’ll also experience the thrill of teaching overly broad, university-mandated survey courses (“Introduction to Biology, Chemistry, and Physics Without Algebra”), flexible work hours (You work 22 hours a day, but you pick the 22 hours!), and doing the Tenure Tango (“You put your left foot in, you take your left foot out, you put your left foot in the grave.”).

Academics often say disdainfully that you need a certain quality to work at a large biotech or pharmaceutical company, and that quality is evil. Apparently only evil people apply their skills to solve real-world problems, and only evil people are paid well.

Industry scientist, small biotech/pharma

That’s me! As an employee at a startup biotech company, I face the daily excitement of knowing that my job is so cutting-edge that it might not exist in a year. Now that’s cutting-edge!

Credit: Hal Mayforth


A consultant’s job is to tell other people what they’re doing wrong. (In this way, my wife is a consultant. Zing!) A lot of consulting firms have been hiring scientists lately because of our problem-solving skills, our ability to analyze large datasets, and because they’re slowly realizing that all the MBAs they hired are just morons with nice hair.

Government scientist

Working as a government scientist is a great idea, because the government is really popular right now. Read any newspaper and you’ll see stories about how much people love and trust the government.


Every scientist has that friend from graduate school who graduated and then announced, “I’m going to law school!” and we all wept a little inside. Why would someone who worked in science find anything exciting about law? Why would someone who spent 7 years earning a Ph.D. want to go back to school? Did he or she wake up one day and say, “I don’t think I’m carrying enough debt! Is there a way I can fix this while still delaying adulthood for a few years?”

Military science

Okay, here’s what drives me nuts. Several times, I’ve visited my scientific collaborators in the Army or Navy, and they’re always wearing camouflage in the lab. Desert camouflage. Beige, with little squares of off-beige. But the lab is, you know, indoors, and white. And they have all kinds of weird rules about when they are and aren’t supposed to wear their hats.

Adjunct teaching

Ah, the free life of an adjunct instructor! Adjuncting offers freedom from the tenure struggle, freedom from the stifling responsibilities of a full-time professor, and freedom from the burden of income. As an adjunct, you’ll bounce among the local colleges, teaching classes on six different campuses a day, but you’ll know that you no longer have to worry about pointless things like research—all that matters is whether you can convince a classroom of 18-year-olds not to plagiarize their take-home exams. (You can’t.)

Science advocacy

Let’s face it: Scientists aren’t great at expressing themselves. We end up saying things like, “Hepatitis kills over 1 million people every year. THEREFORE GIVE ME MONEY TO BUILD A MECHANIZED KANGAROO WITH LASERS.” That’s why there are science advocates, people who explain to nonscientists why we matter. And if I have to explain why that’s important, I guess that makes me a science advocate advocate.

Science policy

Unlike a consulting firm, which overpays you to advise wealthy companies to rely too heavily on your minimally informed advice, a job in science policy will pay you to advise lawmakers who’ll ignore you. “We value your advice!” they’ll tell you, then go vote against the laws of thermodynamics.

Found your own startup

Finally, if you don’t like the science jobs out there, make your own! First, give your company a slick name that says nothing about what you do, like “Slick Technologies” or “Digital Goose Inc.” Next, come up with a meaningless slogan, such as, “Managing your outflow from within,” or “Where technology and people meet the 21st century … with deliverables.” Then sit back and wait for a large company to buy yours—because your startup may not actually do anything, but what you don’t do is so confusing that they’d rather buy you than risk letting you do things.

Sometimes it seems that grad school mentors convince their young science students that they have only two career options: They can become academics, or they can become disappointments.

When we reach the end of our training, why are so many of us unaware of the array of potential careers available to us? I certainly never knew about many of these until I sat on the career panels last month. (Could I have vanquished my ignorance by reading Science Careers? Why yes, I could have! Let’s click on more wonderful articles!)

Perhaps it’s because the very people training us are the ones who’ve found their niche in the academic world. They’re happy in their professorial jobs, and they want to remake their students in their own image.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but make sure you don’t end your search at the university lab bench. If you’re looking for a career in science, consider all of the nontraditional possibilities as well. You may just find a job you never thought you’d love.

Or at least a spot on a career panel.

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