Many scientists enter a PhD program believing their career path will be one thing — often targeting an academic position — only to realize part-way through the course that their interest lies elsewhere. Given the competitive job market for academic positions, and the lack of information about alternative careers available to many undergraduates, such changes are understandable. In a 2019 Nature survey, 45% of graduate students said satisfaction with their program worsened over time. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents expressed concerned about uncertain job prospects.
What happens if your desired career trajectory shifts radically while still a graduate student? Should you get another degree after completing your PhD?
Are you over or under-qualified for your new career?
One issue to consider is whether — in light of your new career goals — you need a PhD at all. Pharma and biotech companies continue to hire BS and MS scientists in large numbers. According to a 2019 employment outlook report from MassBioEd, the number of nationwide job postings by biotech companies for BS-level hires (approximately 115,000 in 2018) was more than double the number of postings for MS and PhD candidates (approximately 58,000 and 52,000 respectively that same year).
“I think there’s an overproduction of PhDs in many areas of lab sciences,” notes Eric Celidonio, Founder and Managing Partner at Sci.Bio. Biotech companies need scientists for benchwork, and hires with a PhD typically move out of those roles quickly. These jobs are mostly filled by BS and MS scientists.
While some specialized non-R&D roles such as Intellectual Property prefer to hire scientists with a STEM PhD and provide legal training, other entry-level roles for STEM graduates don’t need a PhD, and may be seen as an overqualification.
For many graduate students, the best way to break into a new career would involve entering the job market with a MS degree instead of a PhD and transitioning into a new role after several years of work experience, rather than seeking the ‘perfect’ additional qualification before searching for your first job.
Get another degree or acquire work experience?
Getting an entry-level position in any industry is challenging without qualifications or relevant experience. Fortunately, recruiters and biotech companies often view a couple of years’ experience as equal to — if not more valuable than — a qualification in that field, notes Brandi Byner-Burrow, a sourcing specialist at Sci.Bio.
Full-time paid work experience isn’t always necessary for entry-level roles. Seeking out volunteer opportunities is another way to showcase your aptitude and motivation for the position. For example, if during graduate school you decide to transition into science writing, start building a portfolio of clips while you are still in your program by writing for your student newspaper or department web pages. If there are local chapters of professional STEM organizations, assist them with communications. These unpaid experiences can later be leveraged into securing paid internships or entry level roles in your chosen field.
Similarly, many graduate programs offer business courses, investment, and consulting clubs aimed at doctoral scientists, providing business and entrepreneurial training while completing your PhD. The tuition fees for an MBA program is often in the six-figure range, so it makes financial sense not to complete one if you don’t need to!
Some caution is necessary if you decide to take elective courses during your PhD. Recruiters wish to hire PhD scientists who are experts in their particular STEM field, and additional coursework not immediately related to that field may detract from your research and the acquisition of technical skills. Kerry Ciejek, Managing Partner at Sci.Bio, stresses the importance of “establishing credibility” in your field of STEM training before changing fields.
Making an informed career decision
If you’re weighing up the decision to pursue another degree, it is important to gather as much information as possible from recruiters, hiring managers, and people working in your desired occupation. Ask people how they got into their current role, and what (dis)qualifies potential candidates in the view of hiring managers. If you don’t have the opportunity to network with these people in person, reach out on LinkedIn and politely request a short informational interview. Most people are happy to discuss their professional experiences, give advice, and help junior scientists make good career decisions.
Are you a PhD candidate interested in careers outside the lab? Not sure your STEM PhD is a help or a hindrance to finding your dream job? The experts at Sci Bio are here to help. Get in touch with us today.