PH.D. waving goodbye to university for non-academic career

Sarah Hill

To Tenure or Not to Tenure: Making the Shift from Academia to Industry

Entrepreneurship, Innovation

Let’s be honest, it’s always been difficult and now it seems even trickier to get a job in academia with a postdoc. Ending up as a tenured professor is just not in the cards for the majority of Ph.D.s.

“In 2020, only 10% of engineering Ph.D. graduates and 16% of those in physical and earth sciences ended up in academic positions in the United States” according to an article published in Nature by Nikki Forrester. While another article notes that only 26 percent of the graduate students polled said their program had prepared them “very well” for a “satisfying career.”

Be an Encourager

But as a lab advisor, you have the ability to steer your junior lab staff to make the transition to non-academic careers in industry – where “real science” is done just as frequently as it is in academia. This is simply to be realistic.

According to Forrester, one researcher said: “Some of my students were hesitant about pursuing academic careers, so I made sure that they knew what they were getting into. I told them how few academic jobs are available, instead of just focusing on the romantic aspects of doing research.”

Another went on to say that a PI should say out loud that non-academic Ph.D. careers are okay to pursue. “PIs can tell everyone in their lab, ‘I know many of you are not going to get another job in academia, and that’s OK. I want you to know that I support you in your search for that job, and I will do everything I can to help you.’” A junior researcher should not be made to feel like a “scientific sell-out” just because they decide to shift away from a position as a professor.

Be an Informer

According to Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D. in an article entitled, The Top Ten List of  Alternative Careers for Ph.D. Science Graduates: “The reason most Ph.D.s do not get Ph.D. jobs in industry is because they lack the information they need to get these jobs.” He goes on to encourage postdocs to understand the many options they really do have as a non-academic Ph.D. ”You need to gain in-depth knowledge of all the career tracks available to you, not just one or two. You should also pay close attention to changing trends, making sure to note which job sectors are rising and which are falling.”

Be a Researcher

Sur went on to construct a list a of the top 10 industry careers for folks with a Ph.D. in the sciences. One such job was a Market Research Analyst: “your responsibilities include gaining information about commercialization opportunities as well as evaluating the key advantages and disadvantages of your products versus competitor products.”

Other jobs of this nature include Business Development Manager and Competitive Intelligence (CI) Analysts (whose main role is “to gather information about products that are in a competing company’s pipeline and analyzing these products to determine how they will affect the market.) Medical Communications Specialists or technical writing for healthcare is another job that is seeing a huge boom lately. Do your research to see which career might be a natural transition from your current research endeavors – to an industry that would value your experience.

Be an Explorer

Inga Conti-Jerpe told Forrester: “Give students time to explore.” She maintains that the most important thing universities can do is to encourage connections between early-career researchers and those who work in industry as non-academic Ph.D.s. “Graduate students already have transferable skills, but the way to get a job is often by knowing somebody who knows somebody,” she stated.

The Big Idea

Sur closed his article by saying, in essence, that in order to secure an industry position, you need to prepare yourself by researching all careers that might be a natural progression from the research you worked on in the lab. He also emphasized that expanding your network beyond academia is incredibly important. You can grow your network by working with career-services teams at your institution, going to a CV-writing workshop and by attending recruiting events.