Alternative Careers in Science
By Sheeva Azma and Nidhi Parekh
So you’re a newly minted science graduate, but the idea of becoming a professor is not alluring to you. You may wonder, “Are there any alternative careers in science that don’t involve the ivory tower?”
Many people use the term “alt-ac” (short for “an alternative to academia”) to describe any jobs that don’t involve becoming a university professor or staff at a research institution. Sadly, the vast majority of people in PhD programs may feel like they are expected to continue on in academia to gain faculty positions. Given that such positions are increasingly difficult to come by, that’s not always possible.
The good news is that there is no shortage of alternative careers in science, not only for PhD-level scientists but anyone with a science degree. The bad news, as we just mentioned, is that most science programs are focused towards academia, so you may not even know about these exciting jobs that allow you to apply critical thinking skills, communication skills, and a plethora of other skills and experience gained from a degree in science.
Our Journeys to “Alt-Ac”
Many people who have an alt-ac career did not even know such opportunities were possible at the outset of their studies. Allow us to detail our scicomm journeys so you can see what we mean:
Nidhi: I earned an undergraduate degree in Biomedicine from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I then converted from science to law, and currently work as an occupational disease paralegal at a law firm in the UK. Eventually, I would like to get into science/health policy or intellectual property law. In the meantime, I am focused on science communication (SciComm) -- both science writing and science art, which you can check out at my blog, The Shared Microscope. My focus is on SciComm because there is so much misinformation out there -- and so much that the general audience doesn’t seem able to grasp -- like why is sugar dangerous to a diabetic, the importance of SPF sunscreen, good versus bad bacteria, etc.
Sheeva: After I graduated from college, I worked in a research lab so I could gain research experience and apply to graduate school. In graduate school, I was very interested in science policy (and a sharp writer) and I did various internships at local policy think tanks, was an SfN Early Career Policy Fellow, and took courses in science policy. I also served as Vice President of the local Society for Neuroscience chapter and helped organize “Careers Beyond Academia” panels and other career resources for local neuroscientists. Through this work, I learned that there was a whole other world out there beyond academic science -- one in which people were still doing important and world-changing things.
After graduate school, I started freelance writing, and decided to pursue my dream of working in the U.S. Congress. Congress is a very fast-paced place and I would often write documents with a 1-hour turnaround. My science background helped me out a lot in science writing and its applications to science policy -- my research skills helped me branch out to health, business, finance, and other fields of writing, so I could get more jobs and adapt rapidly to the changing needs of the writing industry. And that’s how I got where I am today as founder of Fancy Comma LLC, a freelance writing company which has worked with some big names in industry, government, academia, law, and other fields.
It takes effortful introspection to figure out what you really want to do in life. The first step is to know your options in terms of what’s out there for scientists who are seeking an alt-ac career. Read on to learn about a few alternative careers in science beyond academia.
Scientists interested in government can work in science policy, applying their scientific content knowledge to help inform policymakers (e.g., the U.S. Congress or U.K. Parliament) and improve the laws on the books. Scientists can also work in regulatory affairs, which is a field at the intersection of government and big pharma.
Scientists who are interested in working in government, especially in Washington, D.C., may be interested in a book Sheeva edited called The Young Leader's Guide to Internships, Scholarships, and Fellowships in Washington, D.C., and Beyond. The book features a special section about getting Science Policy jobs in DC and elsewhere.
Scientists interested in industry can work in big pharma or the biotech industry, conducting research and development. They can also start a tech startup or go into consulting. There are a lot of different options here.
TCIM Career Profile: GSK Year in Industry experience
Non-profit, too, is a place with many facets - here you could apply your science knowledge for the greater good. STEM majors commonly work at nonprofits such doing science writing or policy analysis, for example. You could be involved in writing for charities like the American Cancer Association or Cancer Research UK. The writing could be for patient leaflets, government policy makers, or even for fellow doctors and scientists. Many nonprofits are known to also improve the study of disease through the funding of grants, scholarships and PhD programs, so you would help raise awareness of the importance of science through your work.
Science communication and science writing is incredibly important in society today. Its importance could not be more easily illustrated by the ongoing pandemic. Science writers communicate complex information to the general public in a way that is easily understandable.
The best thing about being a science writer is that you can use your research skills to branch out to other types of writing. Biomedical scientists can easily work in the health writing space, or can apply their research aptitude to quickly learn about technologies to perform tech writing -- something that is very in demand by Silicon Valley. There’s also technical writing -- which is distinct from tech writing -- which is a very specific, process-oriented kind of writing.
If you want to level up in science writing, you can even pitch articles to major news outlets. The best part about being a science writer is that you can thrive in the gig economy, offering your freelance services on sites like Upwork.
TCIM Careers Blog post: Scicomm vs the Lab
The transition from biomed to law is a great one because of scientists’ strong research and critical thinking skills. We are also good at any form of analysis, be it words or numbers. Being a lawyer means you have to be able to make well-informed, compelling, insightful arguments based on facts -- which is what you’ve been trained to do in your science education. So, there’s a good crossover of skills between science (we mentioned biomedical science above, but really, any scientific background would be a great asset) and law.
There are also many different subfields of law, including medical law, pharma law, intellectual property law, and occupational disease law (the latter is Nidhi’s field as a paralegal).
TCIM Careers Profile: Biomed to Law
If you are in it for the long haul, and can dedicate yourself to years of memorizing drug names, chemical formulas, metabolic processes, and the like, medical school may be for you. While medicine is one of the most stable careers out there, the training can be very long -- four years of medical school, followed by internship and residency, and then further specialization depending on your specialty. A science degree lends itself well to the rigor of medicine and can definitely be a great asset.
Tcim Careers Blog post: Cancer Researcher to Medicine
Conclusion The critical thinking skills you obtain from a science education can be used in virtually any industry. Being able to examine and analyze data is extremely important for a range of jobs, whether in science writing or science policy, in industry, government, nonprofits, law, medicine, or even data analytics. Regardless of the career route you decide to take, make sure it’s something you truly enjoy doing. We recommend trying to get some work experience or internships in the field that interests you before you fully commit to it.
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Nidhi Parekh is a science blogger and illustrator who writes at The Shared Microscope. Find The Shared Microscope on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for informative, effective illustrations of concepts in biology.