The branching path in the life of a PhD

As we approach the delineated end of this common venture that the ITN network was, all the students involved are starting to work towards the final stretches. Among the issues that require our attention in these coming days, a serious one that has been hanging over me like the proverbial Damocles sword is, and then what?

The academic and well-known structure is to follow up the PhD with a post-doc position, it could be in the same laboratory/institution, or it could be somewhere else. For those that have liked the taste of academia that the PhD was, this would be a no-brainer. Carry on with the project or come up with one on your own, continue with the sometimes-gruelling lab work hours and exigence while also enjoying the academic liberty and flexibility. For others this may be less desirable for different reasons, this line of work is not appealing to them; this flexibility also spells uncertainty in the financial and geographical level.

Credits of the image to Tim Urban, “Wait but Why” Blogpost

Be the reasons that they may be, leaving academia can be seen as a failure in the career of a scientist. I would like to dispel this perception quickly as, in my very personal experience, I have never seen anybody, at any level of the academic hierarchy, make such disparaging comments. Perhaps it is a concept of the past, perhaps in the globalized economy, and in the fertile ground of financial investment in biotech start-ups, science has become a prized commodity. A symbiotic relation between the lab bench and the industry has been stricken or has begun to, sometimes fostered by the political powers that be.

Something that I do not think has kept up with the changing times is the level of information to which the PhD students are exposed, particularly regarding the less well-known paths outside of academia. For me it has supposed going to any event that I saw advertised that could remotely connect with these tenuous waters, and talking with a lot of people about it, the implication being that this was an active effort on my part.

Proactiveness is a good thing, a quality that I do not consider my own but that I have always seen under the best light. That being said, I think sometimes people need a bit of guidance towards the forking of the path, and if done in advance, all the better. A PhD student is not a monolithic label, as there are myriads of characters and inclinations, so are the ways of approaching this task, but an aspect that I see very broadly spread among my peers, including myself, is a case of horse blinders. You are immersed in this complex project from which you may have a terrible amount of responsibility with sometimes, sadly, little or no supervision; you have no time to spend in anything other than the project, keeping up with the literature, and perhaps side projects. This way one can, very easily and unwittingly, close themself off activities that could be very helpful for their academic/professional/personal development and that would be readily available in this key formative period.

Courses on transversal abilities, networking with fellow scientists from different fields or interests, internships in specific industries or departments… the list can go on indefinitely, as many are the different pathways that one can follow outside of academia. Usually, nobody tells you this, or worse, they do but you are too stubborn and immersed in the chase of the project to realise the heaviness of their words.

With all of this in mind, I would like to give a brief, but complete, list of options that have seen less fanfare than just simply carrying on in academia. In no particular order, the options that I have found are:

Venture capital, this one kind of threw me off to be honest. The rationale for this coming from the side that a PhD teaches, or forces you to learn, certain transversal skills such as critical thinking, research of literature and topics, project and time management, etcetera. It makes sense then that groups involved in financial investment on emerging fields/technologies and topics of interest would seek people with these abilities in order to gauge and produce reports on these possible investment opportunities. For what I have seen these positions usually start as a junior or lower employee that is part of a multidisciplinary group, often paired with a senior member that shows them the ropes. With a clear career path, it goes through the study and subsequent certification exams necessary to play the role in the investment/financial world (at least in the UK).

Consulting, more heard of, with massive companies being known by name as well, is another possibility in the cards. In this case there is a certain level of weight put on the field of your knowledge, meaning that, if you have worked in the life-sciences, there is a good chance for you to find a position as a consultant in a firm that specializes in giving advice to endeavours of that nature. My understanding is that the working style/career path is similar to that of the venture capital one, minus the specific certifications (at least that I am aware, and in the UK).

Patents, I find this one a bit less well-known and I only found out by attending a talk from people in different positions within the legal framework in the EU patent system. Mostly run by lawyers, and with the possibility of being approached from very different angles (producing patents, disputing patents, trademarks, transferability from the sciency talk to the legalese). A PhD holder could start, as the previous two ones, junior employee in a law firm or EU body working on applying their scientific literacy in literature research for the patentability of a product coming from a client, all the while preparing for the certification’s exams necessary for the progression in the field. Bear in mind that different legal systems (USA, EU and at the national level) mean different certifications.

Industry, the most obvious one, but still deceiving in its depth. One could participate in research much similar to that one of academia but within the context of a business with marketability and results in mind. This does not mean that it is all fast and loose, with a top-down approach to the direction that the projects should take, more often than not there is a certain degree of freedom on how you approach the successful conclusion of the project at hand. A key element is where does this industrial research happen, university spin-off? Small, and very niche, company? Huge multinational with abysmally big departments and sub-departments? The culture, direction and intention of the workplace will vary wildly and so will be the requirements, this kind of placements are better approached in a case-by-case basis. Always remember though, they have to hire you yes, but you have to accept them as well, unless under duress of financial or other pragmatic reasons, be thoughtful of your choices.

As I hinted, industry work for a PhD does not end in the research laboratories. Making use of the aforementioned transversal abilities, there is a breadth of options in departments related to the ones of scientific production in which one can find employability. For example, but not limited to, product development, marketing, and management of projects.

Furthermore, you could even make your own company. So long as you have a good concept to commodify (although this sometimes does not seem to be a compulsory requirement), there is an array of tools that can be used to start the process. Dedicated departments in the universities/research centres, and supra-university bodies such as foundries and incubators, are some of these tools that can be made use of to fructify the start-up effort. It is a long and winding road that can take a toll, often not reaching a successful end; motivation is a necessary element in this interesting path.

Health-Science writing, anytime that a scientific report is needed to divulge an idea or product outside of the science community, to the public, medical professionals, companies, etc., there is a need for a person from this field. Usually working as companies that give their writing/management support to scientist or other companies, the roles of these groups can be entirely devoted to using scientific literacy for producing easy-to-follow, comprehensive reports or towards organizing well thought-out events of divulgation (conferences and talks). They are also involved in producing scientific articles meant for publication in the usual peer-reviewed channels. Additional formation in courses related to the field may be needed but it is a natural transition for scientists outside of research.

Governmental agencies, I mentioned this in passing before, in the patents bit, but governmental bodies also employ scientists as advisors and researchers of topics of interest for legislation. An example of this is the European Medicines Agency or the Joint Research Councils. There is usually some sort of civil service track at the national level, but it depends greatly on the country you are in. In this same line, but away from research, there is the full involvement in producing reports on legislation and technologies in order to help policy makers develop the necessary legislation to keep up with the scientific development and to use it in the best possible way to benefit the population.

Academia, with all its virtues, can become a meat grinder for the unsuspecting scientist and there is a need to inform young scientist in a compelling and constructive way of what other options there may be. I refuse to believe that this would be detrimental to science as a whole because of the diversion of attention and people out of the more elevated academic pursuits, it is better to have people actively choose to follow this path than to have them drift into it by just the apparent inertia of the system.

Perhaps it would follow the necessary revision of tenured positions that can, in some cases, stagnate the professional progression of many left outside, or the rethinking of the scientific paper writing industry, so stacked towards fulfilling certain metrics and sometimes skewed by less than honest scientists and editors that exploit the weaknesses for personal gain. Equally importantly, I believe it would lead to more people taking on more fulfilling positions across the wide gamut of roles that a scientist can play for the improvement of society, outside from the purest forms of scientific inquiry.

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