by David Belair, PhD
The idea that a doctorate is just for academics or over-specializes candidates for a job in industry is false. Research careers are abundant in all sectors of the economy, and R&D positions in industry (~1.5 million in 2013) far outweigh the number of positions in academia (~950,000) and government (~250,000) combined.[1-3] Entry-level research careers are open to Bachelor’s level engineers – the majority of researchers in the science and engineering (S&E) workforce hold a Bachelor’s degree (52%) as their highest degree – but scientists and engineers with a Master’s or PhD command higher median salaries, have lower unemployment rates, and represent 33% and 12%, respectively, of the researchers in S&E. Engineers with Master’s degrees or above also have quicker access to supervisory roles that command greater independence and leverage to devise and implement impactful ideas.
If you’re thinking about a research career, consider that a PhD program can be a great way to change fields. Research is distinct from engineering in practice – researchers synthesize knowledge; engineers use what is known to troubleshoot and solve problems. Engineering researchers do both – they use existing knowledge to innovate and create solutions to bottlenecks in their field. Engineers considering graduate school can take the opportunity to branch out into a new field and explore their research interests apart from their undergraduate background.
I didn’t realize that I was interested in the medical applications of chemical engineering until I took elective courses in biotechnology and worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Purdue School of Pharmacy. Those two relatively small steps changed the entire trajectory of my career and sparked my interest in drug delivery and biomedical engineering. I tailored my graduate applications to biomedical engineering PhD programs with faculty members actively researching drug delivery platforms and let my research interests guide my postgraduate path.
Graduate school will test your dedication and patience. Each PhD experience is different. The average duration of a PhD program in the physical or life sciences is 6-7 years, and at the end, PhD students are expected to self-author and defend a document containing unique and impactful new research (i.e., research that is important to more than just your lab’s future funding) with a clear application. Successful PhD students immerse themselves in research, work to broaden the impact of their work and collaborate when necessary, and hone translatable technical communication and project management skills. They also cultivate a sense of the aspects of research they enjoy, and what jobs are available after graduation to sustain their interests and leverage their new skills.
Know where the research jobs are. All sectors of the economy depend on strong PhD researchers with translatable skills. However, graduate students can become trapped in the mindset of chasing an academic career given that they interact almost exclusively with faculty and postdocs in their graduate programs. Graduate students should anticipate a competitive academic job market upon graduation that is fostered in part by the steady graduation rate of doctorates from US universities (for the past five decades, a number equivalent to 0.015% of the US population earned a doctoral degree from a US university each year[5,6]).
Doctorates in S&E also have a lower unemployment rate (hovering around 2% for the past decade ) than Bachelor’s or master’s degree holders in S&E – so where are PhDs finding jobs? Doctorates in S&E are evenly split between academic institutions (~39.6%, of which about 10% are postdocs and 70% are full-time faculty) and for-profit businesses (36%), while ~8.5% of doctorates are employed by the government. These numbers suggest that while many PhDs land their dream academic job, industry employs just as many, if not more, doctorates than academia.
Look before you leap. I recently served on a conference career panel. A fellow panelist, an associate professor, shared her story of working as a postdoc and pursuing a faculty job despite the low chance of success because if she failed, she could always get a job in industry. Though her story was inspirational, the sentiment of industry as a fallback option for doctorates persists among PhDs and creates a sense that the goal of a PhD should be an academic career. This encourages graduate students to pursue an academic career trajectory until there is no more hope of continuing, and only then seeking employment outside academia. The competitive job market for PhDs can lead many PhD students to postdoctoral positions with no clear path to a permanent position. Graduate students interested in a career outside academia should take advantage of opportunities during their PhD that are not academic and seek support from their mentor to pursue internships or collaborations with companies or government labs.
As a graduate student, I interned at a small biotech company for five months and not only learned technical skills that broadened my expertise, but expanded my professional network to include supervisors with firsthand experience of my research capabilities. Networking is essential for researchers in all sectors, and the only way to strengthen your non-academic network as a graduate student is to seek out non-academic mentors who can vouch for your research abilities. Graduate students interested in a career outside academia should engage with industry recruiters and request informational interviews well in advance of graduating. This will help ensure they have options and don’t continue down the academic path into a postdoc if they have no interest in an academic job.
Find your niche. As a PhD student and postdoc, I struggled with the choice between academia versus non-academia. I stayed open minded and sought opportunities outside of academia that aligned with my research interests, and those choices led me to my current job as a researcher in biopharma. A doctoral degree creates personal and professional value, and using a doctorate to get a job outside academia should not be considered a failure but instead reflects the importance of researchers to all sectors of the economy.
 NSF National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. A Snapshot of Business R&D Employment in the United States. 2016.
 NSF Division of Science Resources Statistics. Diversity in the Federal Science and Engineering Workforce. 2011.
 NSF National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Higher Education Research and Development Survey. 2016.
 NSF National Science Board. Science & Engineering Indicators 2018.
 NSF National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Survey of Earned Doctorates. 2016.
 United Nationals DESA/Population Division. World Population Prospects. 2017.
David Belair, PhD is a scientist in investigative toxicology at Celgene Corporation, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Summit, NJ. You can reach him by email (email@example.com) and on Twitter (@DavidGBelair). Disclaimer: David’s views are his own and do not reflect the views of his employer.