How can you ‘use’ your PhD in your future work? Options for STEM PhDs

Science isn’t [just] WHAT you think, it’s HOW’Science Everywhere

Photo description: a lightbulb, with different thought bubbles shooting off from it in different directions

Before I go on, I just wanted to say… I hear you, humanities people, and an equivalent post is coming for you in a few weeks!

Now we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way, let’s get down to business. Or industry. Or entrepreneurship. Or the public sector. Or any of the many other settings in which you can ‘use’ your STEM PhD in your future work (see what I did there…?!).

Coming from a humanities PhD background, I used to think it was ‘easier’ for people with STEM doctorates to think through career options beyond academia. If you’d spent years looking at a particular molecule, a certain kind of modelling, or a specific type of material/product, then it seemed pretty clear that there might be applications of this expertise ‘in industry.’ But for the narrative role of abandoned spaces in contemporary British fiction? Or an analysis of Cistercian Monasteries in Medieval Hungary? Less so.

It turns out, however, that in this kind of thinking I was making precisely the mistake that many STEM researchers make when considering career options: that is, assuming that your career options are limited to things closely related to your PhD. 404 Error.

So if you aren’t limited to jobs linked to your previous research… what are your options, and how can you see beyond the ‘obvious?’ Obviously no two STEM PhDs are the same, but here’s the most flexible ‘model’ I’ve come up with so far for ‘mapping’ career options after a STEM PhD. I used call it the ‘STAGES’ model, until my partner chastised me for, and I quote, ‘using cr*p acronyms’ (<thanks>).

The premise is that you split your PhD – and yourself – into 6 themes, or ‘STAGES’, to see what kinds of work each theme could lead you towards. The themes are (and you might even have your own to add to these):

Subject-specific knowledge

This is the obvious one…. thinking about the niche expertise you’ve gained in your PhD and what kind of employers might be interested in that. Yes, academic departments and labs might be, but there might be interest from other industries too: for example, if your PhD looked at the behaviour of titanium alloys at high temperatures, and there’s a company who needs that expertise to make sure their aircraft perform the best standards, then there’s an example of an employer who could be looking for someone like you. So, if you want to stick with your specialist expertise for your next steps, it’s worth doing some research to find out what kinds of industries and what companies or organisations are working on practical applications linked to your specialist STEM knowledge.

Techniques

Next, we take things a bit broader and think about the scientific techniques and methods that you’ve developed during your PhD: lab skills; techniques for materials testing; modelling and simulation methods… however ‘techniques’ manifest for you. What types of employers might be interested in your training in these? They might be mostly on the lab-based, R&D side of things, but might also be in other settings, for example biomedical science within the National Health Service. Techniques take your options a bit broader as they can be applicable outside of your current focus area: for example, have you done tons of cell culture? If so, many areas of science use that technique, so could you use those skills to transition into another scientific area like virology, for example? If using your technical skills is a top priority for you, then think about the types of employers who are likely to value these.

Analytical, data & computational skills

Next, we move from the skills gained through your lab and experimental work to the skills you might have honed more through processing and analysing your data (or in your research, if you’ve been dry-lab based). Have you used certain coding languages for example, or any specific analytical methods on your data? This is where we see STEM PhDs use this aspect of their PhDs to move into career areas like data science, analytics, statistical-based roles, jobs with scientific software companies… the list goes on. Also, if you’ve taught yourself certain methods or coding languages then you can easily pick up new ones, so you may not always need lots of experience with one specific package or language to show that you can get the job done.

General scientific background

Here, we’re talking about considering what kinds of employers might value your more general science-y brain. It could your general ability to solve scientific problems, your methodical and analytical approach to work, or even your understanding of how scientific research works… base scientific understanding, not just in your niche field. This is where the options start to blast wide open (as this useful website from the University of Oxford shows), and could extend to things like science consulting, patent law, medical writing, scientific publishing and media, science policy, research funding and support; tech transfer & spin-out… to name but a few.

Equipment and materials

What kinds of equipment and materials have you worked with in your PhD? Lab consumables, metals and plastics, microscopes, scanners, types of scientific software… what kinds of things does your lab have to ‘buy in’ in order to run? Now think about the companies who produce those materials and that equipment. They will not only employ people who make these products, but will also have people who help to improve these products, who understand how these products are used in situ (‘field applications’), who help to market and sell these products, who train customers to use these products… and so on. In fact, several researchers I’ve worked with have found their next careers beyond the lab by striking up conversations with sales reps visiting their labs, and learning about work in technical sales, field applications and related roles in their companies.

Skills and interests beyond science

The hardest to explain and perhaps the boldest to pursue, but this final theme describes how you can take the even broader skills and qualities that you’ve gained during your PhD – or the interests and knowledge that you’ve develop beyond your research – and translate them to a range of careers that may not be based in science at all. This is where I’ve seen Biomed PhDs take their problem-solving and methodical skills and apply them to management and strategy consulting. Where I worked with a Chemist to take the organisational and committee experience he gained as PhD student rep and get onto a graduate scheme in local government. Where an Ecologist set up a business to better represent LGBTQ+ communities in the games market. Here, it’s more about assessing the general bits of yourself that you most enjoy using in your work, or the causes that you’re most passionate about, to find your potential next steps.

So that’s the STAGES model, in all its clunkiness. The best thing about it for me, though, is that none of the ‘themes’ are mutually exclusive. Combining work activities linked to one ‘theme’ with an employer that is linked to another can throw out some interesting ideas. For example… You want to use your data and analytical skills from your Physics PhD, but are super passionate about sport? Then what’s at the centre of that Venn diagram? An analytical role with a sports betting company, maybe? Or, you love applying your engineer brain, but you’re also fascinated by the world of TV and journalism… then maybe an R&D or a technology-based role with a broadcasting and media company could tick both boxes? So as well as thinking about which of the ‘STAGES’ themes you’d most like to apply to your future work, don’t forget to think about what work might happen at the intersections of those themes, too.

(The ‘Ten Types of Scientist’ resource from the Science Council is also pretty useful to show how you can combine science PLUS other interests in different types of work).

Happy STAGE-ing!

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