Career Exploration for STEM PhDs

As a doctoral student, you have tremendous strengths and transferable skills to offer employers. There are many types of careers open to PhDs in the sciences and mathematics, and GSAS Compass recommends that all doctoral students in these disciplines become familiar with the following resources:

Key resources

  • myIDP: Self-assessment and career planning tool for students in the Natural Sciences
  • ImaginePhD: Self-assessment and career planning tool targeted at humanities and social science PhDs, but widely applicable to any field
  • Columbia Individual Development Plan (IDP) Program: Designed for postdocs and doctoral students in any discipline, this program involves creating an individual development plan and attending workshops and industry panels.
  • National Postdoctoral Association: NPA career resources are broadly relevant for graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows
  • Free the PhD: Private organization focused on helping science PhDs transfer into industry
  • InterSECT Job Simulations: Online platform with job simulation exercises for career exploration
  • How to convert your CV to a résumé: Most industries other than academia require a one- to two-page résumé rather than a curriculum vitae (CV); use this guide to help you create your résumé (and click here for more on CVs)

Job boards and career advice

  • NYAS Science Alliance: Arts and Sciences students in the Natural Sciences are eligible to participate in the New York Academy of Science’s Science Alliance program, which offers workshops, courses, and mentorship and networking opportunities for graduate students and postdocs.
  • Science Careers: Career advice for graduate students, and a job board from the journal Science
  • Association for Women in Science: AWSI works to advance women in STEM and maintains a robust job board

Please find below a selection of some of the most common career paths for STEM PhDs. While this page is a good place to start your exploration, it only scratches the surface of the resources available to you. We encourage you to schedule an appointment to speak with a GSAS Compass career advisor regardless of where you are in your career decision-making process.

Industry

If you enjoy the day-to-day work of scientific research, industry positions might be a great fit for you. These positions are often very competitive and may require a couple years of postdoctoral experience. This is especially true in the biomedical sciences. To apply for positions in industry you will need to convert your academic CV to a resume.

Think about different industries that may need research and development scientists, including (just to name a few) companies in perfume and flavor, cosmetics, textiles companies, agriculture, and energy.

WHERE TO LOOK

There are job databases for industry-specific positions; you’re probably familiar with many of them. Both indeed.com and simplyhired.com are job search aggregators that pull from different databases. Use these to research common job titles, qualifications, and descriptions of responsibilities. Also visit the employment pages on companies’ websites as well as their LinkedIn company page.

US Government Jobs

NOTE: Most federal government jobs are limited to US citizens.

The federal government hires candidates with advanced degrees in the sciences and mathematics. There are jobs ranging from international development to systems design for NASA. Much of the government’s critical national security research is now in the biological sciences. Most government scientists conduct primary research, and advanced degrees (PhDs or MDs) are required.

Here are some examples of professions and the agencies which hire them:

  • Wildlife Biologists: The Department of the Interior
  • Molecular Biologists: The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control
  • Cognitive Psychologists: The Department of Labor
     

WHERE TO LOOK

Science Policy/Nonprofit

Many scientists find satisfying work making and influencing national policy or working for mission-drive nonprofit organizations. While you will find some of these roles within federal, state, and local government, there are also a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and think tanks that work to influence policy on a wide range of issues, including environment, science education, healthcare, human rights, and energy.

The domestic nonprofit sector is equally rich and offers a range of career options for scientists. Charities, foundations, social service organizations, patient associations, trade unions, professional associations, and academic societies in the sciences are looking for job candidates with strong scientific knowledge and the capacity to translate their skills and experience.

WHERE TO LOOK

Secondary School Teaching

If you enjoy mentoring young people interested in math and science may find secondary school teaching to be a rewarding career. You may want to choose private schools as a first step in a secondary teaching career because, unlike public schools, they do not require teaching certification. Charter schools are another good option. Teachers say that interacting with young students and making a difference in their lives are why they enjoy the profession.

There are a number of organizations that enable atypical candidates and career-changers to become certified quickly. The New York City Teaching Fellows Program recruits dedicated individuals to teach in public schools, allowing them to become certified within a few months of joining the program. Teach for America and Math for America, are two other programs that help participants gain teaching certification. Many participants in these programs have full-time, post-college work experience or have completed a graduate degree program prior to joining. In addition, public schools often have emergency needs for teachers in the sciences and mathematics and will award emergency certification.

Remember that experience with adolescents and teenagers is important in securing these jobs. While your PhD signals that you are qualified to teach a particular subject, you need to emphasize your interest in younger students and your ability to work with a different kind of curriculum. To gain experience, you might contact local schools for substitute or part-time openings, volunteer, work with individual students as a tutor or provide after school support. You could also look for jobs teaching in a summer program run by independent schools.

WHERE TO LOOK

Scientific/Technical Writing and Publishing

Scientific/medical writing and publishing requires and rewards strong writing skills, and offers the opportunity to be involved in the scientific community without spending hours in the lab or field. Academic and technical journals like to hire PhDs for editing positions. Publishing firms hire PhDs for editing, marketing, sales, production, design, information technology, and business positions. There are many different contexts in which a PhD can use writing skills:

  • large and small scientific journals
  • textbook publishers
  • medical writing companies that produce content for pharmaceutical companies
  • technology companies that need strong writers to produce “how-to” content

WHERE TO LOOK

Patents and Intellectual Property

Law firms hire patent agents or scientific advisors who do not hold law degrees to assist attorneys in due diligence, litigation, opinions, and other tasks. A scientific advisor at a law firm works with cutting-edge science every day. This kind of work may expose you to a broader range of science and technology than would a career in research.

PhDs hired as scientific advisors do not have to go to law school but are often expected to become patent agents and to draft, prosecute, and secure patents. Some firms will pay for an employee’s law school in order for them to become a patent attorney. Look for law firms with a focus on intellectual property.

WHERE TO LOOK

  • Law360
  • Martindales, a database of law firms, search for patent and intellectual property
Technology Transfer

Technology transfer offices help hospitals, universities, and large companies identify research and ideas that are appropriate for commercialization, as well as apply for patents, explore licensing possibilities, and establish start-up companies. Most US research universities and teaching hospitals have a technology transfer office. Many PhD scientists and engineers find work in technology transfer to be satisfying because it blends the engaging worlds of science and business.

WHERE TO LOOK

Consulting

Businesses, universities and other organizations hire consulting firms to provide an outside perspective and analytical skill to help address pressing strategic or practical issues. Consulting firms offer PhDs the opportunity to use and expand upon your knowledge base while working in exciting, varied positions with highly motivated colleagues.

Consulting is a rewarding yet demanding field. Most consultants travel a lot—they may spend three weeks a month on the road—and often work 60-80 hours a week. Be sure to consider the costs and benefits of this demanding profession before diving in. To decide if consulting is right for you, attend information sessions, network with industry professionals, and research companies.

In addition to general management consulting, many firms have specialized practices in energy, IT, government, and healthcare. As an example, we’ve listed a few of the specialized functions in IT below. These are just a few of the specialized functions a consultant might undertake during their career.

  • System Integration: This is one of the traditional jobs of the IT consultant and a growth area today as companies add more IT systems to their business processes. When two companies merge, or a single company wants to implement new hardware or software, they turn to consultants to make all the technology compatible.
  • Outsourcing: Business process outsourcing (BPO) is the bread and butter of many firms. Some companies find it easier and more cost-effective to pay somebody else to manage their technology for them. The consultants become the client’s IT department. They handle everything from help desk and call center operations to server maintenance to passkey and ID tag issuance.
  • IT Strategy: Also known as “consulting” or “strategy” projects, this work involves aligning a client’s IT infrastructure with its overall business strategy. Most of the large, brand-name management consulting firms have technology strategy practices, including Booz Allen and Accenture’s Strategic IT Effectiveness group, which is within its business consulting (i.e., distinct from IT consulting) division, rather than IT consulting. In these assignments you will get a broad view of the client’s business and high-level technology decisions.
  • Web Services: Applications of web services has grown in recent years. Web services code and decode data, and transport it, allowing businesses to communicate with each other and with clients without detailed knowledge of each other’s IT systems behind the firewall. Consultants help companies with this process. This specialty is receiving a lot of attention from major technology players such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Accenture.
  • Security: IT businesses have started to design and implement new security measures and methods of identification. Recent developments include biometrics or the science of identifying individuals by unique biological characteristics such as retina patterns, voice and fingerprints. Other areas of consulting include contraband detection and secure communications.
  • Research and Development: Some consultants spend their time in the lab creating new hardware and software, such as servers and analysis software. Sometimes these new developments are sold or used to complete assignments for other agencies, including military contractors like Raytheon.

WHERE TO LOOK

Here are some useful sites to learn more about consulting and several firms that tend to hire PhDs. Also be sure to read Case in Point written by Marc Cosentino.

Financial Services

Financial services firms often recruit PhDs for their high-level quantitative research and programming skills to assist with identifying deviations in the price or value of securities, commodities, and markets. Large and small companies, such as universal banks, hedge funds, and private trading companies, need PhDs in the sciences and mathematics to fill a wide variety of roles, including:

  • sales and trading
  • product development
  • analytics
  • risk monitoring and assessment
  • fixed income and equity research

WHERE TO LOOK