Progression in academia, in general, seems and feels extremely linear, i.e. you do your undergrad, then you do graduate studies, then you do a post-doc (or two, or three ... ) and eventually if you are good/persistent/well-connected/... enough you might get funded to start your own group and live the rest of your professional life in chasing grants, fighting with faculty and editors etc [yes, I am exaggerating], which I don't find particularly appealing.

Alternative to this scenario is to quit academia and go to the industry, often labeled as "selling out" by senior scientists I have personally met and discussed this subject with.

But life in general never gives a clear bisections, like you do either A or B, but there are typically a number of options to choose from. Thus I figure there should be some shades of gray in between the white and black. As a resource to other doctoral students I figured we could perhaps accumulate the possible career paths for people that have finished their PhDs, besides trying to climb up the ladder of academic ascension.

The ones I can think of are:

  • specialized (lab) technician: working for instance with complex instruments. I have noticed in our lab that having an experienced technician operating and maintaining the heavy instruments is invaluable for the group. Not only for the sake of projects going as smooth as possible, but also for teaching grad students how to properly use the instruments.

  • popular science author/editor: I have read quite a few popular science books by people with PhDs on fields that I know little about (here's a good example). Similarly, magazines such as Illustrated Science typically need a middle layer between cutting-edge science and interested (but not adequately educated) readers.

  • research position at industry: I am really going on a limb here, as I don't personally know anyone who is actively doing just that, but companies in several different fields actually do research; either in collaboration with universities, or in-house. I am inclined to think that such a position would include less grant-seeking, and publishing headaches (perhaps replaced with other types of headaches).

  • production position at industry: from what I understand this is the more typical scenario where people that go to industry after doing a PhD end up in. Based on my discussions with people (in academia) these positions typically include little to none intellectual development or acquisition of new skills. Thus not-so-desired or looked-down-upon by academics.

My question(s):

  1. what other career paths are there, that I might have missed?
  2. am I correct in my understand of the above 4 paths? are there any insights that you would like to add?
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    often labeled as "selling out" by senior scientists I have personally met and discussed this subject with. — Oh, please. Who cares what those old farts think?
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 13:00
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    @JeffE :) seeing as they will be my future employers or committee members, as well as my primary source of information regarding career advice, I don't see how I can't care about what they think.
    – posdef
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 13:12
  • 14
    Get new mentors.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 13:52
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    Anyone who uses the phrase "selling out" does not deserve to be taken seriously. Many of these people would probably not survive today's academic job market.
    – Suresh
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 18:28
  • 3
    I'm sure it depends on the company, but a research position at industry will typically require that you continue to publish regularly. There may also be pressures to produce patents. Writing a patent description is somewhat similar to writing a journal article, I believe.
    – mhwombat
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 16:51

9 Answers 9


Selling out? Hardly!

I am a researcher in industry, and I love it. I get to work on important problems and my work is expected to translate into real products in roughly 5-10 years.

While working on my PhD, I felt that the academic mindset was overwhelming. I have never had any intention of doing anything but research in industry, but I was certainly in the minority.

Some of my reasons for choosing my career path were/are:

  • Many people in academia seem to be overly focused on publishing, even before they can make reasonable and meaningful conclusions (which can contribute to a mass of conflicting literature). To me, conferences are for discussing interesting work, but publishing is for disseminating conclusions (& supporting data) that can have a meaningful impact on a field of knowledge. In industry, I have to write up reports all the time, but only the important stuff gets published.

  • I am a scientist, which is just the modern term for a "natural philosopher." I take my role as a philosopher very seriously, but as much as I love knowledge, I believe it is irresponsible to use other people's money to pursue research that is unlikely to benefit those people in a timely manner. Pure research is a hobby; Applied research is a job. In industry, I am free to pursue pure research when I have spare time, but I get paid to work on real problems.

  • In an academic setting, it is far too easy to pursue research in a very narrow field in which everybody knows everyone else. No thanks! I love that my job forces me to work outside my comfort zone, with a wide variety of people that I would never interact with in an academic setting. I have grown personally and professionally from these interactions.

  • Working for a company, I am usually guaranteed funding for something... but not necessarily things I think are important or interesting. As with any funding agency, I have to propose research projects that the company is willing to pay for. I have some early-stage projects that require minimal funding, but also others that require huge investments and therefore must offer much in return. However, I can also apply for funding through both private and government agencies. We often do this when we want to pursue a new area of research and/or collaborate with other organizations. (Note that we also fund grants for others too, so some of my work involves reviewing those proposals.)

Granted, very few people can actually get a job doing research in industry. It is highly competitive, and you often need far more than just a PhD. I worked in industry for 2 years before starting my PhD, but internships can also be great experience. (Unfortunately, most PhD programs frown on internships or other outside jobs... which is very disappointing!) Of course, networking also helps. I have found that most research jobs are not advertised, so you have to actually talk to people. In my case, I asked the VP of research for some career advice and ended up with a job offer.

I hope this helps. Doing research in industry is very different in some ways, but similar in others.

  • It's nice to hear a positive voice about industry research jobs, it sounds like you're in a great career. What disciplines do you see being good for industry research? After a few years, how much does the discipline of your PhD matter? Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 17:50
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    (re: disciplines & industries) I am not familiar enough with every discipline to answer this... For any given discipline, I recommend researching related industries, and vice versa. (re: does discipline matter) After investing years in a PhD, I certainly have no interest in a position unrelated to the discipline I studied. The whole point of getting a PhD is to do research in a specific discipline (or a limited multi-disciplinary area). In general, my opinion is that any job that does not require a degree in a specific discipline should not require a degree at all.
    – Jon
    Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 3:36
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    I must say that I vividly disagree on I believe it is irresponsible to use other people's money to pursue research that is unlikely to benefit those people in a timely manner. I don't think I can express it better than the CERN Funding of basic science is important for society as a whole, but is not in the interest of any individual investor. public-archive.web.cern.ch/public-archive/en/About/…
    – Zenon
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 12:00
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    Good point. Irresponsible is a strong word and I should have been more clear. Personally, I prefer to do work that I know is actually contributing to society in some way (in terms of tangible benefits). On the other hand, I agree that funding basic science research is important. But, as that article pointed out, the next question is "How to choose what to fund, and at what level?".
    – Jon
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 19:19

I am assuming that you're talking about career paths for PhDs in STEM fields. One major area of employment that you missed is the national lab path. The lab route is, in a sense, a middle ground between industry and academia. A scientist at a national lab is engaged in basic science research. The labs do work for government organizations like DOD, DOE, DHS, all sorts of acronyms. Rather than writing grant proposals you would be writing proposals to take on projects for these agencies. Depending on your area of expertise, you may be expected to publish your results in journals, or publish results as technical reports. At Pacific Northwest National Lab, there is a fundamental sciences directorate that is committed to basic science research (chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, mathematics) that mainly publishes in journals, and there is a national security directorate that mainly publishes technical reports (often classified). There are also many research labs that contract to the federal government such as HRL, Matrix, MITRE, and Lincoln Laboratories.

Scientists at government labs publish without the "publish or perish" atmosphere of academia. They enjoy more freedom in choosing their own career path than a researcher in industry. There is also more respect (and demand) for interdisciplinary research than in academia. Since you are competing for federal dollars, the research you do is also more likely to be used than research in academia.

For completeness -- In addition to the scientist path at research labs, many choose to go into project management. This requires a deep knowledge of the subject area, and pays better, but you might stop doing the actual research yourself.

I've done internships at Pacific Northwest and Los Alamos national labs, and my comments are based on discussions with employees at those labs.

  • 2
    What disadvantages are there with working at national (or supranational, such as in the EU) labs, compared to working in pure academia?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 15:11
  • Nice, thanks for the reply. I guess national labs concept doesn't exist in the European side of the ocean as much, but it's definitely an option. I also second @gerrit's question, you have mentioned the pros but skipped the cons, it seems.
    – posdef
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 16:02
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    @posdef Unless I misunderstand what a national lab is, national labs exist in Europe too (for example, most national meteorological offices are directly involved in research).
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 19:55
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    Some cons: because you are often dealing with government contracts, you cannot move as quickly as you can in academia. With European labs it may be less of an issue, but some of the US labs are in fairly remote locations (Los Alamos and PNNL were built for military research in WW2, so they are both out in the desert). There also aren't as many national labs as there are universities, so you have less choice of location as compared with academia. Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 18:31
  • In national labs, you're essentially in a soft-money position, so when funding dries up, so can your salary. That's not true in a university (although there are other consequences)
    – Suresh
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 18:29

I think you can add:

research position at industry: I am really going on a limb here, as I don't personally know anyone who is actively doing just that, but companies in several different fields actually do research; either in collaboration with universities, or in-house. I am inclined to think that such a position would include less grant-seeking, and publishing headaches (perhaps replaced with other types of headaches).

Many companies have a research department. Some do quite fundamental research, but most of them are rather development-oriented. In the latter case, it is an other way to consider things: you want a product that works, even if you don't understand precisely how it works. It can be very interesting too, but it is different from academic research; you might like it or not.


One option that's not quite included is what I'll call the "we love you for your brain" option.

In certain parts of STEM (especially physics/math/computer science), you can get a certain kind of industry job not based on the subject of your research, but merely as someone with "analytical thinking" skills. Wall street 'quants' are the best example of this.

If your specialty is a different non-STEM discipline a similar phenomenon can occur. People coming out of the humanities with strong critical writing/reading skills can end up in grant-writing positions, or technical writing positions with corporations, and so on.

  • Related to this: Statistics/data analysis positions.
    – Superbest
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 19:56

A nice piece of advice on going to industry is here How to leave academia [and go to programming, data science or quants] (at least I've found it valuable).

I guess the question is what you've learnt (some you take for granted, like ability to be manager of your own project), which kind of connections you made, what is the kind of job you would like to work, etc. Then, well, you can think about all jobs, forgetting that you were a PhD (except that additionally you can consider a very few highly academia-related, e.g. science popularization, lab technician).

And then, at least among my friends (and places I am looking by myself) is it is mostly "jobs in tech" - software engineering, web development, quants and data science. The last one seems to be one where a PhD student can have an edge (over s standard programmer) due to being immersed with different numerical tools (and general research methodology, etc). There are even some courses aimed at PhD graduates, for example Insight Data Science Fellows Program (or BigDive, which is more general, but I wholeheartedly recommend it, as an alumnus).

In the case "what are you missing" - I wouldn't split it in 4 paths. Especially as in many places there is no clear distinction between production and R&D (it may depend more on actual company, project, people involved, your drive to learn, etc).

But clearly, you miss whole "free" part related to being a consultant, freelancer or starting your own business.


Well, as a grad student who has no interest in academia, I have my eye on industry positions. I should also mention that I am a social scientist. The typical route is to enter into a research or evaluation firm. I'm interested in pursing those jobs.

However, I've known since I started graduate school that academia was not for me, and I also acknowledge that getting a Ph.D. in social sciences doesn't necessarily mean you have developed skills that are critical for jobs outside of academia. I'm often baffled at how ignorant my peers are to the hiring environment that exists beyond the walls of academia, and the mentality is usually, "well, if academia doesn't work out then industry job will be easy to nab." Anyways, as a result of being cognizant of the demands of industry jobs, and how I can foster those skills through the projects I work on in graduate school, I've taken to developing my quant skills. I'm the go-to person for quant questions within my department and in my network of friends, some of which are in industry. I've also taken to extending these quant skills outside of my field whenever I have time. I want to work as a data scientist. However, this career path requires social scientists to learn a lot outside of what you are typically exposed to in academia. Therefore it's not uncommon for me to learn about a particular analysis in my field, and then spend the next few months playing with that analytic framework with business data, sports data, stocks, etc. I've had to learn machine learning, and find outlets to practice those skills. In addition, the same can be said for learning to program better.

My point is: It takes considerable effort in the social sciences to develop skills that will make you not just employable outside of academia, but in demand. Fostering those skills while in graduate school, in addition to the requirements of the program, is a very important thing to do.


My very limited understanding comes as that people with psychology doctorates often become school psychologists, social workers, or counselors.

  • 1
    Yes, many "professional" (vs "academic") jobs in psychology require a PhD as a basic credential.
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 16:39

You already have some answers to your first question, but I can provide some for your second question.

Lab Technicians: I know one or two of these, and they typically don't have PhDs, so I am not sure that I would characterise this as a post-PhD career. But I am not an expert, so I might be wrong about this.

Popular Science Author: Seriously? This is way harder than becoming a tenured professor. It would probably be a lot of fun to write a book, but there is basically zero chance of making it your career.

Research Position in Industry: Absolutely a possibility. There are tons of people working in different fields of research in industry and government. Often it might be more focussed towards solving specific problems rather than blue-sky research like in academia. I've actually been working for two years in government and last year I was back in academia and I have to say that the research environment in academia was a lot less stimulating. Everybody keeps their data secret and all they care about is publications. I love teaching but at the moment I am quite glad to be out of academia again.

Production position in industry: It's hard to say what you mean here, but I guess for STEM people, software development is the most common one. There are lots of good jobs for software developers and there is a whole culture that goes with it. I know many people from academia who have gone into this area and it sounds like they often find it to be a rewarding career. As for no intellectual development or acquisition of new skills, it's quite the opposite. Most of the developers I know are encouraged to educate themselves all the time, and often they are forced to anyway because of new technology! (Of course, I am sure that it is quite possible to get a boring dead-end job in this area as well.)

As for your first paragraph, I don't think you are exaggerating.

  • 1
    "Everybody keeps their data secret" - I am sorry you made this experience, but it is not quite representative for all of academia in my opinion. Commented May 11, 2016 at 15:27

Here are several popular career paths. For completeness, I include yours as well.

Within academia

  • tenure-track professor

Essential skills: ability to attract funding, publication/citation, networking, creativity/luck, hard-working

  • scientist (national labs)

Essential skills: , relevant research, ability to attract funding, creativity/luck, publication/citation, networking, hard-working

  • non-tenure-track professor/visiting professors/scientist/postdoc

Essential skills: good relation with your boss, publication/citation, hard-working

  • lecturer/teaching professor

Essential skills: teaching, networking

Outside academia

  • journal assistant editor/popular science author/PR

Essential skills: scientific writing

  • Legal assistant/patent researcher

  • production/management at industry

Essential skills: relevant experiences and credentials

  • specialized (lab) technician

  • R&D at industry

Essential skills: relevant skills (see below)

  • developer

Essential skills: relevant programming skills (cf. LeetCode), experience, hard-working

  • data Scientist

Essential skills: relevant experience (cf. Kaggle), statistics, hard-working

  • quant

Essential skills: relevant experience in finance and statistics, model building, luck, hard-working

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