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Navigating the landscape of research-based careers with a PhD

Written by Sarah Allard, PhD and Jack Gilbert, PhD

Sarah Allard and Jack Gilbert of the Department of Pediatrics, University of California San Diego (CA, USA), share their opinions on creating a successful and rewarding research career, exploring the questions to consider in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance, weigh up the pros and cons of industry vs academia and involve yourself in a productive and encouraging workplace culture.

At every inflection point of a career, it can feel overwhelming to assess the possible paths, choose which ones to pursue, and ultimately to take the leap into a new role. This can be especially difficult from inside the realm of academia, where you are often surrounded by people who have stayed firmly on the academic track throughout their careers with limited experience with alternative paths and limited understanding of today’s job market. Furthermore, considerations like financial responsibilities, workplace culture and immigration status can all play a role in career decision-making, and the balance of these factors is highly personal and dynamic over time.

Although most PhDs say that they want to stay in academia when surveyed as graduate students or postdocs, many end up in other sectors, somewhere they never expected to be. Still, the vast majority of those who change course report satisfaction with their jobs [1]. Especially early in their careers, PhDs may switch sectors, often leaving academia for business, industry or non-profits [2]. In addition to having an open mind, building a strong professional and collaborative network extends the job market, allowing you to connect directly with potential employers and potentially even learn about new opportunities before they are publicized. Here we discuss some of the most important factors and questions to think about while considering research-based employment opportunities with a PhD. The questions we list below should serve as a starting point to orient you in your search for your next career move.

Work–life balance

People are extraordinarily adaptable, and none of us conduct our careers in a vacuum. It’s clear that PhDs can find fulfillment in a wide variety of career paths, so finding opportunities that align well with other important components in your life should be a priority. Where you prefer to live, based on proximity to loved ones or access to hobbies or your preferred climate, is a huge factor for many people. Choosing potential locations becomes more complicated if you have a partner with specific career aspirations, a conundrum often termed “the two-body problem”, or if you and/or your partner have an immigration status that limits what jobs you qualify for and prevents you/them from taking time off to find the right job fit. Schedule flexibility can be extremely important for those with family responsibilities, as well as those who personally have medical conditions or support family with medical or behavioral needs. Ultimately, we are all more productive if we feel contented and fulfilled outside of work and can minimize outside-of-work worries, so prioritizing these considerations is important for overall life satisfaction as well as work productivity.

Questions to think about:

  • Location: Are you open to living anywhere or do you have preferences or restrictions?
  • Flexibility: Do you need high flexibility in your schedule?
  • Family: How do your partner/family plans come into play?
  • Immigration status: What jobs are you eligible for?


Research

In deciding between pursuing opportunities in academia, industry and government, many of the differences can be explained by what is driving the research and who sets the research agenda. In academia, the pressure is on you to acquire funding, but once you do, you enjoy flexibility to pursue any research avenues. On the tenure-track professor route, you will have additional responsibilities like teaching and mentoring students, usually not required in industry or government. Industry may be a good choice for those who want to translate science into tangible outputs. In industry, funding is provided, but the research priorities are market-driven, changeable, and often not under your control. Industry research may result in applied outputs, like products that are available for purchase, but in general the individuals involved in developing them will not get external recognition and the methods used will remain confidential. In government positions, the research agenda is similarly often set by others and priorities and funding levels can change with federal and state administrations. Some government labs conduct highly classified research, while others are encouraged to publish results, but in both cases results could have an impact on policy decisions, and other ‘real-world’ outcomes.

Questions to think about:

  • Research autonomy and funding: How much do you want to direct your own research agenda?
  • Teaching/mentoring: Do you enjoy teaching and working with students as a primary advisor?
  • Role in research: Would you rather be at the bench, analyzing data, overseeing research or performing administration activities?
  • Type of research: Applied versus basic, open access versus confidential, directed versus prescribed.


Advancement and benefits

Those in industry enjoy generally higher pay but job stability is often less guaranteed. Both academia and government have pathways that afford great job stability and benefits; however, this is not always the case. In both arenas, short-term contract appointments with limited benefits are common, especially at the entry level. These positions may lead to long-term positions, but this often depends on the availability of finances to maintain or grow the position; while this is a problem in both sectors, often government employees have more protections that prevent rapid dismissal. For specific positions in all of these sectors, it is important to have a realistic understanding of stability and long-term potential.

Questions to think about:

  • Advancement structure: Are there clear metrics of success and regular promotion opportunities?
  • Cost of living in the area: What is the pay relative to similar positions elsewhere and relative to your expenses?
  • Debts and responsibilities: Do you have certain salary requirements due to student loans, a mortgage, family costs, medical conditions, etc.?
  • Contract stability: What is the length of the contract and the likelihood it will be extended?
  • Benefits: Are benefits included and adequate for your particular circumstances?

Workplace culture

Across different research groups, the culture of the working environment can vary widely regardless of sector. When considering a new job, it’s important to think about how well your values align with those of the organization, and if the work environment would be a good fit.

Questions to think about:

  • Diversity and inclusion: Does the work environment actively value diverse perspectives?
  • Mentorship: Does the level and type of mentorship available appeal to you?
  • Collaboration versus competition: Do people tend to collaborate in the research group and the field in general, or is it a more competitive environment?
  • Worklife balance: Are employees encouraged to maintain a healthy work–life balance?

Conclusions

A willingness to be flexible in terms of potential career options is an asset, as well as an understanding that switching sectors is doable and can even be beneficial. Collaboration across all of these sectors is common, so it is entirely possible to be involved in multiple sectors, either through collaboration or through consulting. Having a non-linear career path can be beneficial in the long run, allowing for the collection of a unique array of experiences, perspectives, and skillsets.