Career

Leaving Academia After Your PhD: What to Know Before You Take the Plunge

According to three science marketers who have made the transition.
Leaving Academia After Your PhD: What to Know Before You Take the Plunge
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In: Career

There’s never been such an exodus of PhDs leaving academia.

Recent data from the National Science Foundation, highlighted by STAT, shows a significant shift: the rate of PhD graduates going on to postdocs is at its lowest level since 1995.

Especially in the life sciences, nearly half of the 2022 graduates had jobs waiting for them after their PhD (47%), a record high.

And the place where most graduates want to go couldn’t be clearer: 54% of those jobs are in industry (a jump from 49% in 2021), while 27% were in academia (down from 30.5% in 2021).

I won’t go into the details of why this is happening, but one thing is for sure: many PhDs find the prospect of applying their scientific expertise in a business context exciting.

Menial lab work and the overly competitive nature of research can also discourage many scientists from pursuing an academic career.

I have to be transparent about one thing, though: I didn't do a PhD.

I was lucky enough to figure out early on that it wasn't for me, but I have recruited and befriended many people who have made the leap from academia to business, particularly in science marketing.

I've gathered their most valuable insights for this article.

While their advice is primarily about transitioning to a marketing role, it's broadly applicable to various positions in industry.

Let’s see what they have to say.

A common problem we face when starting our scientific studies is the fact that universities are strongly biased towards academic careers.

Many people I know have told me repeatedly that during their bachelor's and master's degrees, they never heard a professor suggest a path other than a PhD after graduation.

To me, that's the first big problem.

I consider myself lucky, though, because my master's program was different—it valued a variety of career trajectories.

So, starting with my bachelor's, I did a bunch of internships in different public and private labs.

I did like the lab bench, but I also realized that I didn’t LOVE it.

And that was my first clue.

Thanks to the lab experience I had early on, I realized that I didn't want to spend 4+ years researching one topic.

I really respect people who can go that deep into a subject.

But I knew it wasn't for me.

I love science, but I love science with economic value even more, so I decided to get a Master in Management to complement my scientific background.

Without those experiences, I would have been clueless about what to do.

So experience is very important, even at the beginning of your career.

This sentiment is echoed by Adrian Hery Barranco, who has successfully transitioned to a role as Marketing and Business Development Officer at BIOSYNTH, a company serving the pharmaceutical industry.

Here is what he told me:

“I studied chemistry at the University of Alicante in Spain and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I’d have loved to have someone come and give me an overview about what are the opportunities for a recent graduate. My impression is that there seems to be this unwritten rule about following a specific path. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely fine if you really have a clear idea of what you want to do, what topic you want to work on, but I personally think that most of the time, we don’t really know it. Therefore, why should we stick to a particular one, instead of being adventurous and trying different topics? That’s what’s important, and that’s what will really help to decide what you like because you have tried various topics.“

Adrian and I share the same perspective on the value of diverse experiences.

I could never have imagined that the small blog I started during my master's program would lead me to start my own company and then grow it over the next decade into one of the world's leading biotech media platforms.

So if you're considering a career change, start exploring different experiences as early in your career as possible.

And even the choices you make right after graduating could lead you in different directions.

Consider the story of Dennis Fink, who is now Senior Communications Manager at Xlife Sciences AG.:

“My journey started as a scientist, graduating in Marine Microbiology in 2011. Immediately after, I decided not to stay in science but rather help researchers communicate their science, so I co-founded a science communication agency in 2012 and ran it as CEO for 5 years. In 2017, I moved to industry by becoming a social media campaign manager at QIAGEN, gradually moving up the career ladder until I was leading two marketing teams. After QIAGEN, I built up a marketing team at a software company in Berlin (Labforward) before starting my current job in 2023 with a European investor firm for early research projects (Xlife Sciences AG). My path brought me from academia, to entrepreneurship and finally into industry. When people ask me “What’s the best place to be?” I always say: Depends on you and what you currently want from life.”

Leveraging your PhD in the industry landscape

Once you decide to take the plunge and leave academia, it can be challenging to understand how to leverage your PhD in non-academic fields such as marketing.

At first glance, it might seem that there's little overlap between the two worlds.

However, this perspective overlooks the valuable transferable skills that PhD holders bring to the table—skills that are highly valued by scientific companies.

Here’s Adrian again:

“A PhD is not just 3-4 years working on a project. It helps you to develop a lot of skills, such as problem-solving and adaptability, teamwork, analytical thinking, data analysis, communication skills, project and time management, decision-making… and many more!“

A PhD can also bring other benefits, as Dennis pointed out to me:

”You can multitask, you can prioritize, you’re good with people and you can find creative solutions to problems you might not have seen before. You are ok with being outside your comfort zone and learning new things - all of that is incredibly helpful in marketing.”

For those who feel trapped on the academic track after being pushed towards a postdoc, it's important to remember that it's not a dead end.

Adrian's journey illustrates this point.

Faced with the need for a stable income just before the pandemic hit, he took on a postdoc position.

Rather than viewing this as a setback, he made the most out of it and continued to build his skillset:

“As a postdoc, you keep developing most of the skills you learned during your PhD, you start having more experience, responsibility and leadership. All sums up. Don’t think that pursuing a postdoc is a bad decision and direct you to an academic-focused career. Not at all. Your professional profile becomes more complete, with more experience and skills. And it opens up more possibilities.“

Overcoming the fear of a one-way door

The decision to transition from academia to industry often feels daunting, partly because of the perceived finality of such a move.

Many worry that once they leave the academic world, the door to return may be closed forever.

This concern is not unfounded and is echoed in the insights shared by Ute Boronowsky, a Science and Marketing Writer at Science Inbound:

“Leaving the lab for the marketing office is very likely a one-way street. You are moving from a very specialized topic that you know inside out to a generalized overview perspective. Going back to the lab means that you need to keep up with your research topic, and maintain your contacts. If you are still unsure, try an internship in a marketing agency before burning down your bridges…”

Also remember that starting a new career from scratch has its challenges, as Dennis points out:

”The biggest disadvantage I would say is that you need to start from zero again. That doesn’t sound too bad if you’re eager to learn new things. But it also means that people around you, your colleagues, your customers, etc., don’t care what you have achieved as a scientist. After a PhD you might have built up quite some reputation in your field, people respect you for the work you are doing. If you move into marketing, you have to build that reputation again from scratch. Especially if you start on your own, you need to impress your customers and build up a reputation all over again. This can be painful, e.g. if you have an ego and think that because of your PhD, you somehow deserve to be respected. Think again. In marketing, your results, your content, your campaigns are what need to impress the customer and reach the right audience. You start again from zero and you need to be humble, take criticism related to your work, learn from it and master new skills.”

Ute believes that despite the challenges and potential barriers of re-entering academia, it shouldn't be a deterrent if you're committed to a career in marketing.

The perspective from within the lab can sometimes be misleading, often casting the industry in a negative light.

This bias can cloud your judgment and influence your career decisions negatively.

Listen to Ute explain this in more detail:

“When you take the plunge from lab to marketing, many people will tell you you are moving to the “dark side". What they probably mean is: from facts, hard data & white lab coats, to a fancy, colorful, blah-blah world where it's all about the money. While that might be true at first glance, consider that marketing cannot be successful if you don't feel the needs of your audience - and the best way to do this is to know from your own experience what their daily routine is like. To create a convincing marketing message, you need to turn the facts & data into a unique selling point - and you can only do this if you know what really has the potential to make a difference in the lab. Your audience will notice right away that you know precisely what you are talking about. At the same time, talking to in-house scientists and understanding their data is a lot easier when you have a solid research background.”

So make up your own mind about the industry and join the dark side, little Padawan.

Landing your first industry job

So let's say you've made up your mind and are ready to make the transition to a marketing career.

Where do you actually start?

Adrian shares his own experience:

“I have to say that there is no rule of what to do or not to do. In this day and age, the world is so dynamic, diverse, and changing so fast that what worked for some a few years back, does not necessarily mean it will for you. Nevertheless, there are some tools that you can work on, such as LinkedIn. Think of yourself as a product that you need to sell. You need to tune your profile, in order to apply for the job you want to do. In other words, you need to make it attractive.”

It’s an opinion I share with Adrian.

Today, it’s hard to find a job if your LinkedIn profile is not up to date and targeted towards your dream job.

It's like applying for a job ten years ago without a resume.

On that note, it might also help you to actively post on LinkedIn to develop your personal branding and network.

But beyond that, you need to develop your expertise in a specific niche if you want to increase your hiring chances.

Adrian shares my view on this point:

“There’s obviously a percentage of “luck” that you cannot control when applying for a job. Maybe you get an interview, maybe you don’t get it. It happens, and it’s fine. The reasons can be very different, it could be because someone has a better profile than yours, or it wasn’t the right time. But, it might be that this is because you apply for “any” job, and that’s what I personally think is a mistake. You have developed a specialized profile, so be selective; choose those roles you think are suitable for you or fit the profile you’ve built. That way, you are increasing your chances of being hired.”

Outside of job search, you might also consider networking early on as a benefit to your future marketing role.

Here’s Dennis again:

“Build your network right now. If you don’t have a presence on LinkedIn right now, get one. Build a strong network because by the time you need one (e.g. if you look for customers, partners, etc.), it’s too late to start it.”

Also, consider using online communities to get some specific advice or share your own stories.

Reddit, for example, is full of great posts and people who want to help.

Crafting your marketing skillset

Securing a job is just the first step; mastering the skills of the trade is an entirely different challenge.

Those of you pondering a switch to marketing might be wondering, "How can I transition into marketing without a degree in the field?"

It's a valid concern, considering that a PhD doesn't typically cover the fundamentals of marketing or other business-oriented fields.

Well, lucky for you, a marketing career in science is different than in any other field because the scientific community places a high value on individuals with a scientific background.

If you're genuinely motivated, it's entirely possible to teach yourself the ins and outs of marketing.

Here is what Dennis said about it:

”You know your target audience (= scientists) because you’ve been one yourself. Everyone in marketing will tell you that the most important thing is that you know and identify with your audience. By knowing that audience inside out, you have a great weapon in your arsenal that many other marketers don’t have - you can think like a scientist.”

That’s what Adrian advises as well:

“Don’t forget that you are a scientist. Studying and working on science is not easy. So the most difficult part, you already know and have it. Anything else, you can learn. And in most cases, your employer will encourage you to do so.”

When embarking on your job search, pay attention to the company culture of potential employers.

If a company has a strong scientific foundation, it could significantly boost your prospects, as it was the case for Adrian:

”I joined Biosynth three years ago. I applied for a job in marketing with them, and I got it. My company really values scientists, across all departments. This makes sense because when you talk to customers, you are talking the same language. This year, I moved into Marketing & Business Development, and the company, and my managers supported me, and they helped me to get the best of me.”

Finding your own path

Making the leap from academia to a marketing career can be one of the most challenging decisions of your life.

But if you've read this far, you're probably thinking about it with great interest.

And if you've already taken the first step to make the transition, and you've hit a rough patch, don't give up; it may actually be a necessary step in your career.

This was the case for Dennis:

”I needed to move away from the company I co-founded in 2017 and it was rather painful seeing something that you built not becoming successful. But looking back now everything needed to happen exactly the way it did. Without my experience in entrepreneurship I would not have gotten the job at QIAGEN, without that team leadership experience I would not have gotten my next job, and so on… It all worked out (at least until now) because I was willing to learn new things, changed my mindset, got humble and accept criticism.“

Don’t think that leaving the lab is the end of the world, or even the end of your scientific career.

All the effort you've put in won't be wasted, because your scientific background will make you a good science marketer.

I won't lie, the transition may take some time and a lot of effort, but it may also make you feel more satisfied professionally.

With that in mind, I leave you with one last piece of advice from Adrian:

“It is hard to give instructions about what someone should or shouldn’t do. What worked for me might not work for you. The only advice I can give you is to identify what you like (or don’t like), and build your profile around it so it is tuned accordingly. Don’t be shy and afraid to ask and talk to colleagues and friends. Networking is the most important and powerful tool you have. And luckily for us scientists, there are many opportunities apart from being in a lab.”
Written by
Joachim Eeckhout
Over the past decade, I have specialized in science communication and marketing while building a successful biotech media company. Now, I'm sharing what I've learned with you on The Science Marketer.
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