by Daniel Salcedo Rubio
Hello everyone, here’s your resident grad student rambling once again about the wonders of the scientific community.
You are probably asking, and if not, you probably should be: Are there any other careers apart from a principal investigator (PI) or a faculty position? Should I resign myself to a life in the lab? Are my best friends going to be insects or mice now? What are my options if I want to pursue a career in science? Yes, no, maybe, and tons of options. There are many misconceptions about a career in science. These can range from the typical “it’s super boring,” and “there’s no creativity in scientific careers,” to the more recent and outlandish, “you’re an evil genius.” While there’s some merit and truth to all of these questions and misconceptions (especially the evil genius one), there are varied options when pursuing a career in science that are both thrilling and exciting.
Let’s begin with the obvious one, the “crème de la crème,” or the PI of a research institution. First things first, becoming a PI shouldn’t be your only and ultimate goal, nor should you take my “crème de la crème” description to heart; I was being sarcastic. Being a PI is not for everyone and that’s perfectly fine. This is an extremely competitive position and the path to becoming a PI is a long and hard one. You’ll probably have to complete a master’s degree or jump directly into a PhD and then begin work as a postdoc before you can take the leap to become a PI. Start taking some scientific writing courses ‘cause you’ll need to publish, publish, write a ton of grant applications, and then publish some more. I used to be a clinical trial coordinator before my master’s and I had to review the CVs of hundreds of PIs — I swear there are some PIs out there with over 50 pages full of publications. That being said, at the end of all this preliminary work, maybe this is a career that might be well suited for you. The job of a PI is one of possibility and creativity: a life of questioning dogmas and revealing the unknown. They change the world. Take Manu Prakash, whose lab made a paper microscope that could detect malaria for only 50 cents or Cori Bargmann, who studies how neurons and genes affect behaviour. Yes, the life of a PI comes with many hardships, but also offers endless possibilities.
A career in teaching is actually very satisfying and ever-changing. Unfortunately, it’s also a very hard one. An infographic from Jessica Polka for The American Society for Cell Biology shows that less than “10% of entering PhD students will become tenure-track faculty. Yet 53% rank research professorships as their most desired career.” I know, groundbreaking, another extremely competitive position. Fortunately, there are different tracks for a career in teaching, from being a nontenured-track faculty member to science education for non-scientists in outreach programs. I used to be a private tutor back in Mexico, mainly teaching basic sciences like Biology, Chemistry, and Math. I had this one student that struggled with basic math. She had a 65-point average on a 100 scale when she came to me, she ended high school with a 98-point average, and now she’s studying Environmental Engineering in a top-ranking university. If you have a passion for teaching, seeing one of your students surpass their own expectations makes you feel a unique sense of accomplishment. Yes, teaching might not be the most glamorous job out there, but it’s also one of the most rewarding.
Neither of those options is for you? Don’t panic, I still have a lot of options for you. Let’s start with some of the less conventional. I come from a family of physicians, most of whom grew to kinda hate being physicians. Many of them decided to take different career paths, such as more marketing-oriented jobs in the field. My brother, for example, became a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) for a German pharmaceutical company in their respiratory diseases line of products. MSLs are still very connected to the scientific community. They ensure devices and pharmaceutical products are used effectively, they educate healthcare professionals, gather insights, and even promote the products they manage.
You could potentially become an entrepreneur, take that great idea or scientific finding and build a business out of it. Entrepreneurship might sound scary, creating an entire business from scratch is a very risky decision, but it might come with the greatest reward.
You don’t even need to become an entrepreneur to get into the business side of science. You can build a career in business development as an intelligence analyst or a consultant in a big firm like PwC or Delloitte.
While there are still many more options, I want to finish with my personal favourite: scientific writing. Scientific writing is a huge field on its own — you can work on publishing and editing, go into scientific journalism, or even take a more technical path as a medical writer. You could work alongside researchers, consultants, and politicians in policy writing. You can start your own business as a freelance writer. I like to believe that not only are your options limitless, but they’re also all extremely important and needed in the scientific community.
A career in science doesn’t have to be limited to research or teaching — there are so many options to pursue. If you want to build a career in science but are feeling lost as to which path to follow, I suggest you take an online assessment, or check out websites like myIDP Science Careers which offers many resources to narrow down your options. Science is full of opportunities that cater to many different skill sets. I would advise you to talk to supervisors, grad students, or career councillors. Explore the many alternatives there are and find one that fits your life and career expectations.