Tales from the Lab: Careers for Ph.D. Graduates


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Tim Balmer, a neuroscience graduate student from Georgia State University, is guest blogging about the life of a graduate student for our “Tales from the Lab” series. This is Tim’s second blog post.

An uncertain future is a major source of anxiety for many science graduate students. When will I graduate? Will I find a good postdoc position and where might it be? What will my career actually be? I hope that this blog will shed some light on helpful resources for career opportunities for Ph.D. graduates.

Graduate programs train students for academic careers. They learn how to identify important research questions, write grant proposals, mentor undergraduate students in the lab and teach them in the classroom. A tenure-track academic position, however, is far from inevitable—only 23 percent of biomedical Ph.D. graduates are employed in tenure-track positions

Competition for these positions is high because there are too few academic jobs and there are too many Ph.D. graduates. Economist Paula Stephan argues that the academic system is uncomfortably similar to a pyramid scheme.

However, not all Ph.D. students want to stay in academia; graduate students’ interest in pursuing academic research careers decreases each year from the time they begin their Ph.D.—only 62 percent are interested in such a career by their fifth year. Considering this, 23 percent employment in a tenure-track position isn’t such a bad rate.

But for those looking for something else, here are some rewarding career paths that Ph.D. graduates often pursue:

Industry research:

“Industry” is the most often talked about alternative to academic careers and there are myths that dissuade students from pursuing them. Ph.D. graduates can find rewarding careers in the private sector in research and administrative capacities. Some examples:

U.S. Government research:

Some government agencies that may be of interest:

  • National Institutes of Health
  • Department of Defense
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Federal Drug Administration
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Veterans Administration


Many graduate students discover a love of teaching. There are opportunities to teach with and without research responsibilities at smaller colleges and universities. There are also tenure track positions in community colleges and some very rewarding jobs teaching high school students at both public and private schools.

Business administration:

Consulting agencies recruit Ph.D. graduates because their ability to analyze complicated data and problem-solve logically and objectively are valuable to business consulting teams.


Science writing requires the ability to translate complex research into lay language, being careful not to overstate research conclusions. If you enjoy explaining research to your non-scientist friends and are a good writer, you might enjoy science writing.

Science advocacy:

If you love science and want to do something about the insufficient funding for important scientific research, you may enjoy science advocacy. There are science advocacy internships that introduce Ph.D. graduates to the field.

Remember, most professors understand the dearth of open academic research positions. They likely work in a department that has few–if any–positions available. If they push you in an academic direction, it means they think you have a shot–take it as a complement. At the same time, don’t let any one person be your only source of advice.

Other helpful resources for learning about science careers:

– Tim Balmer

Tim Balmer is a Neuroscience Ph.D. student at Georgia State University. He studies the role of experience in the development and plasticity of sensory systems.

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