Finding work in a science-related field: where do you begin?

For aspiring technicians, who live in the right parts of the country, biotech jobs are out there and waiting. But what if you don't want to be a technician? Or what if you're in graduate school, in a post-doc, or have a Ph.D. and simply want to do something else?

Where do you begin?

How do you know what sorts of positions are going to be a good match for your skills and talents? Is the outlook really as bleak as it may seem?

First, the prelude. Most of what I'm going to write will apply to many more people than the small population with Ph.D.s. This little bit of advice is an exception.

Lose the attitude that doing something other than the clear cut academic pathway of student -> post-doc-> professor - is some kind of consolation prize. Academics is a pyramid game and there are far fewer professor positions than training grants for students. And these days, far fewer research grants than professors.

To do science in another way is simply that, doing science in another way. Leave the lofty attitudes to those who enjoy them and don't carry them with you when you go interview for other work.

Some commenters (and quite rightly) called me out on using "leaky pipeline" language to describe people who look for work outside of academic professor-researcher types of positions. It didn't occur to me beforehand that I might be perpetuating the idea that academia = good and anything else = failure., simply by using that familiar phrase. They were right. Dr. Awesome has a great post on this subject that I highly recommend.


I don't have any kind of magic advice, but I have changed positions a couple of times and I spent many years advising students on job hunting. I have a few suggestions from these experiences that are listed below and will be discussed in turn.

Five things you can do to help find a position that works

  1. Make a list of the things that you like, want, or think you like to do.
  2. Make a list of the things that you're good at and the skills that you already have.
  3. Learn how different jobs are described and what each kind of job entails. Do your interests and skills really match the job descriptions?
  4. Network and talk to people in informal settings about kinds of jobs to find out what people do in those positions, maybe even do an internship.
  5. If you're in graduate school or you're a post-doc, consider getting your institution or department to help out.
  6. Grab bag stuff

I write more on this later and I'll incorporate some of the excellent suggestions that have come from commentors like Lora, VCD, and others.

More like this

Another point to consider is that technician work can go beyond the academia/biotech/industry settings. There are plenty of government jobs with places such as the CIA, DOE, FBI, NIH, EPA, USDA, and USGS to name but a few. There is also hospital laboratory work as a Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) which is a 2 year degree or as a Medical Technician/Clinical Laboratory Scientist (MT/CLS) which is a four year degree. The American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) which is one of two accrediting institutions for MLTs and MTs recently reported the following:
The magnitude of the shortage is significant and likely to worsen significantly. In fact, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 10,000 new clinical laboratory scientists and technicians will be needed per year over the next 10 years, but fewer than 5,000 are graduating from laboratory science programs annually. As much of the current workforce is near retirement, recruiting young professionals to the field becomes increasingly important.
Shortage of jobs? Not really.


Note: I cite my own experience below, but far from being a "moan & groan" session, I think it represents the situation many find themselves in.

One problem that myself and several friends have come across is that in order to do well in science, one has to devote so much of their time to learning a very specific skillset that you sort of "train yourself into a box". For instance, I really enjoy (and have some amateur experience with) programming, web development, etc, and enjoy writing. Unfortunately, since I was unable to tack on "official" courses in these fields while still in school, no employers will consider me for positions that involve these activities. The only jobs that I'm considered "qualified" for (if you care only for formal training with a transcript attached to it) are ones that don't seem interesting to me.

I've already (informally) done items 1-3 on your list, and have started on #4. When I attempted #5 I ran into huge bundles of red tape and gave up in desperation early on.

I hate to sound arrogant or entitled, but I feel like there is a limited mindset among hiring personnel in whom they consider for available positions. Rather than look at a candidate and think about the ancillary rewards that might come from hiring them, they only consider a bullet list of criteria that they have deemed necessary. There is no "extra credit" for qualifications that are not on the bullet list, and severe penalties for even one minor missing point.

I could go on further, but as this comment is already too verbose, I'll just try to reply to any responses.

PlausibleAccuracy: I totally agree with you that many people in science complete school with lots of knowledge about very few things. This is unfortunate.

As far as the steps above, I think you do need to work a bit more on step number 3, not in terms of the jobs you think you want, but more in terms of understanding company structure and how companies behave.

I can't speak for all companies, but in ours and many others, the positions are identified first and the people, later. Thus, the penalties for missing something that's listed in the job description. If we wanted to hire someone to write JavaScript, for example, and they had VisualBasic on their resume and not JavaScript, we probably wouldn't hire them.

When I come to step 3, I'll expand more on the hiring process and the differences between big companies and small companies.

"Finding work in a science-related field: where do you begin?"

You could start in a patent office. It worked for Einstein....

Yes my point on "not meeting one criteria" was a bit vague. I was thinking more of a situation, let's say for a writing position, in which the listing asks for "two years of experience". First of all, you have to define "experience", and I think anyone who's looked for a job is familiar with trying to "creatively mold" their work history to a given position. But lets say for instance that an applicant doesn't have two years of experience. Perhaps they have one, perhaps they write as a hobby, etc. If that same applicant has other attributes which they can bring to the position, then might not the artificial "experience" metric be less important? Of course the applicant should meet the core competencies of the job being offered, but it is the "secondary" items - the "nice to haves" that I'm more concerned with.

Now, a good company will understand this. So far what I've seen is that most do not. There is a sieve applied to all incoming applications, where the hiring agent lines up their bullet points against the exact text of the applicant's resume. If there is not an absolutely perfect match, the resume goes into the bin.

Perhaps there are just so many qualified candidates out there that this is the most efficient and productive way to go about hiring. They can afford to discard any "close" matches because someone will come along that fits the mold. I'm sure this is true for highly competitive positions.


My best advice for you is: do not get stopped by that. Sometimes, hiring managers are just looking for people, but putting the "two years" there manages to screen out the applicants who do not really, really want the job.

Also, learn skills in your free time and start freelancing. In this way, once you have worked for a few clients, you will have a portfolio (showcasing your new skills), and that will help break the circle.

I have not done this myself, but I see plenty of professional friends in other non-science fields doing this, and it helps a lot.

I agree completely that in academia we tend to train too much "in the box", but I think that the worst part is that people are actively discouraged from doing anything out of the box - somehow that makes you look like you are not focused enough, or like you are confused. And mind you, those who will think you are confused tend to be professors who already have a solid position. I say, do your own thing, work hard, and show 'em you can be good at science AND at other things as well. The labour market looks for generalists able to specify in a particular field - being simply a specialist does not pay off anymore.

Good luck with your job search.


This is why knowing what the expectations are for different types of jobs is important.

Writing jobs, for instance, are a different case. Jobs like writing, graphic art, web design and scientific illustration are the kinds of jobs that are often hired out on a project by project basis to a freelancer. These kinds of jobs are filled based on a portfolio and collection of work, not years of experience.

Different kinds of positions have different expectations when it comes to experience and credentials. You're likely to have best success in finding a position if you understand what potential employers expect.

Sounds like great advice... im a
biologist student so looking for a job its
not a reality must right now...
But im thinking in something along the lines of zoology
and poblations ecology... searching for new species
and be the first of research them would be awesome...
But i dont have a clear idea of what kinds of
organizations finance those months longs expeditions...

By Lord Zero (not verified) on 30 May 2008 #permalink

Lord Zero:

This kind of work is funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and other non-profit groups that I can't think of at the moment.

Now, how do you find this kind of work? Ah, that's the catch.

As an undergraduate, I think you have to search about on the web, find labs who are doing this sort of thing, write them and volunteer or see if they'll hire you as a technician.

You don't have the credibility to write grants without going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D.

Network and talk to people in informal settings about kinds of jobs to find out what people do in those positions, maybe even do an internship.

I think this should be #1, really. I don't necessarily fault academia for not knowing the vast range and various qualities of all the science jobs out there in the world; I find them more than a little naive and prejudiced in favor of their own situation (of course!), but the bottom line is really that you have to learn from other people's mistakes because you'll never have time to make 'em all yourself. So the more people you can learn from, the better.

(I forbear to comment further on the deplorable state of much academic advising, which I think is the #1 source of pipeline "leaks" or *cough* Niagara Falls as it were.)

Now, there is a distinct downside to having a good network: On the plus side, you'll be employed quickly, at good pay, at a job that is reasonably well-suited to you, much more frequently than your colleagues. The downside is, because you know, and your adviser knows, that you can find another lab or job without a lot of trouble, they don't really trust you or invest in you. They can be quick to blow you off and devalue you, and if they are an extremely new investigator (one of my advisers had literally defended his work one year before accepting new grad students into his lab--I had more publications than he did) or perhaps ideologically opposed to the whole concept of for-profit science (I've met many of those too), then you can quickly find yourself being hated on by virtue of your association with teh 3v1l corporate science. What it really is, you're not as easy to exploit as the run-of-the-mill eager beaver grad student.

But generally it's better to be extremely well-networked. You'll be able to avoid the personality conflicts before they happen, because someone in your network will already have told you, "Oh, that guy...he's a lunatic." And you'll find out things you would never know from a couple of interviews, such as, "Yeah, I know he's the Big Name in Bioinformatics, but he's a total pig and he likes to grope his female employees. I don't know why they haven't fired him yet." (True story, BTW.)

Thanks Lora,

I agree completely. It's too bad about

the Big Name in Bioinformatics, but he's a total pig and he likes to grope his female employees. I don't know why they haven't fired him yet."

Luckily, it seems that kind behavior is tolerated a bit less in the industrial world than it is in academics. Guys like that should get reported to the authorities, and shouldn't be allowed to hire anyone, much less female employees.