What Are the Different Career Paths for Life Sciences Graduates?
During my 3rd year of my PhD’s studies, I decided that I want to pursue a career in life science consulting after looking into different alternative career paths. In talking with many life sciences students, we notice that most of them are unaware of career options outside of medicine, academia, and industry, and therefore may be delayed by a few years in getting to the career they want to be in. Having better insight into career opportunities before graduation can help minimize or eliminate time spent in an undesired role. Here, we explore a few science-related career paths and provide approximate timelines for each of them to help inform recent and soon-to-be life science graduates of their potential career choices.
A significant number of life sciences undergraduates consider going into medical school, but attrition rate is pretty high due to strict requirements. In fact, less than half of medical school applicants end up matriculating, and that doesn't take into account the countless self-declared pre-med undergraduates who never end up applying. Additionally, in 2013, the 4-year MD graduation rate reached an all-time low of 81%. Even after successfully obtaining an MD, the day-to-day of a doctor’s life might not be as exciting as one imagines, and many doctors decide to leave medicine. Drop Out Club, founded in 2008, is an online community and recruiting site to help doctors and scientists who want to pursue non-clinical and non-academic jobs. It was also a platform for doctors and scientists to seek or offer advice and share some of the concerns one might have. As they look for other career options, some of them decide to go into the industry or consulting, and some of them go to business school to learn and explore more options, which might still lead to life science consulting.
Life Science Graduate School
It takes about 5 – 8 years on average to obtain a PhD, and the possibility of bouncing around between multiple post-doctoral research positions that pay relatively low salaries in your thirties may become a deal breaker for some, especially those who want to start a family. Of those who survive the PhD program and post-doc rotations, only ~15% go on to attain a one tenure-track position in the US. As a result, an increasing number of PhD students (myself included) may start looking into alternative career paths outside of academia, or even outside of science.
Life science graduates interested in research but disillusioned by the prospect of academic research might choose to go into “industry” (i.e., pharmaceuticals, biotech, diagnostics, research tools, etc. with commercial ends). There are two main industry career paths: business or research, both utilizing scientific backgrounds. For people who are more interested in the business of science, business school or working in consulting could serve as a stepping-stone to break into the industry. Consulting or business school can also fast-track progression within the business route in the industry, as it typically takes a much longer time to climb up the ladder just having a bachelor's degree.
Life Science Consulting
Due to the rise of technology-based business sectors, consulting firms have started to hire people with technical backgrounds, including STEM undergraduates, Masters and PhDs. At DeciBio for example, given the technical nature of the industries in which we operate, our team is entirely comprised of people with a strong background in the life sciences. Many organizations hire life science consultants after directly working with them on projects. Due to the fast-paced consulting environment (an average consulting project may only span a few months, compared to academic research projects that can run for years), consultants often have a broad exposure to different technologies, business models, and industries, thus gaining a lot of experience and knowledge in a shorter amount of time. Therefore, even if the ultimate goal is to work in industry, these experiences can help candidates with a consulting background excel in a variety of roles.
I first explored consulting as I was looking for opportunities away from a lab bench, and I had heard that consulting forms hire STEM graduates and offer a better salary than would likely be found elsewhere. But as I learned more about consulting, I found more significant reasons it aligned with my long-term career goals:
- It is fun and challenging – Every project is different. Each project lasts about 2 – 3 months on average, and each project focuses on a different market with a different problem to solve. While the fast-paced environment and diversity of consulting work might appeal to those afraid of having boring or repetitive jobs, it can be an uncomfortable role for people who prefer routine, predictability, and slower-paced work environments.
- It is impactful – Your recommendations to the client can affect the direction of the product, company, and sometimes the field. For example, recommendations in a merger or acquisition case play a critical role in a decision-making process that has industry-wide implications. Another example is helping a start-up company with novel disruptive technology to position themselves for success, which can potentially shift the direction of the entire field.
- It still uses your technical background – All the classes and training you had will not go to waste. You will be leveraging your knowledge to understand the client’s business area and solve their problems. Consultants use the same core skill set as scientists—identify complicated problems, generate hypotheses, and compare different solutions before reaching a conclusion. We also frequently discuss market needs and trends with expert scientists or physicians in the field, therefore being able to conduct an intelligent and informative interview is critical.
Do I need any prior consulting experiences?
While useful, previous consulting experience is not common among life science majors. Due to the heavy course load in life science majors, lack of exposure to consulting careers, and institutional sorting of life science students into “medicine” and “academia” career paths, few students intern at consulting firms. To differentiate yourself from the many other applicants, participate in events that allow you to learn more about the business of science and gain consulting experience are crucial. Case competitions, for example, are great opportunities to get a taste of what consultants do and build your network for case interview practice with peers. Students can also leverage business classes offered by their school to learn the basic concepts for the business world.
My final advice to fellow life sciences graduates is to explore and figure out what you really want to do early on, either research or business, or even something completely different. Keep an open mind, take the time to explore all these options outside of academia and medicine, and you might be able to avoid all the unnecessary detours to reach your final destination.
Jesmine Cheung, PhD
Jesmine is an associate at DeciBio Consulting with a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA. At DeciBio, Jesmine has been involved with several projects within the tissue diagnostics space, including market sizing and product opportunity assessment.
Disclaimer: Companies listed above may be DeciBio clients and/or customers.