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If you are passionate about science but don’t want a career in a laboratory, there are many opportunities for scientists outside the lab.
Not only technical skills are important; transferable skills (such as communication, teamwork, etc.), personal preferences, personality and where you want to work should all be taken into account when deciding which job is best for you.
As a scientist it's more than likely that you will have undertaken a large research project that will have stretched your teamwork, managing and organisational skills. You might have also developed great communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to research and evaluate collected data. In science as, in all sectors, transferable skills are key. So when an employer asks you about an example of solving a problem or persuading others, you can refer to your previous experiences dealing with science projects.
The communication of science to public audiences, politicians, journalists, educators and so on, is a broad sector of employment. In recent years there has been an increase in scientific media coverage, and a push by the scientific community and policy-makers to involve more of the public through ‘Science and Society’ initiatives. These include the development of some new major science visitor attractions, alongside running focus groups, media campaigns and science festivals.
Job roles include science journalism, public relations, museum education, events organisation and project management. It is important to get as much experience as possible because employers in this sector will be looking for evidence that you are enthusiastic and proactive. Opportunities to get involved in science outreach activities include volunteering in science centres and museums, writing for University publications, entering science writing competitions, and helping out with your university’s or institute’s outreach events or at science festivals.
There are opportunities in online publishing (particularly of scientific journals), books and journals publishing, either involving production, or as a technical or commissioning editor.
Scientific publishing companies tend to advertise in publications such as New Scientist. It is possible to get into this type of publishing without any previous publishing experience, so you can apply directly for roles as they arise, or make speculative applications to publishers. Having gained a number of years’ experience, it is possible to become freelance in this type of employment.
Sometimes referred to as medical education, medical communications raises awareness of medicines via education and promotion to doctors, patients, nurses and hospital management. Medical communications agencies provide consultancy to the pharmaceutical industry and can have many different focuses including advising on dissemination of clinical data and developing communications to help gain a drug more visibility, as well as advising on how to educate its stakeholders about benefits and risks of a drug or therapy using clinical data. There are many different roles which someone working in medical communications may have: medical writer, medical editor, account manager, project manager. Doctoral and postdoctoral experience is highly advantageous and skills in writing, research, statistics, excellent attention to detail and client focus will be essential for most roles. While most medical writers start out working for an agency, many freelance or work flexibly from home for an agency after gaining some experience.
Science policy aims to inform and influence government by providing accurate scientifically sound information to aid policy decisions. Typical employers would be scientific professional bodies and public sector organisations, e.g. Science councils.
Networking and speculative approaches to employers for work experience may be helpful to get a foot in the door. In some countries you can find policy placements. These placements (usually lasting a few months) are designed to give you a taste of what is involved in working in science policy.
In every area of life from scientific research to online shopping and social networks, a huge amount of information is collected. Data scientists are concerned with turning this data into intelligence through the application of advanced techniques in statistics and computer science. A data scientist has a good background in computer science, modelling, statistics, analytics and maths, as well as a strong business insight, and the ability to communicate findings so that they can influence how an organisation approaches business challenges. There is currently a large global demand for the expertise required of data scientists.
Universities have become increasingly successful at setting up spin-out companies to exploit the commercial potential of academic research. There are sometimes opportunities for science graduates and postgraduates to work in organisations that promote this kind of activity. A source of vacancies for jobs in this field is www.researchresearch.com where jobs in research administration are advertised.
Intellectual property and patents
Intellectual property or patent attorneys work with businesses and scientists to protect their inventions, products and ideas. As well as a strong scientific background you need further qualifications in law. Law firms that specialise in this area often recruit scientists to become trainee solicitors. Patent lawyers or agents help to secure effective protection for innovations and developments, and advise their clients on intellectual property rights.
Roles in manufacturing
Aside from R&D, scientists work in a range of other roles in manufacturing, including quality control and assurance, product preservation and formulation, packaging and operations and production roles.
Production management, also known as operations management, is the planning, co-ordination and control of industrial processes. Most manufacturing companies have a production manager, though the actual job title will vary.
The types of employers that recruit into this area include food companies, aerospace and defence, and pharmaceuticals. On top of the technical skills this kind of job requires, there can also be a considerable amount of staff management involved.
Quality Assurance (QA), is a function that exists in the manufacturing, engineering and service industry sector. QA is a part of quality management, which focuses on providing confidence that quality requirements will be fulfilled. Quality management involves co-ordinating activities required to direct and control an organisation with regard to quality. Essential skills include communication, problem-solving, organising and planning, good numerical skills and the ability to use statistics.
Technical sales and marketing
Manufacturing industries, including petrochemicals, instrumentation and speciality chemicals, employ scientists in customer-facing roles where they can use their skills to overcome technical problems and have a better understanding of customer needs. A particular example of this role is medical sales representatives, who provide a link between pharmaceutical companies and medical and healthcare professionals. They work with general practitioners, primary care trusts and hospitals, normally within a specific geographical area. As well as one-to-one visits, they may organise group events and make presentations to healthcare professionals.
Science consulting and market research
There are opportunities in consulting for scientists to apply their scientific background and analytical skills to solving client problems. This may involve strategic consulting for companies or working in a specialist consulting firm that aims to improve the output/efficiency of a manufacturing process. Other firms undertake business-to-business research, write expert market reports about topics such as pharmaceutical pricing or provide market intelligence.
Market research operates in a similar way, as it depends on the collection and interpretation of reliable information to inform large organisations about marketing strategy, and help them to test products or develop policy.
Science funding and administration
The administration of scientific research can be a great way to keep in touch with the latest developments in science. This kind of role could involve administering grant applications, providing advice to potential applicants, organising the peer review of research grant applications and so on. Likely employers include the Research Councils and major funding bodies. This is also a growing field within universities themselves with opportunities to work both in the administration side and with researchers themselves as a research facilitator. Research experience may be a requirement for some employers, especially for roles which involve developing and maintaining contacts with the research community, e.g. university departments.
Some useful websites:
- Research Research: Various jobs in areas such as science policy
- Discovery: Science Writers – career histories from science writers
- Frank Burnet: free downloads on communicating science
- Medical communications careers guide
- Nature Jobs: So you want to be a data scientist? – employer ideas and further reading
- The Guardian: what is data science?
- New Scientist Jobs – Excellent careers articles, including international specials and jobs
- Science Careers – Fantastic careers website aimed at postgraduate scientists and would-be post-grads