Ben Thomas writes articles about a variety of topics for the Riley Guide, an online repository for career and education resources. As a freelancer, Ben also covers scientific research and technological breakthroughs as well as social issues involving the sciences. A regular contributor to several leading science news websites, Ben helps scientists and academics connect with the general public by explaining their latest discoveries and controversies in clear, down-to-earth terms. You can follow Ben on Google+.
If you’re on the path toward a degree in the natural sciences, chances are you’ve already heard more than your share of grim career predictions. Competition for academic tenure is tougher than ever, government jobs often only arrive at the ends of long waiting lists, and even well-paying work in the nonprofit and private sectors may mean making distant detours from your central scientific passions. Still, natural-science jobs in certain sectors do appear to be poised for slow but steady long-term growth in the near future. Here, two experts in scientific career planning explain how your expertise and love of the natural sciences can point the way toward a stable, impactful career path.
Look beyond the bench
“The current economic situation has made it very tough on traditional bench scientists who want to do cutting-edge research,” says Chris Pickett, senior science policy fellow at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “So there’s a movement of experts in the natural sciences away from academia and into the private and nonprofit sectors, where they serve as experts and consultants.” If you’ve built up the reputation and the professional network necessary to secure yourself a research position right out of school, then by all means, go for it – but even if your long-term plan is to take the academic path, you may find it easier in the short-term to seek out an immediate and stable job in the public or private sector. “Check out job listings on sites like ScienceCareers and Naturejobs, and perform some Google searches for scientific organizations with jobs that interest you, to get an idea of what skills are needed,” Pickett says. “From there, you can start figuring out how you can shape your own training to go after types of jobs that interest you.” None of the jobs listed may interest you right off the bat, and that’s all right – but investigating the local landscape will still help you craft your plan of attack.
Examine your options
If you’re an expert in the life sciences, you may find it easier than you expect to land certain types of positions in the private sector. “Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are always looking for the latest chemical engineering techniques and computational methods, in order to get new drugs onto the marketplace faster than their competitors can,” Pickett says. “As those fields continue to mature, I think there’s going to be a lot of new jobs opening up in areas like structural biology, natural biology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, computer modeling, and so on.” Meanwhile, if you’ve put in more than a few hours of hands-on fieldwork, you may be able to leverage your knowledge of the local environment toward a job in the ever-expanding ecology field. “There’s increasing demand for applied science that’s directly connected to local resource management,” says Lynn Scarlett, visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit environmental research organization. State and local governments, as well as private sector companies, look to natural scientists for applied approaches at mitigating the effects of drought, floods, wind and other natural hazards – as well as for expertise on species management, habitat maintenance, water management, biodiversity protection, energy efficiency and a wide variety of similar areas requiring expert insight into the nuts and bolts of your local ecosystem.
Follow your curiosity
“If the twentieth century was a time of increasingly refined specialization, I think the twenty-first century will be a time of integrating those specializations,” Scarlett says. “And that integration work is going to require a lot of scientists with practical skills in management, communication, strategic planning, and other areas that aren’t pure science.” The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics predicts small but steady job growth in supervisory positions in the natural sciences between now and 2020 – and the median pay averages significantly higher than that for many comparable academic faculty positions. Even if you’re not the managerial type, though, your career will benefit from some background in advocacy and other communication skills – as well as some experience communicating with experts in disciplines outside your own field. “Any area of expertise that focuses on the interface between two different disciplines – biology and physics, for example; or geology and computer science – is going to be very valuable over the next few decades,” Pickett says. The NSF is already pouring millions of dollars of grant money specifically toward improving work in those interface areas – and organizations are applying new grants for similar projects every year. These grants seem unlikely to dry up as long as integration between specializations remains a high priority for companies in the public and private sectors – which means some experience in interdisciplinary interfaces can help you build up some long-term career stability.
Start with the basics
A high-paying job that calls on your scientific expertise may sound like a dream come true, but that still leaves the challenge of getting a foot in the door in the first place. Early-on in your career, this may mean working for little or no pay until you build up a resume worth bragging about. “Start by trying to get an internship or some sort of entry-level role with a federal, state or local agency,” Scarlett says. “Those agencies focus on really practical problem-solving, and will help you learn the real-world skills you’ll need in order to rise to higher positions in any sector. Start at that local level where the competition is less acute than in a state or federal agency, then parlay your practical experience into a step up to a state or federal agency or a big company.” Completing a few big projects at a small entity can give you the practical and communicative skills necessary for a successful career in natural-science consulting – and you may eventually be able to turn those same skills into a position with a public advocacy organization as well. “All these jobs are really out there,” Pickett says. “But you have to be the one who takes the first step of reaching out to organizations and companies.”
This range of options may seem dizzying at first, but – as in many scientific fields – the sheer variety means you can continue to make new career discoveries throughout your life. A project-management position can develop into a consulting gig, which can lead to a public advocacy role. Or you may find that a reliable paycheck that’s directly tied to your expertise provides all the career fulfillment you desire. But whether your path is straight or convoluted, you’ll benefit by keeping your options open and combining your passions in ways that seem interesting to you.