PhDs Are Everything – Getting Synthetic Biology PhDs Excited About Career Options

Guest post by  Nathan L. Vanderford

According to the National Science Foundation’s report titled Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, in the life sciences, only 14% of PhDs are in academia on the tenure track and only 7% are actually tenured while over 50% of PhDs work outside of academia.

PhD Comics - The Plans

PhD Comics – The Plans

Many, many PhDs are indeed working in a variety of different jobs in industry, and most importantly, these numbers mean that the majority of PhDs are not pursuing a tenure track faculty position. Despite this, a perpetuating stigma exists that makes PhDs feel like failures if they are not working toward a tenure track career. For the advancement of all academic fields, but especially Synthetic Biology which is so interdisciplinary and at the interface with industry, we need to work together on breaking this stigma.

PhDs are everything. They are doing highly impactful and highly innovative work everywhere outside academia in unique and exciting positions. You can find PhDs in industry at all levels and in a variety of other positions from executives and administrators, legal and policy analysts, entrepreneurs, consultants, writers, editors, publishers, to marketing professionals. And the list could go on and on and on.

The stigma suggesting that PhDs are failures if they are not on the tenure track has to change and will change. The big question is when and how. One of the requirements of this change is a major shift in the way faculty think within academia. Once faculty (all faculty) support all possible career paths for PhDs, then it will be easier for graduate students and postdocs to pursue whatever career path they desire. In the meantime, let’s encourage graduate students, postdocs and all PhDs to pursue the career path that makes them happy rather than feeling trapped by a mentor and/or the pursuit of a tenure track position.

PhDs, please reach out to others that have moved outside academia and learn how they did so. Seek support from your peers. You’ll be surprised how eager other PhDs are to talk to graduate students and postdocs about these issues. You can read more about different types of careers for PhDs here, here and here. In addition to these links, spend a couple hours searching the web for others articles or websites that highlight all the possible careers for PhDs. If you just look, you will find a slew of resources available describing career options for PhDs and many different websites provide insight and support for graduate students and PhDs exploring career options like this one. Finally, I encourage you to check a project I recently started. What Are All The PhDs? is a Tumblr blog meant to put a personal spin on cataloging all the possible career paths for PhDs. Ultimately this site should help graduate students, postdocs and any PhD looking to explore careers paths to understand that PhDs are everything!

So, PhDs, go out in the world and be… everything!


About the Author:

Nathan has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Biotechnology, a PhD in Biochemistry, and an MBA with an operations management focus. He is an administrator, educator, consultant, writer/editor, and entrepreneur. Learn more at

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