Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

More Alternative Career Options for Scientists

Credit: Sergey Nivens/Adobe

Credit: Sergey Nivens/Adobe

By Tim Nielsen

A research career doesn’t suit everybody, but the skill sets of scientists can lead to rewarding careers beyond academia, such as in sales and business management.

Last month I outlined how low pay, insecure contract work and generally poor prospects in academia are prompting many young researchers to seek fulfilment and security outside of the traditional academic career path. I discussed two alternative careers – regulatory affairs and high school teaching – that are suitable for scientists looking to transition from academia to something new.

Since the article was published I’ve been contacted by a number of former scientists wanting to share their own career journeys in the hope that they might provide some inspiration for those looking for a path out of the lab. This month I’ll tell you about two more career options where an education in the sciences can find valuable application, both directly and indirectly: medical sales, and business ownership and management.

Medical and Scientific Sales and Marketing

The manufacturers and distributors of scientific equipment, laboratory supplies, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and the like all need suitably qualified representatives to liaise with their discerning clientele of doctors and scientists and advise them about the benefits and applications of their products and services. Given the complexity of these products, sales is a field where someone with a science background – and especially the advanced scientific knowledge and credibility of a PhD – can do well. It is an excellent choice for those who wish to remain engaged with science but would prefer to be out and about rather than in a lab or office environment all day.

I am a former academic scientist whose first break from the lab was into medical sales, promoting a sleep disorders management service to doctors. In my experience, the sales industry can offer great opportunity for outgoing individuals with good social skills who genuinely enjoy interacting with others and are not afraid of meeting new people.

The most important attributes required to succeed in medical sales are much the same as in any sales position: a good head for business, being target-driven, thriving on the pressure that comes with sales targets and other performance indicators, and having a high degree of resilience to rejection and frustration. In fact, these attributes are at least as important as an understanding of the science. Plenty of people have a high level of scientific understanding, and many have a good head for business and sales, but few have both. This rare combination can achieve great success.

The additional expertise that a PhD provides can offer a number of benefits to scientists who are looking to enter the world of sales. The higher level of scientific knowledge and problem-solving ability enables a greater understanding of the client’s technical needs and of how your products and services can be utilised to solve their problems or help their patients. Holders of a PhD are viewed with a higher degree of credibility by scientists and medical doctors, and are thus in a better position to engage with and influence them. The higher qualification will help to get a foot in the door, and may also assist in securing a higher starting salary.

Obtaining a job in scientific sales is usually a matter of applying for appropriate entry-level positions while highlighting customer-focused work experience, which can include any prior hospitality or retail jobs. The most common entry point to the industry is at the level of field sales representative, a role most scientists would be very familiar with from their time in the lab.

The hiring criteria for sales positions is different than for academia, and thus your entire approach – from your CV to your interview preparation – may need to be overhauled. Fortunately there is plenty of information about this available (e.g.;

Starting salaries for sales professionals are usually on par with academia, but total compensation can be significantly higher when commissions, bonuses and allowances are included. Most positions are ongoing. Career progression can be much faster than academia as the promotions process is results-driven and usually not as bureaucratic and inflexible. Good sales people can work their way up to become sales or marketing managers and then directors, often within the space of a decade.

Business Ownership and Management

At first glance it may be hard to see how the seemingly abstract knowledge gained in a scientific education – and especially a PhD – can be readily translated to the practical business world, but training in the scientific method provides many of the core skills required to start and manage a successful business. For example, the vision required to crystallise an abstract hypothesis into a practical research plan can be likened to the formulation and execution of a business plan, which is essentially a blueprint for how a business will operate.

The scientist’s natural tendencies to be highly organised and to implement operating systems that maximise efficiency are useful to any business model. Furthermore, the scientifically trained mind is analytical and able to identify trends and patterns in data, enabling better-informed business decisions.

The latent business skills that a scientist possesses can be applied to just about any enterprise, and there are many surprising examples of scientists who have started and operated businesses completely unrelated to science. However, by starting a business in the scientific or medical field, the scientist is able to leverage existing contacts and knowledge of how the industry operates. For example, quite a number of scientists have made successful businesses by acting as agents or sub-distributors for scientific supplies or medical devices companies.

Although helpful, it is not necessary to have studied business in order to start or manage your own. The basic components of day-to-day business management, such as record-keeping, bookkeeping, inventory management and employee management, can be learnt piecemeal through short courses offered by associations such as the Workers’ Educational Association in each state or even at the diploma level through TAFE.

However, what is essential for those who have not run a business before is to have is a good business advisor. There are a number of places where these can be accessed at a very low cost, such as through the not-for-profit Business Enterprise Centres ( A good accountant and lawyer are also very important to help you set up the most appropriate business structure and ensure you are complying with all the relevant laws and regulations.

The four alternative career paths presented in this series are as intriguing and unique as the individuals pursuing them. They dispel the myth that a science degree is of little practical value outside the lab. Sasha, Lauren and Warren are proof that, lab coats and test tubes aside, a solid education in the scientific method is an excellent foundation for success in any field, and limited only by one’s imagination.

Tim Nielsen completed a PhD in biochemistry at The University of Adelaide. He performed postdoctoral work at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide before moving into various positions in the private healthcare industry.