Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Alternative Career Options for Scientists

Credit: flairimages/Adobe

Credit: flairimages/Adobe

By Tim Nielsen

A research career doesn’t suit everybody, but the skill sets of scientists can lead to rewarding careers beyond academia.

It’s increasingly well-documented that workplace conditions and career opportunities for scientists have eroded over the past 20 years. This has left more of today’s young scientists with little choice but to look outside of academia for career fulfilment.

One of the major problems encountered by scientists seeking to make the transition from academia to other industries is that, after spending many years in the lab, it can be difficult for them to conceive of any “real world” applications for their skills, often leading to the self-limiting belief that they are not suited to anything else.

As part of my interest in highlighting the challenges faced by Australian scientists in the current political and economic climate, I have been fortunate to meet a number of former academic scientists who have successfully side-tracked into other related fields, often without much further study or reduction in income required. To provide some inspiration for those of you looking to make the leap out of the lab, I would like to share some of their success stories with you here.

Regulatory Affairs Coordinator

Regulatory affairs is one of the lesser-known fields where the expert scientific knowledge and meticulous attention to detail that comes with being a scientist can have valuable applications. Regulatory affairs professionals work in various industries to ensure that the organisations they represent are complying with all of the relevant regulations and laws pertaining to their business.

For example, a person with a PhD in biomedical sciences might work for a pharmaceutical company, overseeing the registration and regulatory compliance of the company’s drugs. This role would include liaising with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, developing regulatory strategies, pre-empting potential future trends and issues with products, and tracking changes to the growing and constantly changing local regulatory environments.

Dr Lauren Goldie was an established researcher with her own laboratory at the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Texas, but moved into regulatory affairs after discovering that life at the top of the academic tree wasn’t quite what she had expected. “The constant administrative and grant-writing demands made it difficult to find time to actually think about science,” she says. “As much as I still loved science, it became painfully clear to me that if I was going to be able to live the full and happy life I had dreamed of, I was going to have to find another way to engage with science.”

During her time at BCM, Lauren had been serving on the Ethics Review Committee and had become intrigued by clinical research regulatory affairs. Through a combination of professional networking and good timing, she was eventually hired as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Coordinator at BCM, where she provides clinical research regulatory support for BCM researchers.

Lauren has no regrets about her sidestep from the bench. “Absolutely none,” she says. “This brings me much closer to the end-goal of most, if not all, basic research efforts: the development of new treatments and technologies designed to advance human health.”

Working in regulatory affairs has a number of benefits for scientists looking to make the move out of academia. Large private companies such as pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers provide relatively stable employment and vast career opportunities, and remuneration for regulatory affairs professionals is significantly higher than academia by the career mid-point.

However, entering regulatory affairs can require some planning as there is no clear career pathway to follow or specific university degrees or diplomas in the field. Regulatory professionals usually have prior experience in other careers first, particularly in related fields such as quality assurance, quality control, safety and/or other regulatory roles.

As with any career change, it may be necessary to move backwards temporarily by starting in a trainee role. The Association of Regulatory and Clinical Scientists does offer short (1–3 day) introductory courses for those looking to pursue a career in the field.

High School Science Teacher

Very few schools benefit from the additional real-world experience, passion and ability to make science relevant that a teacher with actual research lab experience can bring. In fact, it’s been estimated that only 5% of all high school science teachers in Australia have a PhD.

Dr Sasha Tait is a former researcher in the biomedical sciences who is now a teacher at Canberra Grammar School. For Sasha, the catalyst for her move into teaching was her return to Australia after seven productive years of postdoctoral research overseas, in the knowledge that the Australian research funding situation was very tight. “I left research and academia because of the limited funding and job opportunities in Australia,” she says matter-of-factly. “If I had stayed in the US, I would still be working in research.”

While she is quick to acknowledge that a PhD doesn’t automatically make a scientist a good teacher, Sasha believes that the additional real-world experience she brings to the role has some major benefits. “After 20 years in biomedical science, I have a very broad spectrum of knowledge that is relevant for teaching high school biology and chemistry and dealing with teenage boys,” she says. “But research also requires other skills, such as having to learn new techniques and content very quickly in order to publish and survive. Being able to do this means that I can learn what I need to teach very quickly, and I can adapt my teaching techniques to suit the students in each class.”

Since attracting PhD-qualified scientists to teaching has been flagged as necessary to reverse the slide in the number of Year 12 students studying a science-related subject (which has fallen by 50% since the early 1990s), one of the main benefits of a move from science to teaching is that some attractive transitional programs have been established that require relatively little further study and training. A scientist with a BSc and/or a PhD need only complete a 1-year Diploma of Education to qualify as a teacher, and the 2-year Teach for Australia program (http://teachforaustralia.org/) pays the equivalent of a graduate salary, and culminates with the award of a Master of Teaching degree on scholarship, with the additional benefit of helping schools in disadvantaged areas. A National Teaching Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme has also been proposed.

For former academics, the main benefits of a teaching career include rewarding and intellectually challenging work, relatively stable employment compared with the grant-funded treadmill, and similar salaries but with more holiday time.

Sasha has no regrets about her decision to move out of academia. “As a teacher, I am using my intellect and being challenged in so many different ways that I no longer have time to miss my previous life,” she says.


Next month we’ll meet two more former scientists who switched careers mid-point and are now making their marks in very different fields: sales and marketing, and business ownership.


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