Where do your PhD’d friends who escape academia go?

Mike left an interesting comment re: his history phd friends

Some of my History PhD friends took jobs with corporations, e.g., HCA and Lockheed Martin. These were pretty highly compensated jobs. At least a couple took positions teaching at elite private secondary schools.

Here are some PhDs that we know of, and where they ended up:


80% of them are on the West Coast working for tech start-ups.  15% are on the East Coast working for tech start-ups.  One guy is a trailing spouse in a foreign country working as a “quant.”  One guy is an international “bum” in that he’s spent the last 10 years or so back-packing and couch surfing across the world and not doing much else (according to his brother who keeps in touch).  One taught high-school math and is now a software engineer.


Many government positions in DC and at Feds around the country (also Canada’s version).  Several at think-tanks.  Some in consulting making large sums of money.  A couple on Wall Street whose salaries are measured in the millions instead of the hundreds of thousands.  One SAHP.  Freelance editor.

Political Science:

Running a local non-profit.  Consulting.  Business.  Volunteer for political campaigns.  Government in DC.  Government overseas.  Unemployed.


Working for the government in DC.  Working for granting agencies.  SAHP.


Grant foundation.  Private practice.  The VA.  Start-up.  Freelance writer.  Data manager/statistician.  Research director for a hospital.




Private school then SAHP.


Investment banking.  High school teaching.


Full-time research associate for an economist.  Think tank doing economics work.  Wall-street.  (Granted, I mainly only run into Physics PhDs when they’re doing economics.)


Actuary.  Federal Government.  Public school.  Private school.  Minister.

Let’s not forget that Mayim Bialik, actress, has a PhD in neuroscience, and Brian May, famous rock musician, has a PhD in astrophysics.

Where have your friends with PhDs ended up if they didn’t go into academia?

41 Responses to “Where do your PhD’d friends who escape academia go?”

  1. zenmoo Says:

    Biochemistry PhD : patent lawyer
    Engineering PhDs : meteorological agency, water industry
    Physics PhD : government environmental agency (policy)

  2. First Gen American Says:

    The engineering post docs and PhDs I knew most often went to work for the same corporate sponsors that were sponsoring the university work they were part of.

    The only other PhDs I know are MD’s and some of them go from hospitals/patient care to teaching, or end up at big pharma companies and a select few start their own medical device startups.

  3. Chelsea Says:

    Materials science: National lab.
    Materials science: Start-up

  4. plantingourpennies Says:

    Biochemistry – healthcare investment banking, consulting
    Math – software giants and smaller cos, hedge fund

    Pretty similar distribution as those who got a consolation masters or MPhil (basically ABD), actually.

  5. delagar Says:

    Dr. Skull writes poetry at home and does a little tutoring. He used to adjunct, but he’s been unable to find employment doing that for over three years now. It’s pretty grim.

  6. Flavia Says:

    English: lawyer, journalist, investment banker, novelist, high school teacher, D.C. lobbyist, independent bookstore owner, arts/humanities/education nonprofit (e.g., NEH, Annie E. Casey Foundation, City Year), book publishing.

    History: basically the same as above.

  7. Bardiac Says:

    English: private school teaching (several), law, state department, union organizing

  8. Cloud Says:

    I just realized that I don’t know many non-science PhDs. This is an artifact of where I went to grad school (only sciences) and not doing a postdoc, I think.

    I know one person w/a PhD in Chinese Literature who is a kickass and very successful software developer.

    I know a bunch of STEM PhDs (bio, chem, physics, math) and given my field, the ones I know are primarily in pharma or biotech- but in a wide range of jobs. There are some scientists, some software developers, some product managers, people in regulatory affairs, people in project management, people in operations (facilities and the like), and people in the legal department.

    I also know a biochemistry PhD who is now a clinical project manager- still at a university, but a very different role.

    A couple of the more quantitatively minded of my PhD-bearing friends are now “data scientists” which seems to be what they call statisticians in the tech world. One has worked his way up from that to a fairly senior position in a big tech company.

    And I know a physics PhD who is now in business development at an engineering form, working towards eventually being a CEO somewhere.

  9. xykademiqz Says:

    My PhD is in an engineering discipline, so the vast majority of my PhD cohort (broadly speaking, about 30-40 people from my grad school days) went to work in industry. I know 3 who are profs, one of them in Latin America, one in the UK. One person went to a national lab as a staff scientist, now works at a defense agency. I don’t think anyone’s unemployed and most make way more than I do (my grad students who go to industry make right out of grad school what I did post tenure, after some 7-8 yrs as a prof at a state school). One worked for a huge company, got bored a few years in and founded a start-up. One became a director of some center of awesomeness at a UC school. I just realized that I hadn’t thought about many of these people in years…

  10. bogart Says:

    It’s not exactly escaping academia (but it is moving from one set of its oddities to a somewhat different though not entirely separate set), but a number, myself included, have taken roles in university administration/development (where development = fund-raising, in various flavors). Some of us (myself included) are happy here and others, not so much. All who spring to mind are humanities or social-science Ph.Ds. Some are engaged in research to a greater or lesser degree (I’m mid-range, I’d guess — far less than faculty, but still publishing occasionally). Some are straight researchers, usually funded on soft money.

    Natural sciences: NIEHS; assorted (many economics or statistics with a few other social scientists thrown in for good measure): Census (and similar e.g. BLS), RTI, Rand; political science: survey firms, non-profits, government and/or campaign organizations.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We probably have friends who work with each other! 2 degrees of separation!

      • bogart Says:

        I am pretty sure we must. Actually I have wondered if you or your students have come to “my” campus to give talks or (for the students) for training or job interviews. Or, conversely, perhaps you’ve hosted “my” faculty or interviewed “my” students.

  11. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I was just listening to a podcast about books and reading. They interviewed a woman who has an MFA, a PhD, and a JD. She now writes fantasy novels.

  12. Rented life Says:

    Communication: consulting for TV programming (making sure content is factual and messages are received well), student affairs, director of art gallery, government work, business owner solving common workplace communication problems, gender equality advocate, researcher for homeland security, medical trial coordinator, nonprofit public relations. Though it’s pretty frowned upon, in the local programs at least, to not want to be at a research university.

  13. chacha1 Says:

    I’ve been surrounded by nonacademic PhDs for two dozen years, working in the patent law field. Everything from electrical engineering to botany.

  14. Alyssa Says:

    I realize that I don’t know too many people who have PhDs and didn’t stay in academia (and I’m not that far out of it that many people are still doing the post-doc/research-assistant thing).

    So, from the very few I know who went on to other things:

    Physics: national research centre, 2 onBay Street (Canada’s Wall Street), IT at hospital, med school
    History: consultant at IT research company,
    Biology: high school teacher (requires an additional degree in Canada)

    As Bogart mentioned, I know a few who have staff/admin positions at universities (graduate program development, teaching support centre, etc.)

  15. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Looks like we’re not the only folks thinking about this issue. Check out today’s Tenured Radical: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2014/03/random-bullets-of-academia-tuesday-edition/

  16. OMDG Says:

    I know several PhDs (Chemistry, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Sociology, Political Science) who work for consulting firms (BCG, McKinsey, ZS). One Psychology PhD worked for a marketing / advertising company. One (Biology) makes cheese on her parents’ farm. One went to vet school and does international work with rare species. A couple (Economics) work in DC. One (Biology) went to law school and does patent law. One (Literature) went to law school and then quit that and now writes romance novels for a living. One (astrophysics) operates some big telescope in HI.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t suppose the one who does the telescope in HI is named Julie?

      • omdg Says:

        He’s named Luca. Perhaps Julie and Luca know one another, though.

        I thought it was interesting you knew an English PhD/JD turned novelist as well. I wonder how common that career trajectory is.

  17. Mac Says:

    Biology – USGS, 2 are directors of science centers, 1 is an adjunct (this is a choice, she’s the primary care-giver of a young child and her partner is in a lucrative field)

  18. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I have a friend with a PhD in education, not the EdD. After he retired as a principal of 30 years: Walmart greeter, small bookstore owner, paper boy, clerk in a national chain bookstore, security manager at newspaper in Birmingham.. Yes, I realize his retiring is not the same as changing fields. W were all just fascinated at the jobs he held.

    Anthropology: film maker
    Minister with PhD: worked as aide to Congressman in DC

  19. Leah Says:

    Ecology & Evolutionary Bio: editor at a science journal; food policy non-profit; runs an etsy shop (married and lives in a rural area)

    Engineering: patent insurance firm

  20. undinenotofgeneralinterest Says:

    To law school, mostly, but this is an amazingly useful post & list. Thanks.

  21. becca Says:

    This is a particularly neat list. I do wonder how those that managed the transition from bench science to clinical research coordinating did so; that strikes me as somewhat relevant for myself.
    It’s interesting how few of these jobs sound like “industry”, except for the engineering/tech people.
    Also, I wonder about the SES background of the respondents, and how skewed a sample this is.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sounds like something someone should do research on! (Not this list in particular, but what happens to non-academic PhDs in general, by all those demographic things you list.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m also a bit astonished by how many people there are, even just thinking about the people that we know personally. We only tend to hear from the people who are particularly bitter about leaving academia– the Rebecca Schumans, for example, but there are a lot of people out there who you wouldn’t know have PhDs unless you work directly with them or went to grad school with them. And all the ones that we know are happy with their lives! Some of them didn’t apply to academic jobs at all, and some chose non-academic over academic right off, but there’s also those who tried the academic market or even an academic job for a few years and were happy leaving (or were happy very shortly after finding outside-academia employment).

      • Leah Says:

        Maybe I’m biased, because I’m one of them, but there are also a lot of us who took a good, long look at a PhD and decided that life wasn’t for them. I really thought hard about the PhD thing when I was in a program. I decided I didn’t love academic, so I looked at what I could do outside of it. There were more opportunities with my MS than with the PhD, so I elected to leave early. Of course, now, I’m still teaching anyway, but I get the good parts I like without the parts I wasn’t so keen on (for example, I like student interaction but am not a fan of grant writing; I like reading papers and explaining them, but I struggle more with large lit reviews). I also anticipate that there may be a day when I go get a bit more training and go back to bench science. There are definitely parts I miss.

      • OMDG Says:

        Totally forgot my husband who went basic science biology PhD –> pharma. He works with many people with that career trajectory. He applied to academic jobs, but upon seeing how crappy many of them were defected to industry quickly. It also helped that I started med school in a geographic area with a ton of pharma right when he started looking for a job.

        Some people do make the transition from basic science to clinical research. All the people I know who did it are MD-PhDs who did the dual degree, completed residency, and then did a masters in clinical epi / public health / health policy as part of a clinical fellowship, or did a RWJ (Robert Wood Johnson) or other clinical research fellowship. An AWFUL lot of people who do basic science think that clinical research is “easy,” that it requires “virtually no” training, and that “anyone” can do it if they take (a single) stats class. This attitude is particularly prevalent among MDs with basic science backgrounds. Let’s just say that there is a reason that there is so much of the clinical research that comes out is total crap.

  22. Mac Says:

    Outside of my field two of my family members have PhDs but are not in academia. One was but left for school administration which he loves and is very good at, the other left a STEM field after a postdoc because he wanted more flexibility and because the business analysis position he has basically pours money on him ( the value of quantitative skills!). I have stayed in academia and it’s the right fit for me but it’s good to have known there are other options with a PhD.

  23. Emily @ evolvingPF Says:

    Our peer group is just now finishing PhDs and starting postdocs so I don’t know many people who have even attempted the academic job search. I know plenty who never intended to pursue an academic career or are leaving after a postdoc. Many of our biomedical eng and comp bio/bioinformatics peers now have jobs in big pharma and medical device companies, not generally at the bench any longer. One of my husband’s labmates gave up on finding a biology-related faculty position and took a job at Amazon, and another friend who has not been picked over two seasons is headed to a Silicon Valley boot camp and hoping to be hired by a tech company. For whatever reason, a local scientific paper editing company is snapping up my friends right and left to be full-time editors. Two CS friends went to Google Research. A bunch of BME grads from my department have gone into management consulting. That’s all I can think of for now. I know virtually no one who is even trying for a TT position at an R1 university, though a few have taken TT or adjunct positions at undergraduate-only institutions.

    • chacha1 Says:

      Our most recent addition is a 30-yr-old freshly-minted Ph.D. in biochem. He decided to take the patent bar exam and work as an agent instead of trying to find an academic position.

  24. Roo Says:

    Interesting – I finished my PhD a while ago (more than 5 years less than 10), and from post doc-ing amongst this is what people I know have got up to (UK based ecology type stuff)…. 4 conservation charities/NGOs (not research), 2 conservation charity research, 1 uni admin, 2 primary school teachers, 1 secondary school teacher, 2 environmental campaigners, 1 bioscience tech/sales thingy, 2 environmental consultants, 2 government environmental departments, 1 government statutory body, 1 journal editor, 7 of us still hanging in post doc-ing, 1 permanent academic job at a research institute.

  25. Natureguy Says:

    Thanks all – this list gives me hope! (PhD candidate here in environmental science).

    I know a molecular bio PhD in pharm sales, a geosciences PhD managing a government agency, and a smattering of PhDs managing non-profits (all environmental).

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