I often hear students say that they want to be marine biologists but they don’t know how to make a career of it. Many are concerned with what and how: What jobs can you get? How much do they pay? What type of a degree do you need? How hard is it?
As I highlighted in an earlier post, marine science jobs are diverse. But what I didn’t talk about was how to get from point A to point B—from school to a career. So for this post I’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of jobs in science. I’ll focus first on career options for those with a Ph.D. degree, and will address masters and bachelors-level options in future posts.
University Professor: Nearly all professorships require a Ph.D., and to get such a job you often also need experience as a postdoctoral researcher, or “postdoc”. During a postdoc, which can last for months to years, the primary goal is to expand your scientific skill set.
At the end of one or two postdocs, the hope is to get hired as a professor. Once this happens you can expect a higher salary with robust benefits and the chance to move up in pay and title. As a professor you’re afforded the opportunity to research the topics that interest you and continue to advance your chosen field. One big advantage is that once you get promoted from the junior (assistant) level, you have tenure and thus job security for the rest of your career.
While professorships are sought-after, they aren’t for everyone. Professors can work long hours to maintain a lab, teach, write grant proposals, perform service for their university, and mentor students. Besides, there just aren’t enough professorships for everyone with a Ph.D. Fortunately, there are other options.
Government Scientists: The government employs scientists at both the state and federal level. At agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, natural resources divisions, US Fish and Wildlife, and the National Science Foundation, scientists conduct work that straddles the scientific and policy realms.
While a number of government scientists do a postdoc term first, there are often openings to move directly into a full-time job. As with most government professions, workers receive a set paycheck, as well as health benefits and pension plans.
From what I know about salaries, many Ph.D. level government scientists receive pay that is comparable to that of university professors. Government scientists seem happy in their jobs, enjoying the stability, set work hours, and steady paycheck, in addition to the intellectual stimulation that comes with their position.
Environmental Consultant: When companies want to build something new — be it an office building, parking lot, or manufacturing plant — they must first assess how construction will impact the environment. To make such assessments they need an outside party to take a look, and this is one of the many roles of environmental consultants.
These experts straddle science and industry, and thus their jobs are influenced by the ups and downs of each. Pay can vary and is in large part determined by the ability of their firm to secure work. My sense from environmental consultant colleagues is that some are better paid than professors and government scientists, and like the latter they enjoy the set work hours of their job. But compared to those professions, environmental consultants have much less freedom to study the scientific questions that interest them.
Biotech: San Diego is a center of biotech research, where scientists develop new medicines and useful materials by tapping into the biology of the natural world. Some Scripps Ph.D. students move on to biotech companies immediately after graduation and many report back that they are happy and very well paid. My sense is that biotech jobs offer much more freedom for scientific discovery than do consulting, but research topics and paycheck size still remains driven by the overall success of the company.
Above are examples of just a few career tracks for those with a Ph.D. degree and I hope I’ve done a fair job of describing some of the pros and cons of each. Remember of course these are just my observations and I imagine those working day-to-day in each area might have a slightly different take on things.
In a couple weeks I’ll put my own spin on it—weighing the pros and cons of a few of my own options as I look toward graduation—and in later posts I’ll detail job options for masters and bachelors degree-level scientists.