Science graduates in white coats: is that all there is?

If you are a third year student, you will be familiar with the question “so, what are you doing after you graduate?” You are getting frustrated just by reading that, aren’t you? Some people have known what they want to do since their first day at university and never change their minds. However, most of us aren’t that lucky – we have a vague idea of our future, but as our studies progress we see the picture in our head change, often causing a fair bit of anxiety because you had it “all figured out” and now you feel lost.

Occasionally, when I tell somebody that I am a biomedical science graduate but I don’t fancy working in the lab, they look at me like I am crazy, or worse, they pity me, thinking that I am a failure. These preconceptions hurt your confidence and create self-doubt, but also might tempt you to try and get a job in a setting that you don’t like, just to “fit in your degree title”.

Universities often also (subconsciously) contribute to the prejudice by not talking openly about all career options for science students. Many, or maybe even most, people enter a science degree hoping to work in a research environment, particularly medical and biological sciences. However, what often gets left out is the fact that the skills students develop at university can be used in more than just one discipline. Not all of us are made for lab work and it doesn’t mean we love science any less. Some people simply want to explore other career options where scientific knowledge and skills are crucial or at least desired, but doesn’t involve directly working in a lab. Even if you do love the hours pouring agar, counting bacterial colonies or running gel electrophoresis, you might want to look a bit broader, just in case. The job market is tough, data collected and published by Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) makes this much clearer. The average science graduate unemployment in 2012/13 was 7.3%, which is higher than UK average, 6%. Biology graduates faced 9.4% unemployment, and 21.9% of those who did manage to get a job worked in retail, catering or as bar staff. Thinking more broadly will stop you from limiting yourself to what you are “supposed to become” and will help identify your true skills and strengths. How about a career in intellectual property law? This niche area of commercial law might be just right for people who want to pursue a science career in a more commercial, legal setting. Think of it as protecting creativity. All new biological inventions, such as therapies, assays or devices need patenting, licensing and commercialising and scientific knowledge comes into play. It is a very exciting career path where you never get bored, as trying to keep up with advances in technology is in itself challenging.

For the “less commercial” souls, it might be worth looking into teaching or science communication sector. Teachers themselves call it the best job in the world. It will surprise you how many educational charities there are that could use your enthusiasm along the knowledge of science. Science communication is such a broad field, that you can certainly find something that would make you want to get up in the morning and go to work: from outreach and policy to journalism and publishing (and many things in between). You might be wondering how to get those jobs. From a personal experience at an interview for an events assistant role at a learned society, they didn’t seem to concentrate on the grades I got (though I am sure if they had been bad, there would have been no interview to begin with). It’s the extra bits and pieces that count, now more than ever. Maybe you were a part of a student society, did some volunteering or wrote for a student newspaper.

You are a product and you need to sell your skills. One career pathway isn’t better than the other, it’s about finding what suits you and being open minded about changing your own preconceptions about what you are supposed to do and who you are supposed to become.