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Off the Beaten Path: How to Find Alternative Career Paths in Your Field

Off the Beaten Path
How to Find Alternative Career Paths in Your Field

By Ray Xiong

Ray Xiong is a PhD candidate in the USC Neuroscience Program

Hello, my name is Ray Xiong. Originally from the city of Ürümqi in Xinjiang, China, I got my Bachelor of Science from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. I’m currently a USC PhD student in Neuroscience studying how the brain processes sound.

My blog series is called “Off the Beaten Path: Exploring Alternative Career Options.” Obviously it focuses on alternative career options outside academia. As many of you may know, the academic job market for PhD graduates is not very promising (especially in Life Sciences). According to an article on the Atlantic here, around 30% PhDs have no employment at the time of graduation.

Gladly I made the decision to search beyond academia relatively early. In the third year of my PhD (currently in the sixth), I realized that staying in academia is not the future for me. Since then, I have made efforts to explore alternative career options. I would like to share with you my experience of exploring career options and gaining skills from USC and local resources. Hopefully this can boost your confidence and help you to start alternative career planning earlier.

In this first post, I’d like share how to begin the exploration. Due to lack of exposure to the job market, many students have no idea what options they have. I’d like to assure you that there are plenty of alternative career paths for each major. You just need to find out yourselves. Because my background is in the life sciences, some of the following resources may not be directly relevant to you, but I encourage you to find information on your own.  It’s never too early to start looking. I encourage you to start in the first year of your graduate study.

My first discovery was a book called “Alternative Careers in Science, Second Edition: Leaving the Ivory Tower”. This book is a collection of essays from people in various industries describing their career paths.  The book does not have all the information you need, but it’s great to get the big picture.

Another great way to explore alternative career options is to use LinkedIn, or people “stalking.” To begin, I connected with some people from my PhD program working outside academia. I studied their contacts with similar situations. Even with this primitive sampling method, I was able to get an idea of how people started their first jobs and climbed their respective career ladders. You can also find people in a well-known organization in your field. For example, I looked at Genetech, a well-known biotech company. Additionally, you can start by looking at former students of a famous professor.

Besides the two methods mentioned above, I also went to alternative career events organized by my department and a USC student organization called Alternative Careers in Science and Engineering (ACSE). Usually these events are panel discussions about a particular career path.  I also found similar panels at conferences of my professional organization.

I hope you find this tip helpful. I’ll be back with some tips on how to gain leadership and team work skills in my next post. Stay tuned!


To contact USC ACSE, you can send an email to:

Radhika Palkar and Aminat Adebiyi