All the alt-ac jobs

Elizabeth Stivison
May 13, 2022

This week I gave myself the task of collecting every job I could think of that a person with biology, molecular biology or biochemistry training could do in “alt-ac” — that is, outside of academia and outside of the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. 

The jobs can be loosely sorted into lab-related jobs and jobs that are outside the lab. 

Laboratory and lab-adjacent work 

Government agencies: One of the biggest employers of scientists in the U.S. is the government. The most obvious agencies for life scientists might be the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, which all employ scientists in laboratory and other positions. So does the Environmental Protection Agency (which I wrote about previously), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and even NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy. The National Science Foundation is another government agency that hires a lot of science experts, though not as laboratory researchers, since the NSF — unlike the NIH — doesn’t do bench science.
National labs: The Department of Energy runs 17 national laboratories around the country. National labs are a bit like academia and a bit like industry. In national labs, scientists work on research projects full time. Being part of the DOE, many of the national labs have a physics focus but also have life science research arms. Two big differences from academia are they generally don’t have students, though some take graduate students for short-term projects and opportunities or have programs for younger students, and research group leaders don’t spend large amounts of time applying for funding.
The military: All branches of the U.S. military have scientist positions in some capacity. Some positions require you to be or become an officer, while other positions are open to civilians. For example the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy research labs accept civilian applicants for research positions, which can be found on USAjobs.
Nonprofits: There are a several nonprofit organizations carrying out biomedical research that hire people with scientific training. They are sometimes closely intertwined with and resembling academia and industry, such as the Simons Foundation or The Jackson Laboratory, and they are sometimes more activist or independent, such as Ending Pandemics.
Nonpharmaceutical companies: Many companies, big and small, have research divisions or at least some scientist positions. On the niche end, there are unique places like the Modernist Cuisine food lab, which has scientists on staff. Even more niche might be food producers such as Murray’s cheese, where the head of quality assurance has a Ph.D. On the bigger end, closer to the pharmaceutical world, Pantene shampoo has a hair research institute.
FBI: There are many biology-related jobs at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which tend to be not so research focused as the positions at other institutions above. Most of these lab positions are analyzing biological evidence.
Forensics and criminal labs: Similarly, state and local governments have forensics labs and medical examiners offices that need scientists. 

Outside the lab 

Policy: There is a need for people with a strong background in science to help design science policy for our government. This can involve working for individual lawmakers on Capitol Hill or reside a step outside government at a think tank such as the Bipartisan Policy Center. Scientific societies (more on those below) also often have a policy arm.
Societies: Scientific societies, such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, have scientists on staff who work in a variety of positions to achieve the society’s goals of advancing scientific research and supporting scientists’ careers. This type of work can include organizing scientific conferences, publishing scientific journals, publishing a member magazine, or running scholarship and fellowship programs.
Writing and editing: There are many different types of science-related writing: popular articles, podcasts, press releases, technical regulatory writing, and scientific journal editing, to name a few. All require different amounts of science and technical knowledge and have different audiences.
Patent offices: Working in a patent office is another way to use science knowledge. A patent examiner works with people submitting patents to understand if the invention is novel and patentable. To do this you must have an understanding of the science and the law. Some famous scientists have worked in patent offices!
Museums and zoos: Science and natural history museums have experts on staff to develop exhibits and educational programs. Some also have labs, as they conduct research as well as educate.
Science consulting: While people with science training can be suited to many types of consulting due to good problem-solving abilities, here I’m referring specifically to medical or science consulting. That's when people use their scientific expertise and ability to learn new things quickly and come up with solutions for pharma or healthcare companies.
Apps, games and other fun things: Smartphone apps and games that are related to science, science board games, and science kits for kids all have at least a few scientists behind them. The founder and CEO of Genius Games, for example, is a former science teacher. Many of these companies also consult with scientists on their product, which leads to the last category.
Consulting for pop culture creations (usually part time): Most filmmakers and screenwriters aren’t scientists, so many movies and TV shows that address scientific topics, such as "The Big Bang Theory" and "Contagion," have science advisers or consultants to help with accuracy and plausibility. That’s also true for a lot of pop culture things, including the games and apps mentioned above. Genius Games, for example, consults dozens of scientists for each science game it creates. Most of these consultants do not consult as a full-time job; they are mostly academics who consult as an expert on the side.
Scientists who consult for pop culture have an important role, since movies, TV, games and other media are how many people learn about and come to relate to scientific topics. One strange catch here is the situation of Frederick Ordway who consulted with Stanley Kubrick for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He might have done too good a job at helping Kubrick make the movie seem realistic. According to the book “Lab Coats in Hollywood” by David Kirby, the movie “was so impressive and the visuals were so realistic that [moon landing] hoax supporters have claimed that the film was the means by which NASA tested the cinematic techniques for creating the hoax films.”

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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