During her PhD, Isabelle Kohler was uncertain about her career options beyond the traditional path towards professorship. Later in her career, she discovered that the possibilities were endless. In this column, she explores alt-ac and non-academic positions to inspire PhD students as they prepare for their next career step.

When I began my PhD, I did not have a clear idea of my future plans. Initially, I intended to work in a community pharmacy after completing my pharmacy studies. However, during the final year of my studies, I discovered my passion for research and being in a lab. I found it more exciting than working in a pharmacy and selling medication to clients.

I started my PhD journey with excitement about the research I was going to do. At that time, I had not come across the terms ’academic career’ or ‘Tenure Track’ before. In fact, I did not even know what ’PhD’ referred to. I discovered it after creating my email signature with the words ‘Isabelle Kohler, PhD’, when a colleague pointed out that I was a PhD candidate, not yet a PhD. Oops.

It will not surprise you that I did not know what to do after completing my PhD. My only clear goal was to keep all options open so that when I decided which direction to take, I would have the opportunity to do so. With this mindset, I moved to the Netherlands for my postdoc, still uncertain about my future plans. The turning point came at the end of my postdoc when I was offered a position as an Assistant Professor. I knew that this was the position that would allow me to merge my two biggest professional passions – research and education/teaching – equally.

Like many other early-career researchers, I was unsure during my PhD and postdoc about the types of roles available after completing a PhD and in which sectors. While I was aware of the traditional academic career path towards professorship, I wondered where most PhD graduates end up, given the limited number of academic positions available.

Luckily, I’ve got them all answered now, and I’d like to share them with you!

Below, I will discuss some career paths to consider after completing your PhD, beyond the traditional academic route leading to professorship.

First, let’s examine the options available in academia. There are two career paths in academia: the traditional path, which involves climbing the academic ladder from postdoc to professor, and the alternative path, which encompasses any other role in academia. These alternative academic careers are commonly referred to as ‘alt-acs’.

PhD holders can pursue a variety of career paths within the alt-ac category:

  • Research assistant, lab technician, lab manager: support scientific research through conducting experiments, managing laboratory equipment, and overseeing the day-to-day operations of a research lab.
  • Junior lecturer, teaching fellow, program or education coordinator: contribute to academia by teaching courses, assisting with curriculum development, and coordinating educational programs.
  • Project manager, coordinator in research projects: oversee the planning, execution, and completion of research projects, ensuring objectives are met within the allocated time and budget.
  • Research administrator, grant office: manage the administrative and financial aspects of research projects, including grant application and compliance.
  • Technology Transfer Office (TTO): identify research with commercial potential, protect intellectual property, and facilitate the transfer of technology to the market.
  • Academic advisor, study advisor, career counselor: guide students through their academic and professional development.
  • Science communication, outreach coordinator: engage with the public to promote understanding of scientific research and its implications.

Alt-ac career paths offer excellent opportunities for those interested in working in academia without following the traditional career path to professorship.

If you are considering a non-academic career, the landscape is vast and diverse. Here are some options to consider:

  • Industry positions: engaging in applied research and development within a corporate setting.
  • Start-Ups: driving innovation and growth in emerging businesses.
  • Solopreneurship: leveraging expertise to build your own business, focusing on consulting, freelancing, or creating products/services in your field of specialization
  • Government agencies, public sector, healthcare sector: influencing policy, improving public health, and conducting research with societal impact.
  • Consulting firms: providing expert advice across various sectors, leveraging analytical skills.
  • Science communication and journalism: making science accessible and engaging to the public through writing and media.
  • Patent law and Intellectual Property: protecting and managing intellectual property rights for innovations.
  • Non-academic education/teacher: educating the next generation outside the traditional university framework.
  • Editor/writer: disseminating scientific knowledge through editing and writing roles.
  • Sales: combining technical expertise with sales strategies to drive business growth.
  • arketing: crafting and executing marketing strategies for scientific products or services.
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations (NPOs): working on projects with social impact, within organizations focused on various causes.

These two lists demonstrate the endless options available. However, despite most PhD holders pursuing careers outside of academia or in the alt-ac landscape, PhD programs do not prepare students for these positions. If you are a PhD student in the last two years of your PhD journey, or even earlier, I strongly encourage you to consider the possible directions you would like to take after completing your PhD. Take action now to achieve your goals. Ensure that you research the paths you are interested in and supplement your skillset with any necessary knowledge. Finally, network with people in your field(s) of interest to learn more about the challenges of your chosen career path(s). This will prepare you for when it’s time to apply and find a job.

You’ve got this!


If you’re interested in learning more on how to navigate academia – with or without generative AI, don’t hesitate to join the NextMinds Community! For this, you have plenty of choices: visit NextMinds website to learn more about my work, sign up to the monthly newsletter, and follow me and NextMinds on LinkedIn.