Keren Abecassis

In a previous post, I told you about my own career path and promised to tell you more about customer-facing careers in the scientific industry.

Ben Jefferry

Jobs most science graduates have never thought of doing or have misconceptions about

Here is a list of typical careers outside of academic research that people go to after a science degree, PhD or postdoc:

When I was a scientific recruiter, I realised that most science graduates or PhDs had never heard of many of the roles I was recruiting for. Or, if they had heard of them, many of them had never considered doing them before.

I’m referring to the commercial/customer-facing roles in the scientific industry.

And this is a shame, because for the right people, these can be very rewarding alternative careers, particularly if you wanted to step out of the lab but still use your science background. I should know – this is the path I chose for myself. So in this post I’ll tell you a bit more about these careers.

Let’s be honest, not everyone has the people skills for customer-facing roles. But if you do, and you don’t want to stay in the lab, there are a variety of careers worth exploring. Also, getting into your first customer-facing role can give you access to other ones in the future.

Technical Sales

This is the career most graduates have misconceptions about. The picture of the annoying door-to-door or call-centre salesperson is in everybody’s mind.

However, if you go into technical sales with a scientific background, you will be selling to scientists using your technical knowledge. The more technical the offering, the less it will feel like you are trying to ‘flog stuff’. You will be having conversations with potential customers about their needs and offer the right solution accordingly.


What is it?

Sales of scientific products (chemicals, consumables, equipment, instruments and/or services) to scientists in the lab. Can include any combination of these activities: finding new customers, keeping in touch with existing customers, discussing products on offer (sometimes including demonstrating them), negotiating and closing a deal. Can be office-based (inside sales) or field-based (sales representative).

In the UK, most sales careers will start in an office-based role and evolve into a field-based role after anywhere between 6 and 24 months. You first sales role can be mainly focused on prospecting for new customers and rely heavily on cold-calling. This might not be the most glamourous job but it can be an extremely efficient sales training apprenticeship – you learn how to handle rejection and be resilient.

If you have a softer touch but would really love to sell, account management roles are certainly more appropriate. This time you are selling to existing customers, making sure they are happy with your company’s products and that they keep buying, as well as selling them products they are not currently buying from you. Account management at a junior level is a bit rarer than prospecting roles though.

Another aspect that separates sales from other customer-facing roles is that you will usually be paid a basic salary plus a commission on top. This makes sales very attractive for money-motivated and target-driven people as the better you do in your role, the more money you will earn.

Business development is a very generic term that can describe a variety of activities aiming at growing a company’s business. For some companies, a business development position will be a sales role focused on new business (as opposed to account management). For others, there are no direct sales involved but a mix of activities (e.g. networking, market strategy) to identify potential areas for business growth.

For you if:

You are target-driven, confident and convincing, self-motivated, resilient and money-motivated. You are at ease communicating with people at all levels (from a bench scientist to the head of a department).

Not for you if:

You don’t handle rejection well, you want stable earnings and are not comfortable with a commission-based salary. You are looking for a hands-on role.

Radleys ExhibitionsMarketing

There are two main ways into scientific marketing – you are a scientist looking to learn marketing skills or you are qualified/experienced in marketing and join a scientific company.

What is it?

Technical marketers can be involved in every phase of the product cycle, from market research and product concept and development, to digital marketing (website, SEO, e-commerce and social media), events management and advertising.

Scientists going into marketing are more sought after than one might think. In the right company with a structure allowing it to train people, your scientific knowledge can be very valuable to a marketing team.

You could for example start as a copywriter – the person who can write something appealing about a technical product. For this, you will very likely need evidence of scientific as well as non-scientific writing experience. But the writing aspect will certainly only be the start of your marketing career.

For you if:

You are creative, flexible and have a good attention to detail. You enjoy working with other departments in a company (e.g. sales and R&D).

Not for you if:

You don’t like computer-based work, writing or multi-tasking.

Technical or Application Support

For these roles, you may need a bit more than a BSc. It could be a higher academic degree but also experience in the lab after your degree. This is usually the step into commercial that PhDs are most comfortable with straight out of the lab.

What is it?

Technical support is usually an office-based role where you are in contact with customers on the phone, via email or sometimes even via remote desktop connection to help them figure out a solution to a problem they are having with one of your products. Depending on the company size and structure, technical support can involve a lot more, such as, for example, pre-sales technical advice to assist customers in choosing the right product.

An applications specialist is usually a field-based person visiting customers in a pre- or post-sales capacity. Pre-sales typically means demonstrating a product/piece of equipment to a potential customer so they can decide if they want to buy it. Post-sales usually involves training the customer(s) on the product purchased, and sometimes even its installation in their lab.

For you if:

You don’t want to be in the lab doing research but you still enjoy the technical aspect of what you’ve learntYou don’t want to be in sales but would love interacting with customers.

Not for you if:

You are not very patient with people or don’t like the nitty gritty of the science behind technical products.

Service Engineering

As a similar option to technical support and applications, but a lot more hands-on, you’ve got service engineering careers.

What is it?

Installing, troubleshooting, fixing, and maintaining laboratory instruments.

Most scientific companies will hire people with an electromechanical background and service experience in this type of role. However, a few companies out there really value your technical knowledge and strong hands-on experience with a particular technique (e.g. mass spectrometry) and will train you for the service side of things. As I said, this is not the most common path to a career in service engineering, but I have recruited for this type of role before.

For you if:

You are after a more hands-on form of technical support. You enjoyed fiddling and troubleshooting instruments in the lab. You are a problem-solver.

Not for you if:

You are not very patient or don’t like taking instruments apart and getting your hands ‘dirty’.

Taking it from here

If you would like to chat about careers in science, or share your own experience, feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, but been there, done that…

Dr. Keren Abecassis MRSC is our Business Development Co-ordinator, and we thank her for kickstarting our Student Spot!

If you’re currently studying, researching, or practising chemistry and you wish to share your thoughts on the latest developments in the world of chemistry, get in touch.

If you want to write for us but are unsure of a topic, get in touch anyway and we can bounce some ideas around.