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11 Most Coveted PhD Careers & Their Job Descriptions

PhD careers

Written by Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What is the difference between a Data Analyst and a Data Scientist?

Well, salary , for one. 

Data scientists get paid more. 

Transferable skills for another. 

Data Scientists have the ability to not only understand and communicate technical data, but business data as well. 

In fact, they can translate technical data into business data. This ability to translate, to “ speak nerd and normal person ” as I like to say, is the differentiator for most of the top industry PhD careers available right now. 

Finally, job candidates with Bachelor degrees and Master’s degrees only are often hired into Data Analyst roles, while Data Scientist roles are most often reserved for PhDs. 

Of course, there are key technical skills required for a Data Scientist position that are not required for Data Analyst positions too, but these skills can be learned on the job by PhDs and employers know this.

A lot of PhDs, unfortunately, will get hired as Data Analysts, or other lower level roles, because they don’t believe in their own value. Or, they don’t believe in the importance of transferable skills in addition to technical skills. 

If you have a PhD and you want a PhD-level role in industry, you must dedicate yourself to standing out from other job candidates by being the rare candidate who has both high-level technical skills and high-level transferable skills.

You must be able to communicate technical findings with non-technical team members, including executives, investors, and other key stakeholders. 

If you refuse to differentiate yourself in this way, you will never get into the following coveted PhD careers. 

Differentiate Yourself To Get Hired Into Top Cross-Departmental Roles

In industry, nearly all companies rely heavily on cross-departmental collaboration. This means that all top industry PhD careers, require you to work cross-departmentally. 

Cross-departmental collaboration allows companies to stay ahead in their market, produce topline products, services and treatments, take care of their team members, provide exceptional customer services; become more efficient, and build trust in the organization – all at once.

For this to be successful, PhD employees in top industry roles must excel in communication and teamwork. They must also understand all departments within a company, as well as all common departments within an industry.

PhD careers

A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute showed that employees who are more connected with one another are 20-25% more productive . The study found that this productivity has the potential for additional revenues amounting to $1.3 trillion per year.

“ McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) finds that twice as much potential value lies in using social tools to enhance communications, knowledge sharing, and collaboration within and across enterprises. MGI’s estimates suggest that by fully implementing social technologies, companies have an opportunity to raise the productivity of interaction workers—high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals—by 20 to 25 percent.”

If you want to get hired into a top industry role, you have to show the business acumen they are looking for to continue this open collaborative environment. 

In particular, you must be able to communicate with every type of employee in every department, whether that employee is technical or non-technical. This— above all else— is the key to rising above industry roles that any non-PhD can do and into top roles that PhDs can do best. 

Understanding The 11 Most Popular PhD Careers

1. patent analyst.

The Patent Analyst position is similar to a Patent Examiner position, but is more advanced as it requires more research, analysis, and innovation skills. 

PhDs are being hired into this role aggressively. Patent Analysts sit under the intellectual property umbrella and their job is to review potential patent applications. They work for companies that are developing products, often before a new product is created, to see if the company’s products or potential products can be patented. 

This requires a lot of investigative work, which is why the Patent Analyst role will leverage your skills as a PhD, no matter what your PhD background is. It is your research analysis skills, your understanding of innovation and the difference between mastering a field and pushing a field forward that will make you a successful Patent Analyst.

2. Medical or Scientific Writer

Workforce decentralization has made the world rely even more on content, which is why Technical Writers, Scientific Writers, Marketing Education Writers, writers and editors of all kinds are flourishing in the new economy. All of these writing and editing job titles sit under a job title that has become increasingly popular even outside of biotech and pharma companies – Medical Writer. 

Under the Medical Writing career umbrella, there are at least 20 to 30 different job titles. You can simplify this career path, despite all of these job titles, by thinking about all of the individual roles as sitting on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, you have highly technical writing, the kind of writing where a PhD writes down the label that would go on a Tylenol or Advil bottle. On the other end of the spectrum, you have writing that would appear on social media or on a blog at a hospitality company, retail company, or any company. 

Your PhD training is highly valuable in industry because you have been trained at the highest level on the ability to know whether or not information is real or fake. We are in an information war where the average person can no longer tell what is credible information and what information is completely false. 

As a Medical Writer you will effectively communicate high level information to different audiences and your PhD will help ensure these audiences trust you and the company you represent. 

3. Data Scientist

DJ Patil and Jeff Hammerbacher were the first two people to coin the term Data Scientist in 2008. Since then, this role has become one of the most coveted roles in industry by PhDs, and also one of the highest paid. 

At the highest level, there are two types of data scientist jobs. Those that require a lot of data modeling, machine learning, and strong knowledge of programming languages like R, Python, Java and more, and those that mainly require you to analyze large data sets and help develop algorithms (which you can do even if you don’t currently have experience coding). 

As mentioned at the start of this article; however, the biggest key to getting hired as a Data Scientist, that will separate you from lower paid Data Analyst positions, is the ability to translate your technical findings into actionable business results; to work cross-departmentally with key stakeholders who lack your technical training.  

Can you translate technical data into business data? Can you understand the algorithms in theory and be willing to teach yourself new programming languages or learn these languages on the job? Do you have a PhD? If so, you can get hired as a data scientist. 

4. Application Scientist

The number one non-bench role that PhDs are hired into today is the Application Scientist role. Or Application Engineer, or Application Specialist.

As we have been discussing over and over and over again, the most important skill you must have to get into an Application Scientist role is the ability to speak nerd and speak like a normal person. You have to be able to communicate complex technical concepts into simple, actionable results that will help a business grow. 

As an Application Scientist, you are a liaison between a company that produces, for example, a medical device, and a company that buys this medical device. You will spend a lot of time in the field at Research Institutes, Hospitals, or individual clinics and labs who are buying products from biotech companies. 

Not only do you help customers apply your company’s product to their work, you also help your company better understand the needs of the customer. These PhD careers require you to communicate these needs to the management teams, sales and marketing teams, executives, investors and other key stakeholders. You will be required to work cross-departmentally from R&D to marketing to customer service to ensure that your product continues to meet customer needs. You will be required to ensure your product continues to perform, and develop, properly.

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5. Product Manager

A Product Manager manages the entire lifecycle of a product developed by a company. They could also be managing an entire product portfolio. 

To put the role of a Product Manager into perspective, let us take the instance of laboratory antibodies for doing experiments. There might be a hundred antibodies in a portfolio, and a company could hire a Product Manager to manage the entire portfolio of antibodies. 

Or, a Product Manager could manage one feature of a software program. For example, at Google, there is a product manager for every feature of Gmail, for every feature of Google search, and so on. 

Product Managers work cross-departmentally with a company’s R&D department, marketing department, and many other departments to analyze market trends and to help keep the product positioned appropriately in the marketplace. 

6. User Experience Researcher (UX Researcher)

The next role is a User Experience Researcher or UX Researcher. This is very exciting PhD careers because PhDs have been identified by employers as the perfect candidates for this role and not just at biotech or pharma companies, but at companies as diverse as the Hilton Hotels, to Home Depot, McDonald’s, Bed Bath, and Beyond. That’s right – companies in the retail sector, hospitality sector, and even the restaurant or confectionary sectors (eg, Hershey’s) are hiring PhDs into UX Researcher roles.

UX Researchers are essentially Market Analysts. The key difference is that UX Researchers collect and analyze both quantitative and qualitative data to better understand the reasons and the rationale behind the user, rather than just consumer behavior. 

Since every company now has its own website and many have their own mobile applications, most of the quantitative data stream into a company’s “user data.” That being said, companies still rely heavily on focus groups and surveys to understand the customer’s story, customer lifestyle, and/or “customer journey.”

7. Project Manager

Project Managers differ from Product Managers. While Product Managers own a company’s product, or a portfolio of products, a Project Manager owns a project or portfolio of projects. It is important to understand that projects are different from operations. You may not understand the difference yet, but essentially, a project has a completion point whereas an operation continues. 

Project Managers implement company projects to a very structured methodology and a documentation process (eg. project charters, statements of work). They work cross-departmentally and will often tell executives at the company what to do and when to do it (the executives want them to do this so they stay organized).

As a whole, Project Managers will manage people and aspects across departments, making this role very cross-functional and collaboration-intensive.  You can be working with quality control, sales, marketing, purchasing, finance, operations, manufacturing, and external vendors all on one project. You will manage a project scope, budgets, timelines, produce status reports, and much more. 

8. Regulatory Affairs Specialist

The one thing that will always increase is the number of government regulations that companies have to follow. Sure, some regulations may be cut year over year, but there will always be a net increase. This is why the Regulatory Affairs Specialist role in industry is so popular with PhDs and employers alike. 

As a PhD, you must understand that your ability to read complex documents and translate them into actions that other people can follow is extremely valuable to employers. In industry companies, the regulatory affairs department maintains knowledge of all applicable laws and regulations. 

These Specialists will investigate laws, guidelines, and processes. They will also review data, update documents, check products, observe staff, and even write and record documents. They ensure that the company’s internal teams are functioning and will oversee the organization cross-departmentally to ensure that all relevant regulations are followed.  

Through a constant review process, Regulatory Affairs Specialists establish guidelines and standard operating procedures for specific tasks to make sure they are executed correctly and legally. They also ensure that all departments of a company comply with the set guidelines. 

9.  Medical Science Liaison

Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) work in the field and communicate directly with clinicians. The MSL is a very, very popular role for PhDs right now and more PhDs are getting  hired into MSL roles than ever before. 

So what does MSL do? They liaise. They communicate. They translate. In this case, they liaise between the healthcare officials, or clinicians, and their team members at the pharmaceutical company’s various departments. Specifically, MSLs cultivate new relationships with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) such as clinical researchers, clinicians practicing medicine, and other thought leaders. 

MSLs deliver information, from news about recent research developments, clinical trial activities, and therapeutic approaches. Due to increased regulations, sales professionals at pharmaceutical companies can only talk about “on label” topics with clinicians now. MSLs; however, can have “off label” conversations and discuss the science behind therapeutics with clinicians, which is why PhDs are in such high demand for this role.

These KOLs in turn share information, patient information and otherwise, with the MSLs who share it with the pharmaceutical company’s product teams and the marketing teams to improve their current therapeutic products and to help develop new treatments.

10. Clinical Research Associate

Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) participate in the design, administration, and monitoring of clinical trials. They visit clinical trial sites, and analyze and evaluate clinical data gathered at these sites during the research phases. 

The majority of CRA work for Contract Research Organizations (CROs) who themselves are responsible for helping pharmaceutical companies manage the compliance aspect of a clinical site. Knowledge of the FDA or other regulatory bodies is required for this role. You might also need to sit for different regulatory exams like  ACRP, COC, or RA. 

As CRAs are tasked with ensuring compliance, the role is similar to Regulatory Affairs Specialist roles. The one key difference is that these PhD careers are very specific to clinical research. As a CRA, you will ensure that clinical sites comply with the protocols and are going after the overall clinical objective. 

To get hired as a CRA, you must be open to gaining a strong understanding of clinical trials, data management and documentation. You will also be tasked with closely managing clinical trial sites and site projects related to these sites. 

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11. Research Scientist or Engineer

R&D Researcher, Research Scientist, Research Engineer, and R&D Analyst roles are still extremely popular PhD careers with the industry employers as well . In these PhD careers, you will work in every area of a technical discipline, whether in science, engineering. or other technical field. 

As a Research Scientist, you can work in fields as diverse as medical research, geoscience, immunology, meteorology, pharmacology and hundreds of other fields that are as diverse as the fields available to you in academia. However, the job titles in industry are very generic by comparison, often called simply Scientist roles, or Principal Scientist, Principal Engineer, or even just Researcher or Analyst.

As a Research Scientist, you will plan and conduct experiments, recording and analyzing data, carrying out field work, collecting samples, presenting results, writing research papers, reports, and review summaries. Importantly, and unlike in academia, Research Scientist roles in industry are very cross-departmental. You will deal with data produced in your lab, but also data flowing into your lab (or it’s cloud-based informatics system) from other internal departments and from external CROs. 

You will have advanced robotics systems and teams of technicians producing gobs and gobs of data, while automated systems do initial analysis and document these analyses for you. More than anything else, your job in this role will be to strategize and manage experiments, and draw actionable conclusions.

Additionally, and also unlike in academia, in industry PhD careers getting published is not your goal. Instead, you will work towards getting patents and developing products that are proprietary and can be protected.

Concluding remarks

As a PhD, you may covet the above high paying industry PhD careers but remember, employers are also coveting you for these roles. You are more valuable in industry than ever before. The problem, though, is that you are very likely invisible to employers. You can increase your visibility by better communicating your transferable skills. Specifically, your ability to translate technical information into business information and to work cross-departmentally within an organization.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists.  Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Hi, I'm Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I am CEO of Cheeky Scientist, the world's premier career training platform for PhDs. If you want free insights on resumes, LinkedIn, interviewing, careers and more, just enter your details below.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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American Academic Job Titles Explained

What's the difference between an assistant professor and an associate professor? What about an adjunct professor and a visiting assistant professor? Here's a breakdown of the most common academic job titles used in the USA and Canada.

PhD Student

A PhD is required to work as a professor or researcher in many fields in the US and Canada. Broady speaking, the path to a PhD consists of two to three years of coursework followed by qualification exams and then the writing and defending of a dissertation. Many North American PhD programs require that students to gain teaching experience as well, often as teaching assistants. PhD students do have to pay tuition at American and Canadian universities although many top programs include tuition waiver in their funding packages. PhDs can be funded by the university, external fellowships, personal loans, or a combination of the three. The amount of time it takes to earn a PhD depends on the field, but the average is six years. A Master’s degree is not always a necessary prerequisite for a PhD in North America. Many universities offer direct entry PhD programs which means that students are also awarded a Master’s degree after they have completed certain courses or exams.

Postdoctoral Researcher/Fellow/Scholar

After earning a PhD, the next step in the academic career path is often a postdoc. Postdocs used to just be part of the STEM career path, but these types of positions have started to become more common in the humanities as well. A postdoc is a continuation of a researcher’s training that allows them to further their professional development and start to transition from student to independent researcher. Postdocs also often take additional leadership or teaching responsibilities in their lab or department. These positions are usually two to three years and it is not unusual for a researcher to do more than one postdoc. In Canada postdocs must be within five years of earning their PhD, while there is no limit on how long you can be a postdoc in the United States.

Tenure Track

An academic on the “tenure track” is on the path to a permanent professor position at their university. They will be expected to go up for "review" five to seven years after they start their position at the university. The tenure committee will evaluates the quality of the candidate’s teaching, research, publication record, and service to the university. If the candidate is successful, they are awarded tenure which provides them lifetime employment at their university.

Assistant Professor

This is the entry-level tenure track position. The position comprises of teaching, research and service to the institution (such as being a member of various university committees) and different universities will emphasize different components more. Assistant professors typically teach anywhere from two to four courses per semester in addition to supervising graduate students. They are also expected to be active researchers and publish books, monographs, papers, and journal articles to meet their tenure requirements.

Associate Professor

An assistant professor who has been granted tenure is usually promoted to an associate professor, however, the rank doesn’t always mean the professor is tenured. An associate professor often has a national reputation as a scholar and is involved in service activities beyond their university.

This is the final destination of the tenure track. Five to seven years after receiving tenure, associate professors go through another review. If they are successful, they are promoted to full professor. Professors usually have a record of accomplishment that has established them as an international or national leader in their field.

Adjunct Professor

The number of adjunct professors has grown dramatically in the last 40 years. An adjunct professor is a part-time or non-permanent faculty member who is hired on a semester to semester basis to teach a particular course/courses. Adjuncts are often paid per course and as a result many adjuncts teach at multiple universities each semester.

An adjunct professor can also be someone whose primary appointment is in another department or at another university.

Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP)

This is a temporary appointment that can range from one semester to up to three years. These appointments are usually made to replace faculty on leave or to bring in someone who specializes in an area that the department currently lacks. VAPs often have a higher teaching load than tenured professors which can leave them with little time for their own research. These positions help entry-level academics gain more teaching experience and demonstrate their potential, but they are unlikely to turn into tenure track positions.


In Canada and the United States, a lecturer/instructor is a non-tenure-track teaching position. They often have a teach more courses than tenure-track faculty and have with no research obligations. Lecturer/Instructor positions are more common in the humanities and many teach foreign languages. While lecturers hold advanced degrees, they do not always have PhDs.

It is important to note that the title of lecturer means something very different in the UK. A UK lecturer is closer to a North American assistant professor in that the position has teaching, research and service requirements. You can read more about academic titles in the UK  here . 

Research Assistant

This is a staff position rather than a faculty position. In contrast to a lecturer, a research assistant is primarily focused on research and has little to no teaching responsibilities. These positions are usually funded by grants or fellowships rather than by the university. While they may hold advanced degrees, research assistants are not required to have PhDs.

Research Associate/Scientist/Fellow

A research associate is distinguished by the fact that, unlike a research assistant, they have a PhD and have completed a postdoc. This is a more senior position in the lab with a more significant leadership and grant-writing role. A research associate is primarily a research position, though it may have some teaching responsibilities.

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Job titles for researchers are determined by departmental employing authorities. Most researchers' job descriptions are generic and therefore have a degree of flexibility and adaptability incorporated into them.

A researcher should be given a summary project plan, provided by the principal investigator or supervisor. This plan should clarify what the researcher is expected to contribute to the research project. It is recognised that these expectations may change as the researcher settles into the role.

Research Assistant (grade 5)

For researchers who are educated to first degree level and who possess sufficient breadth or depth of knowledge in the discipline and of research methods and techniques to work within their own area. Role holders who gain their doctorate during the course of employment will normally be recommended for promotion to research associate, if this is appropriate for the duties and responsibilities of the post. Promotion is not automatic and depends upon the role holder fulfilling all the duties of the role of research associate.

Research Associate (grade 7)

For researchers with some research experience who have normally have been awarded a doctoral degree. Their research activity will provide substantial scope for academic judgment, originality, interpretation and presentation of results. Research Associates will often have supervisory responsibilities for more junior researchers and may well exercise full authority over many aspects of project work. For appointments at the level of research associate the Department may use the title of 'fellow' where this is a condition of the sponsor's award.

Senior Research Associate (grade 9)

For researchers with at least three years' experience as a postdoctoral Research Associate, or equivalent. Most Senior Research Associates will have full operational responsibility for a major project or research facility and some may hold research grants in their own right. They will have demonstrated a high level of competence and an independent standing as researchers. Appointment as a Senior Research Associate requires the approval of the relevant Faculty Board (or equivalent body). For appointments at the level of senior research associate the Department may use the title of 'fellow' where this is a condition of the sponsor's award.

Principal Research Associate (PRA) (grade 11)

This appointment is at a level equivalent to Reader. (A generic role profile for Readers is available on the Human Resources Division website.)

Researchers may be considered for promotion to or may be recruited to PRA under the University's procedures. The criteria and evaluative standards used for appointment at this level are those specified in the guidance on the senior academic promotions scheme and these appointments will be reported to the University's Human Resources Committee. Where a post arises out of a national scheme run by a major research sponsor, any title associated with that post may be used.

Director of Research (DoR) in (field of research) in the Faculty/Department, etc, of X. (grade 12)

This appointment is at a level equivalent to Professor. A generic role profile for Professors is available on the Human Resources website.

Researchers may be considered for promotion to or may be appointed on recruitment to DoR under the University's procedures. The criteria and evaluative standards used for appointment at this level are those specified in the guidance on the senior academic promotions scheme and these appointments will be reported to the University's Human Resources Committee. The Senior Academic Promotions Scheme is outlined on the Human Resources website.

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Ten Jobs Where You Can Use Your PhD

By Michelle Lanchart and Stacy Hartman

Earning a PhD provides you with more skills and career opportunities than you might think it does. Below are ten jobs where you can use your PhD—some in academic settings and some not. There are many other opportunities available to you; this list is just a place to start thinking about your career options.*

1. Staff culture writer, digital media company

Staff writers report on artistic and cultural events, providing analysis and context for a broad audience on a variety of topics. As a PhD, you already have the excellent writing and research skills the job requires, and your advanced training in the interpretation of literature, culture, and language enhances your ability to articulate the significance of cultural and artistic phenomena.

2. Dean of students, private high school

A dean of students leads curriculum design, develops academic and behavioral policies, and determines the best strategies to build students’ academic success. The research, leadership, and teaching experience you acquired while earning your PhD makes you a good candidate in this field.

3. Assistant professor, university or college department

An assistant professor teaches undergraduate (and, depending on the institution, graduate) courses, serves on committees that help determine academic and organizational policies for the department and institution, and conducts research, with an eye toward receiving tenure.

4. Research associate, variety of companies

As a research associate you would gather data to determine whether a product or service is desirable to consumers or companies. Your extensive experience conducting research and presenting it to a variety of audiences is a transferable skill that you bring to research associate positions.

5. Development writer, nonprofit or university

A development writer builds relationships with donors and increases public engagement through written and oral communication. Your ability to write about specialized research or technical activities for a general audience is useful for this position.

6. Assistant director, learning programs

Assistant directors have a variety of responsibilities, from providing instructional support to faculty members and graduate students to assessing and improving educational services. This can be an exciting opportunity to apply your teaching and leadership experience beyond the classroom.

7. Associate director, global programs

Associate directors work with faculty members to develop programs and curricula for students studying abroad. Your experiences teaching, developing educational programs, as well as studying, living, and researching abroad, are ideal for this position.

8. Program officer, think tank, foundation, or scholarly association

As a program officer you would take the lead in program development, which involves procuring grants and funding, managing projects, and overseeing budgets. These roles leverage your experience applying for funding and managing complex projects.

9. Copywriter, many companies and organizations

Copywriters produce and edit copy (i.e., writing) for marketing campaigns and then plan and implement those campaigns, which help companies promote products and services across a variety of media. Excellent research and writing skills and an ability to write for different audiences are essential for this job.

10. Curriculum designer, educational technology

Curriculum designers develop educational content and curricula to be delivered digitally to students or employees and often provide technical support to instructors or trainers. This is a great role for those who have developed skills in the digital humanities or in blended learning, and it also leverages your experiences in teaching and in curriculum development.

Your PhD gives you the skills to pursue a variety of career paths. To learn more about how to prepare for the job search and how to gain experience in the industries that interest you, visit the  Connected Academics Web site .

*Please note that the job ads are provided as examples and may no longer be accepting applications. A job ad’s inclusion in this list does not constitute an endorsement of the employer by the MLA.

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3 comments on “Ten Jobs Where You Can Use Your PhD”

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Steve Colburn says:

And don’t forget Government service at the Municipal, County, State, and Federal Level. I know Language and Literature academics who have pursued rewarding careers at all of these levels of Government service to the public, and have received good financial compensation, enjoyed reliable job security, defined-benefit pension programs, and the opportunity to pursue a challenging, rewarding job! Retired Training Manager and Senior Organizational Policy Analyst for Local County Government in Sunny South Florida! Life Member of the MLA, since Grad School in 1976.

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Peter Marbais says:

There are a number of language editing opportunities in addition to copy editing. I made the transition from teaching English literature and composition to editing documents for ESL writers aspiring to publish in English-language journals. My experience helping ESL students at the Kent State University writing center and in my composition courses paved the way to helping researchers from around the world. The work is highly rewarding, and there are a number of great resources available online for both contract editors (freelancers) and full-time editors. This link provides a good overview of several types of editing roles: .

Peter Marbais, PhD, ELS Quality Control Editor III American Journal Experts, a Research Square company

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David -Ross Gerling says:

I made the transition to a law firm in Spain whose clients are Brits and American ex-pats or just foreigners in trouble with the Spanish legal system. My work as ex-pat advocate is every bit as satisfying and infinitely more lucrative than teaching Spanish . David-Ross Gerling, PhD

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