Are you the kind of person who loves to travel and has never met a stranger; always willing to start up a conversation wherever and with whomever?  If so, then your personality might make you a good match for a job in sales. 

Although personality plays a lot in the success of a salesperson, the expertise gained by working in a specific area using specialized equipment throughout graduate school can make a PhD especially well suited to selling specialty items.  That being said, sales is definitely not a one-size-fits-all area of employment, as the responsibilities and interactions can vary wildly depending on the types of items that are being sold. 

You may be the bubbly type of person who likes meeting as many people as possible, making you better suited to volume sales of smaller items like chemical reagents, while someone who is more technically oriented would prefer fewer but higher priced transactions by selling items like confocal microscopes.  Either way, you should first determine what kind of salesperson you would rather be, because nobody wants to buy something from someone who is miserable and hates their job.

Entry Points

Many PhDs start their journey to sales by first taking a job as a field application scientist (more information about field application scientists can be found in the Pharma/Biotech section).  Working as a field application scientist can serve as a smooth transitional phase from researcher to salesperson as the job involves providing product support to customers instead of jumping right into the practice of selling items.  This means that you get a good dose of customer interaction without the pressure to close a deal.  

For those transitioning from a field application scientist position or making the plunge directly from graduate school, the initial decision will be what you would like to sell.  Typically, positions that involve selling smaller items like chemical reagents, smaller laboratory equipment, and pharmaceuticals are more forgiving of not having any previous sales experience.  Once you move up to the larger and more expensive items, the interactions with clients are fewer (fewer people are able to afford your million dollar equipment), so the companies will expect a more polished salesperson to take advantage of each customer interaction.  Therefore, if you plan to try for a position selling more expensive tools and equipment, emphasize your unique ability to sell the product (e.g. , if you wanted to sell confocal microscopes, it really helps if you used them often and they played an integral role in your dissertation research).

Who are the Employers?

Pharmaceutical/Biotechnology companies listed by state can be found here
Another very comprehensive list of manufacturers can be found here 
A database of laboratory equipment companies can be found here

Application Process

If you are aiming for a job in sales, you should have some comfort with networking and meeting new people so one of the first steps you should take is to try and set up an informational interview with someone currently in sales (preferably at a place you would like to work).  Not only will you gain further insights into the inner workings of a life in sales, but you may also be able to steer the conversation towards current opportunities that may be available.  If you make a good enough impression, your new contact may offer to take your resume directly to the hiring manager.

For any other opportunities to which you would like to apply, there is most likely a “Careers” section on the company website from which you can search the openings that are publicly listed.  Be warned, some online applications, especially in the area of sales, are very particular about the keywords that you use in the application and on your resume/cover letter.  Many companies also have a short “test” that you will have to take online as a part of your application in order to determine whether or not they feel a job in sales will be a good personality fit for you.  Most of these personality tests have repetitive questions reworded in different ways to determine whether you are answering honestly, so be wary if you plan on bending the truth to present yourself as what you believe to be the ideal candidate.

If the company that has caught your eye is smaller and perhaps doesn’t have a “Careers” section on their website, put those networking skills to work by sending emails to any appropriate contact listed (usually someone in human resources or operations) in order to express your interest.  If there aren’t any specific contacts listed, search for a “Contact Us” page that will at least let you send in an inquiry, and don’t be afraid to Google your way to an email address if the name of the person you want to contact is listed on the website (showing that you are resourceful and motivated is usually a good way to make a positive first impression). 

Career Progression

For those who are successful, there is usually the opportunity to move up into management positions.  Some may choose not to enter management positions since that means giving up lucrative commission bonuses, but the salary increase upon promotion is usually significant enough to convince most to move up when given the chance.  Management positions can come in the form of becoming a district manager, director, and eventually vice president of sales.  The common thread upon promotion is that travel requirements will be significantly reduced, but an initial relocation may be required depending on the needs of the organization. 

Work Hours

Since most of your work as a salesperson is out in the field covering  your territory, the hours can be variable depending on the size of your territory and how willing your customers are to meet with you.  If you are a medical device sales representative and need to meet with physicians, you may spend a significant amount of time in waiting rooms before you are able to meet with your customers, which will reduce your productivity, thereby increasing the amount of time you need to spend in the field.  Work days are flexible, but you can expect to put in some long hours if you want to be a top performer (more than 40 hours/week).  It is also important to remember that your work hours are limited by the work hours of your customers if they have a rigid schedule (i.e., if your customer works from 9am-6pm, you won’t have many opportunities to meet before 9am or after 6pm).  


In addition to salary and commission, you will likely receive either a company car or an allowance to spend on a car since travel is so integral to the job.  Specific salaries will depend on the types of items being sold, with a general trend of higher pay going to those who sell higher priced and more specialized items.  A reasonable salary expectation would be in the range of $60-90K, and bonuses in the form of commission will depend on performance, but can sometimes exceed 100% of base salary for top performers.

Exit Options

Experience in dealing directly with customers can be a very valuable commodity, making for opportunities across many different departments within most organizations.  Positions that are especially well suited for a smooth transition from sales include those within general management, operations, marketing, communications, and investor relations.