A method for synthesizing catalyst beads of bulk transmission metal carbides, nitrides and phosphides is provided. The method includes providing an aqueous suspension of transition metal oxide particles in a gel forming base, dropping the suspension into an aqueous solution to form a gel bead matrix, heating the bead to remove the binder, and carburizing, nitriding or phosphiding the bead to form a transition metal carbide, nitride, or phosphide catalyst bead. The method can be tuned for control of porosity, mechanical strength, and dopant content of the beads. The produced catalyst beads are catalytically active, mechanically robust, and suitable for packed-bed reactor applications. The produced catalyst beads are suitable for biomass conversion, petrochemistry, petroleum refining, electrocatalysis, and other applications.