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Alternatives to an academic career

Alternatives to an academic career

Alternatives to an academic career

Some researchers relish working in an academic environment, but increasingly PGRs are exploring alternatives, either because they consider it wise to have a plan B or because they find the prospect of using their skills in a completely different organisation appealing.  Some students are still reluctant to express interest in a non-academic career as they feel it is expected of them to continue on this path. However, the employment landscape has changed and there a surprising number of good options for a satisfying career.

Your first thought might be to look for a research role outside academia that uses the full range of your skills. However an increasing number of employers would welcome more applications from doctoral graduates and some are actively targeting them. Here are some tips to help you decide on a future career and how to approach prospective employers:

Recognise your transferable skills. When you have developed your employability skills during an academic career it can feel that your expertise is highly specific and it can be daunting to translate them into a career in a different setting. A look at the Research Development Framework will quickly show you just how much you have to offer. Think about which skills you have developed in different situations as you will have acquired a good many others during work experience and your extracurricular activities.

Explore careers which utilise your most proficient skills and those you particularly enjoy using. There is lots of advice to help you decide on your career options on our website. You can use our Careers Resources Directory to look at different sectors and the job roles that exist within them. You can also use Prospects Planner to come up with some ideas according to your motivations. Look at the job profiles to see which ones suit your skills and values: you might also look at vacancy sources to find advertised roles where you have the necessary competencies. If you would like to discuss your options, our professional advisory staff are available to help you.

Describe your competencies in a way that is relevant to the job role. When you are applying for roles look through the requirements carefully and describe your competencies that will appeal to that potential employer, using relevant examples. Be careful not to undersell your skills and experience: when you are applying and interviewing for jobs the potential employer will get a much better sense of your capabilities if you can evidence how you would excel in the role. Being able to ‘translate’ what you see as academic skills relevant for other work and matching employer rhetoric was the topic of the EMPRESS research project and may help you get started.

Use your networks. Many jobs are not advertised but are secured through utilising networks to find prospective opportunities. For instance, if you have undertaken a placement you will have some useful contacts and many employers monitor the performance of their placement students with a view to offering them a role after they leave academia. Some organisations also collaborate with university departments on research projects. These employers that already have links with universities are more likely to understand the skills you have and may be willing to talk about their recruitment needs. Social media such as LinkedIn is also a useful way of expanding your networks and gaining an insight into an employment sector.

Identify organisations where your skillset will be particularly valuable.  If you want to use your specific expertise you can use your networks to identify organisations undertaking relevant work. Your depth of knowledge combined with your transferable skills could make you an ideal candidate. You can also use employer directories such as that on TARGETjobs and vacancy sources to find organisations that interest you. The best approach to search for an opportunity in this way is to make a speculative enquiry which shows you have researched the company thoroughly and demonstrates how you would add value. The Careers Centre organises presentations and fairs throughout the year which are excellent opportunities for you to meet and chat informally with a range of employers from all sectors. These are open to PhD students as much as undergraduates.

Find out more

University of Leeds Careers Centre: Gown to Town – Blog for postgraduate researchers looking at alternative careers to academia
Newcastle University: Moving Out of Academic Research - Career stories and advice from people who have chosen a career outside academia
Jobs.ac.uk: Using Research Skills Outside Academia - How to promote skills developed during your PhD to non-academic employers
Jobs on Toast - Blog for researchers wanting to work outside academia
TARGETjobs: Career planning - Advice to help you through the first stages in choosing your career.