Research careers outside academia: what are your options? 

For many researchers who are reaching the end of their PhDs, a difficult decision may be looming: do you pursue a career in academia, or consider your options elsewhere?

There are more PhDs completed each year than there are tenured positions available within the academy, so it’s not a surprise that giving serious consideration to a career outside academia is a reality for many PhD students.

But it’s not just out of necessity that researchers are taking their careers in a different direction – it’s often a conscious choice to seek work in a new field. And there’s an appetite for information; many conference programmes now feature sessions discussing this exact topic.

The importance of career planning

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When you’re head down in your PhD research, thinking about the next steps in your career may feel like a distraction. But the sooner you start planning, the more confident you’ll be about your options when the time comes. 

“I feel that spending a bit more time thinking about yourself, and how you approach work, or what you want to get out of it, should be to the benefit of the whole organization,” says Kate Murray, careers consultant for research staff at King’s College London and a podcast interviewee

Your degree will have developed you into a subject matter expert, but it also helps you develop strong analytical, project management, and communication skills, among others. It’s essential to spend some time considering the skills you’ve developed, your strengths, interests, and what matters to you in a future career, before exploring the options open to you. 

“The conversation that I often have with people is trying to help them decide what change they want to see in the world,” continues Kate Murray. “Once you’ve got a sense of what that change is, and for whom you want to make a difference, or to whom you want to make a difference, then it makes the rest of the decision-making a little bit easier.” 

It will take a little longer than simply jumping onto recruitment sites to start the job hunt but becoming more self-aware will help you find a career that’s right for you. If you’re more aware of what motivates you at work and what you most value, you’re more likely to notice and seek out opportunities that are a better fit with your personality, preferences, and skills. 

A good first port of call is your university careers service. They’re likely to have advisors who can help you start to understand which careers could suit you best. They may also be able to offer you things like psychometric testing to help get to know your preferences and work ‘style’ better. 

Understanding your options

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While you don’t have to limit yourself to the subject of your PhD, it’s likely you chose to do a PhD because you have a passion for that topic. But a career in academia isn’t your only choice if you want to stay connected to your research subject. 

In fact, with a PhD you will have developed the skills to turn your hand to a whole range of different professions. It would be impossible to explore them all here, but below you’ll find some common routes taken by PhD students… 

Possible options for STEM graduates

  • Commercial research and development

  • Pharmaceuticals  

  • Biotechnology 

  • R&D in manufacturing companies  

  • Consultancy  

  • Government and public sector work  

  • Science communication and writing 

  • Knowledge transfer 

  • Science policy 

  • Entrepreneurship 

Possible options for social scientists and humanities researchers

  • Government and public sector work  

  • Consultancy 

  • Think tanks and social research 

  • NGOs, charities and campaign groups

  • Market research 

  • Journalism 

What can researchers offer to employers?

If you think you’ve found the career path for you, you might still be wondering whether you have the necessary skills to move from academia to professional life. 

“One of the main challenges I faced, was in terms of confidence,” says Emma Kennedy, now an education advisor in academic practice, at Queen Mary University of London. “Imposter syndrome is a really big thing for PhD students. And it’s not something you leave behind when you finish your PhD. Transitioning into a new role meant that I just felt all over again that feeling of ‘do I have enough experience to be able to do this?’ It was a big thing, realizing that I can actually be a professional.” 

In a report by UK Research and Innovation focusing on those working outside of higher education, the employers consulted said they valued doctoral graduates’ deep and specialist subject knowledge, particularly where there was a clear link between this and their business needs. The report also noted that good disciplinary knowledge can help graduates develop expertise in related areas more quickly.  

Employers across sectors went on to say they highly value PhD graduates’ excellent research and analytical skills, their ability for critical thinking, as well as their ability to bring fresh perspectives to the organization.  

Moving into a job outside academia may feel like you’re stepping outside your comfort zone. But you shouldn’t doubt the skills and abilities you have to offer.

“I’d encourage researchers to just be brave,” emphasizes Janet Metcalfe, Head of Vitae, an organization that supports the professional development of researchers. “They have so much experience and so much to offer to any employer.” 

The importance of transferable skills

When leaving academia, you’ll need to translate the skills you’ve developed so they make sense to employers. We’ve already touched on many of the skills that employers value in PhD graduates, things like… 

  • Communication skills 

  • Critical thinking 

  • Project management skills 

  • Problem solving 

  • The ability to work as part of a team 

The important thing is to understand how your PhD has helped you to develop these. For example: 

  • Your dissertation shows you’re capable of managing a large project, completing it in a timely way, and presenting and organizing large amounts of information.

  • Publishing and presenting your work show you can communicate information across a range of formats. 

  • You’ll be able to demonstrate teamwork through your work with other academics. 

Plus, problem solving and critical thinking are key aspects of any PhD research. 

“Many of the skills, particularly from PhD research, are just so transferrable,” agrees David Smith, a product analyst on the digital products team at Taylor & Francis. “The ability to look at things critically, to pull things apart, work out what’s not working, to analyze information, to absorb huge amounts of information, and then synthesize that into something smaller – these are all essential to a PhD. And extremely valuable in a business context, as well.”  

Where to next?

If you’ve found these tips helpful make sure you listen in full to the podcast episode. And for even more helpful tips, you can look at: 

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