Discover: careers beyond academia
Find out more about possibilities and options for careers in other sectors
For many early stage researchers there is a glorious career waiting for them outside of the academic world. Find out about where researchers are working, what competencies are valued and how they feel about their roles.
Although many doctoral graduates aspire for an academic career, the reality is that the majority - maybe around 80-90% - will have successful careers beyond academia. Researchers go on to work in many employment sectors, including running their own businesses. These pages will help you explore a range of sectors and roles that might be of interest to you,
Researchers working in careers beyond academia were recently surveyed . The breadth of sectors in which they were working is shown below:
Researchers were performing a range of roles. The most popular were:
- Researcher working inside an organisation
- Research or Grants Manager
- Function Manager - eg. Production Manager, HR Manager, Business Development Manager
- Research/ Science policy manager or developer
- Public Science Engagement
We also found significant numbers working in:
- Engineering professional
- Health professional
- Journalist or media professional
- Law professional
- Public science engagement
- Training and Development
- And many others
Most researchers embarking on an academic career intend to stay in academia. In the survey 78% of current researchers surveyed wanted a career in the long term and yet we know that opportunities to advance academic careers are limited and vary depending on sector and country. We also found that:
- 57% would consider working outside academia –of these:
- 84% are very satisfied with their new career. This is a higher satisfaction rate than reported by those in academia.
- Only 6% would return to academia if given the opportunity
- 65% think it would be hard to get a non-research job in business
- Under 30% think businesses value what researchers offer working in non-research roles
Researchers often feel that the skills and competencies that they possess are not required or valued by employers. This is not true. Research shows that the skills that researchers feel that they possess are highly valued by employers.
Researchers were asked to rank their top ten skills, whilst employers were asked what the top ten skills they valued in employees were.
Researchers believe they are good at
Employers want employees with
1 Problem solving
1 Problem solving
2 Research skills
2 Technical/subject expertise
3 Research skills
4 Technical/subject expertise
5 Self organisation
6 Self organisation
8 Emotional intelligence
9 Project management
10 Project Management
10 Emotional Intelligence
This is really positive. The skills that researchers believe they have are largely what European employers need.
There are many positive reasons to look at careers outside of academia. Understanding the opportunities available to you and the value of your experience, skills and competencies means that you will be able to make future career choices that best suit you as you go through life.
Below are some of the main reasons researchers identified for transitioning from academia:
- I wanted to be employed on a longer term contract
- I was looking for variety of long term employment prospects
- I was looking for more job security
- I was looking for different professional challenges
- I wanted a better work-life balance
Some key advice
- Think of the possiblities other sector offer – There are a wide range of opportunities available to you which may well be a better fit to your skills. It is important to have knowledge of them.
- You will always be a researcher - many people working outside are still continuing with their research. The skills you developed as a researcher will be incredibly useful to you whatever your future role.
- You have to manage your own career – career management is an ongoing process which you need to drive. No one will be able to do it for you. As a researcher you have the competencies to fully investigate the options.
- Believe in your skills and competencies – you have a high level of competency in many areas. Make employers see how good you are.
Plan your career
When considering the next step in your career it is essential to take some time to reflect on your own motivations in order to understand what you want from a future job role. People that are happy and successful in what they do have usually found an occupation and place of work that they love and understanding what that looks like for you is important when considering making a career transition.
Take some time to reflect on some of the following:
- What are your capabilities and expertise?
- What goals do you have for your own future?
- What does worklife balance look like for you?
- What are your values and motivations?
- What do you not like to do?
This should be a really positive process which can be neglected particularly when people are busy. Make sure that you give yourself the time to do this properly.
Find out more about understanding yourself
Use the No LImits: exploring careers for researchers toolkit
More information on free career assessment tools can be found in this article.
At the beginning of the reflective process around your career and future options it is important to reflect on your own values. Values are the beliefs and ideas that are important to you and should guide your decision making. Knowing what is important to you will shape your future plan.
Here are a list of values that may be important to you in your career. A simple exercise is to try to decide what is most important to you from the list below:
- Working in a team
- Material benefit
- Risk taking
There are a number of other sites it is useful to explore when considering values:
The Balance - An interesting article on work values
In order to be able to move your career forward and be able to articulate your value to potential employers it is important you understand your own capabilities and expertise. This process can be difficult as it can often be hard to be honest about your strengths and begin the process of articulating them. Fortunately there are a number of tools available to help you do this:
Vitae Researcher Development Framework
The Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) has been created to articulate the knowledge, behaviours and attributes of successful researchers.
The Framework, accompanied by a suite of lenses are helpful tools to start identifying the knowledge, behaviour and attributes gained from a research project and other experience. If you are thinking of progressing your career outside of academia the employability lens provides a good starting point.
Carrying out a SWOT analysis to consider your career can be extremely useful. A SWOT analysis is a simple framework for analysis - SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, p. It can help you to think about your skills and areas for development and to organise key information into an overview on a single page.
Divide a blank page into four quarters. In each quarter, consider one of the following:
- your strengths
- your weaknesses, potential areas for personal development
- opportunities for career development in the external environment that you could take advantage of
- threats to your career development in the external environment
Find out more about these tools.
Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) is for you if you are doing a doctorate, are a member of research staff, pursuing an academic career or thinking about applying the skills developed during your PhD in another career.
It can be used to:
- Identify your strengths and gaps in development
- Prioritise development needs
- Monitor your progress
As you progress as a researcher it is important to chart your development.
It is important to take control of your own career development and an important part of doing this is to create an action plan for career development. This should help you to focus ideas and decide on the steps that you need to take in order to move forward. It should contain the following stages;
- Assessment – Review where you are now.
- Consider the options – Research as widely as possible
- Decide on your goals – Ensure they are smart and include short, medium and long term
- Develop a plan to implement them - What are your next steps and when wiill you achieve them by?
Get more advice on creating an action plan for career development
Read this article on making an effective career plan
It is essential to make a commitment to your own professional development and have a plan. This will make sure that the activities that you are engaged with and the work that you are doing will is the right thing and will help you achieve your future goals.
It can be hard to find the time for this but making a decision to commit to this give you control of your future career and help you to maximise your future choices and opportunities.
It can be really difficult to get good careers advice. Provision will differ depending on your institution and the national context and it may be tricky to get the right information for you but it will be available. Here are a few starting points:.
- Careers departments - Find out if your institution has a careers department, approach them for support and see what is available to you.
- Human Resources or Personnal - Does your institution have a HR department and what can they offer?
- EURAXESS national portal - See what is available on your EURAXESS national portal.
- Mentor - find a mentor Link to mentoring link
- Your networks - Think about who you know and whether they can help.
- Internet - Be prepared to search widely in the sectors that you are interested. There will be information out there.
If you are looking for advice and support consider finding a mentor. They can help you to understand yourself, what you want from your career and how to implement your future plans. They can also help to boost your confidence and help you get started if you feel like you are stuck or uncertain about your next steps.
If you think this might be helpful to you, there may be schemes to do this in your institution so finding out if this is possible may well be a useful starting point. If not consider if there is anyone that you could ask to be a mentor that you admire professionally. Remember they don’t have to be from your work place so think widely about who you know through your own networks that may be suitable for this role.
Benefits of Mentoring
- Gain practical advice, encouragement and support
- Learn from the experiences of others
- Increase your social and academic confidence
- Become more empowered to make decisions
- Develop your communication, study and personal skills
- Develop strategies for dealing with both personal and academic issues
- Identify goals and establish a sense of direction
Find out more about establishing a mentoring relationship,.
Placements in another sector can be extremely beneficial both in developing your skills and allowing you to sample a different role. Benefits include:
- A fresh perspective. Bridge the knowledge gap between university research and the needs of business, industry, government and the not-for-profit sector
- Self-awareness. Build awareness of your personal preferences, self-confidence and self-esteem through experiential learning
- Professional skills. Develop complementary professional experience, knowledge and skills in a client focused or other non-HE environment
- Commercial awareness. Experience how business priorities impact every aspect of an organisation and how the market affects business decisions
- Teamwork skills. Work in a multi-disciplinary/functional team
- Apply research skills. Learn to problem-solve within a commercially-driven timeframe
- Share your approach. Demonstrate the relevance of research to a wider audience
- Build a network. Develop new relationships to support your future career development
- Broaden your horizons. Develop your knowledge of available opportunities and options for future career directions.
Opportunities for placements differ depending on countries and sectors but if you think it would be worth pursuing you should encourage your institution to support you or establish their own scheme. Research-active institutions can work with commercially-driven, not-for-profit or public-funded organisations on one-off placements or to set up on-going schemes. This approach can bring research and innovation to organisations without current capacity and can enable universities to engage more deeply with non-HE employers. It offers valuable opportunities for individual researchers to develop their professional skills and to broaden their outlook and career options.
The art of networking may be defined as developing, maintaining and leading networks of individuals who can offer advice and provide access to opportunities.
When considering your next steps consider the networks you already have and how they can help you. Also think about the networks that you need to start to develop in order to find out more about opportunities or move towards your future goal, be it inside or outside of academia.
A few tips:
- Identify potential collaborators and contact them.
- Ensure you are attending the right events
- Join appropriate online networks
- Ensure your online profile is an accurate representation and opens up opportunities for you.
- Network effectively – plan who you want to talk to
- Ensure you are clear in your message and have your own elevator pitch about yourself, the work that you want to do and the skills that you bring.
Find out more on networking
Read a personal account of networking.
When thinking about future careers why not consider starting your own business. Think about your skills and expertise and whether you think that there might be an opportunity for you to start something of your own.
Research areas of interest and talk to others who have started their own business or who are self-employed about the opportunities available. Remember that in the initial stages this could be something you do as part of a career portfolio. It does not need to be everything that you do.
Vitae have a series of career stories for doctoral entrepreneurs that may provide an inspiring starting point.
Also have a look at the Enterprise lens on the Researcher Development Framework
which highlights skills that are relevant to entrepreneurs, this will help you investigate whether this is a good match for your skillset.
- Flexibility and freedom to plan your own schedule
- Control of what you choose to do
- A salary where you are rewarded for the success of the business you work in
- Competitive and difficult to start from nothing
- May be lonely
- May be a lot of administration at first
- No regular salary
Getting the job
When starting to apply for jobs it is essential that your CV showcases the skills that you have for the job you are applying for. A different CV needs to be developed for each role you are applying for, ensuring that you tell your career story and highlight your skills in a way that is relevant. This is particularly important if you are looking to change career or move outside of your sector.
An academic CV will tend to focus on success in the academic world for example funding awarded, researcher activities and publication. These may not be relevant for the role to which you are applying. Ensure that you change your CV to one that is chronological or competency based. Developing a competency based CV can also be a useful exercise when reflecting on the skills you have for the role required.
Much more information can be found on developing CVs here.
As you develop your CV ask for help and feedback from others. This could be your career service or a friend or colleague that you respect. They need to consider the role and whether your CV is appropriate for it. Taking the time to get this feedback and adjust your CV accordingly could save both time and disappointment.
If you are applying for an academic position you may well feel more comfortable with the structure, lots of information on academic interview can be found at https://www.vitae.ac.uk/researcher-careers/pursuing-an-academic-career/applying-for-academic-jobs/academic-job-interviews
Non academic Interviews
As with CV’s there is a distinct difference between academic and non-academic job interviews. If you are applying for a non-academic role it is worth considering that there will be a different focus for the interviews which less focus perhaps on the content of your academic research, publications etc and more focus on the skills and competencies that you can bring to their organisation.
A few things to consider:
Prepare – as with any interview allow yourself time to prepare properly. Find out about the organisation that you are applying for, the sector you may be working in, other organisations in this field and everything else you can. Ensure that you understand the role properly, it may be that you are able to ask questions before the interview.
Get the basics right – This should be the easy stuff but ensure that you know where you are going, what you are wearing and how you are going to be there on time. Getting any of these elements wrong will lead to additional stress.
Why you? – The key things to think about and put across during the interview are:
- Why you want this role
- Why you would be good at it
- Your own strengths and achievements
Practice using the STAR technique to put this across
Ask good questions – Think in advance of good questions to ask the interviewer about the role.
You can find out much more about preparing for interviews here.
We know that researchers possess the skills that employers value but it is important to be able to demonstrate this strongly. You must be able to explain clearly to someone who is not an expert in your particular field and who may have limited knowledge of your research area that you have the competencies that they value and provide strong examples of when you have used them.
Firstly make a list of the competencies you need to demonstrate. Look at the competencies valued by employers and also the list of competencies for specific jobs. Make a list of the competencies that you need to be able to demonstrate and start to compile evidence and examples for each of them.
Consider using the STAR technique to do this. It will help you check your articulation is clear, strong and relevant
STAR – Situation, Task, Action, Result
For each competency you want to demonstrate, consider an example which does this in order to be best prepared for an interview situation. Ensure you have thought of the following points:
Situation – This is to set the scene and give context and background to your evidence
Task – This is to explain your role specific role in the example. Ensure that this is about you not the team as a whole.
Action – This is the most important part where you highlight what you actually did. This is your chance to show what you can do so ensure your example does this.
Result – This is where you show what the result was (ideally a positive one) and the impact that you made.
You may want to practice your examples with friends or colleagues.
The most important thing is to feel confident that you can show your competencies clearly to employers in order to prove your worth to them.
The hard work has paid off and you have received a job offer so what next?
Outside of academia there is much more of cultural acceptance of negotiation than inside academia and you may still have other offers pending. If you have been offered the job verbally you should always wait for a written offer in order to ensure clarity of the details. If you are waiting for other offers it is okay to take some time to consider, just ensure that the prospective employer is kept informed.
The job offer should contain clear information on:
- Job title
- Salary and benefits
- Hours of work
- Holiday and sick pay
- Notice period
If there are any aspects that you are not happy with, now is the time to discuss them. It may be that you they are flexible and there is room for negotiation. Before you start negotiation check whether this is a reasonable thing to do eg. Is the salary market value?
Read more here about negotiating your salary
Career stories of researchers working beyond academia.
Read or watch inspiring career stories from researchers who are now working in other sectors. The stories concentrate on how they made their transition and the advice that they would give to others in a similar position.
Emma, Alisdair, Marco, Margaux and Rocio are all researchers now working beyond academia.
They kindly shared with us their experience and advice or researchers considering working in other sectors.
Below you'll find more detailed text career stories again from researchers now working beyond academia.
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Former PhD researcher in Environmental Law at Newcastle University, UK
Academic research experience
My interest in a career in academia took hold when I was a master’s student in my native country of Armenia. I planned my research project four years in advance of starting my PhD in England.
A decade after my first degree I decided to develop myself personally and professionally and enrolled for an MA degree in Law at the American University of Armenia. While I was preparing the research-based thesis as part of this, I was employed as a Senior Project Coordinator at the Armenian State Agrarian University on a project (initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture) for developing and improving higher education in Armenia. My duties included research and analysis of existing teaching and learning programs. I found this research very interesting and engaging. As a result I planned a PhD research project with the aim of getting the degree and becoming an educational developer in higher education.
My research area was Environmental Law – specifically, comparative research into environmental impact assessment law in different jurisdictions. My main achievements were conducting academic doctrinal mixed-method research including field trips and the award of the PhD degree.
I was very keen to continue my academic research and was planning to apply to the UK’s Doctorate Extension Scheme so as to develop my career within academia there. I had recognised that there were gaps in my academic CV that would need filling in order for my academic career to progress. However, family issues deflected me from this path: I had to return to Armenia where the subject of Environmental Law is very underdeveloped, with no teaching or research programs at university level.
Transition from academic research
With no academic employment options in Armenia I tried to search for a job outside academia. The best possible option for me was a consultancy role that would provide opportunities to research and develop reports in similar ways to my PhD research.
I was unhappy that my PhD in the UK had not prepared me better for further academic opportunities. I had very little experience of teaching during my PhD studies and publishing an article was never encouraged by my School or supervisor. As a student from a developing country I knew little about different doctoral systems and thought my experience was the norm.
My concerns and fears developed closer to my PhD graduation as I realised that my academic CV was incomplete without teaching hours and publications. Moving from the academic sector was a short-term objective: my ultimate goal remains an academic career.
My recent transition has to be seen in the context of my overall career, which started outside academia. Coming from a post-soviet transitional country, my career has changed a lot. My first (Diploma) degree as an International Relations Specialist gave me the opportunity to work with different international organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Belgium and Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling as well as an Armenian NGO that supports refugees and insecure families. These experiences, in addition to my skills as an academic researcher, gave my job applications the necessary strengths to secure my current roles.
I now hold two contrasting positions. One is a part-time consultancy role based on my PhD research and thus on my professional development as an environmental lawyer. The other is a job at a humanitarian organization that is completely unrelated to my studies. This job demands a change in my professional background and I try to develop my skills based on the requirements. I love learning continuously and here is an opportunity to get to know another field as a result of a change of employment.
My consultancy position is Environmental and Social Safeguard Expert at Internationale Projekt Consult GmbH, a German company with an office in Armenia. I am researching and consulting on Armenian laws and regulations in the environmental decision-making process. I also assist in working with female entrepreneurs in the regions and train bank officers in environmental compliance and social safeguard measures. This non-academic research-based consultancy position is a part-time job. My full time job is at the Armenian Red Cross Society. The position is Head of Tracing Department. We are tracing missing people due to migration and WWII.
Competencies old and new
I am actually using my research skills in both positions. Some of the most important competencies in my roles are networking, analytical skills and reporting.
I have developed new skills in humanitarian law and humanitarian aid. These have enabled me to contribute expertise to the Restoring Family Links Project within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement worldwide. I am using my skills and knowledge in IELTS and tutoring as well as my presentation skills for organising and conducting workshops and seminars sometimes.
Reflections on my career path
If I were applying now for a PhD I would go for one not in the UK but in a country where a PhD is a paid job. In addition, I would find a PhD research opportunity with a mandatory teaching role and a multidisciplinary research approach so as to work with different specialists rather than only one supervisor. I also wish I had published work in the process of my research.
I’d like to see countries that provide PhD opportunities to international researchers more sensitive to the dangers of wasted resources: newly acquired innovative ideas might not work back in the home country. I believe that every PhD student’s path and further career development should be considered, otherwise international researchers may suffer more than their counterparts.
Currently I am in a process of looking for postdoc opportunities that will give me teaching and publishing experience and enable me to pursue my dream of entering into academia.
If you are set on an academic career I suggest you look for a PhD with the prospect of a ‘full package’ of research, teaching and publishing. Otherwise, the efforts are lost.
Former researcher in neuroscience at Friedrich-Miescher-Institute for Biomedical Research (Basel, Switzerland), Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital Cologne (Köln, Deutschland) and Institute for Neuroscience and Medicine, Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich, Germany)
Academic research experience
After having obtained a Bachelor in Computational Linguistics and Cognitive Science and a Master’s degree in Neural and Behavioural Sciences I moved to the Friedrich-Miescher-Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) in Switzerland. At the FMI I worked for two years on the neural mechanisms underlying emotional memory formation using genetic, molecular and electrophysiological methods in mice.
Having discovered that I was more interested in psychological processes in humans I moved to the Neuroimaging Lab of the Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital Cologne where I studied the brain mechanisms underlying human social interaction in healthy adults as well as in autistic and schizophrenic persons. I received my PhD with the highest possible grade in May 2013 and finished several projects during a brief postdoc phase until October 2013.
Thinking back, I was quite successful during my time as a researcher. I published 10 peer-reviewed papers in decent peer-reviewed journals – some of my work even featured in public newspapers and broadcasts. Together with a couple of colleagues, I edited a special issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience, which is one of the most successful special issues of this journal to date. I presented my work at conferences all around the world and hosted scientific workshops myself. I was also invited to give talks to scientists and lay people. In addition, I taught neuroscience and methods classes to undergraduate and graduate students in Medicine, Psychology and Neuroscience and wrote a chapter for a textbook on neuroscience methods.
At the time I finished my PhD I was 33 years old and had lived in ten cities in three countries to study, to do internships or to work as a researcher. I was married and we were expecting our first child. To pursue a scientific career at that point would have meant to move again and, in order to increase the likelihood of getting a permanent position at a German university, to go abroad for at least two to five years. My wife told me that she would come with me if it were what I really wanted. It was a more than generous offer considering the fact that she would not have been able to work abroad as a psychotherapist licensed in Germany. Actually, my wife’s offer made the decision easier for me: I simply could not – and did not want to – accept it: me working long hours to advance my career and my wife being alone with the baby in a foreign country, not being able to work in the job she had spent almost ten years training for. Moreover, at that point, I was longing for stability and I was suddenly more than ready to leave behind all the anxiety and depression that often comes with being a young researcher on a temporary position. In addition, I figured out that there MUST be other interesting jobs out there.
Transition from academic research
I started reading hundreds, maybe even thousands, of job ads using every career portal and search engine available, just to get an idea what kinds of jobs exist in the “real world”. As a scientist, especially if you do basic rather than applied research, you simply have no idea what is out there.
After some tedious research on job opportunities, I decided to apply along two different strands: I submitted applications for management, consulting and PR jobs in the pharmaceutical industry as well as applications for positions in research management in the public sector. Before those applications, I worked on my CV for many weeks to turn it from a CV scientists would understand to a CV which would also work outside of academia. I even paid professional CV experts for a check-up and discussed it with a couple of friends from different industries, some of them with a background in HR. To invest so much time and money in my CV and in my cover letters was probably the most important and helpful thing to do. It’s not so much about the design and the exact type of information you put in, but rather about thinking about how what you learned as a researcher transfers into universally applicable skills and what people outside academia might want, think or expect from you as an applicant.
For me, this effort paid off: I got invitations to some job interviews in both strands immediately. One of the interviews was for the position as Executive Assistant to a member of the Board of Directors of the Forschungszentrum Jülich – one of Europe’s largest research institutions with almost 6000 employees. The interview – including an assessment centre – went very well, the atmosphere was friendly and the job seemed very interesting: I would be responsible for information, communication and action management of the Director and in this position be at the interface between management, administration, science, politics and industry.
When I got the offer, I immediately accepted, although it was a temporary position of 2 + 1 years. I had the impression that I would acquire a lot of knowledge about management and the interplay between public institutions and politics and that this would help me to find an interesting position after two to three years. Indeed, the learning curve was unbelievably steep – in addition I suddenly had to wear a suit and a tie while as a scientist I went to the lab with piercings, metal shirts and worn-out sneakers.
Next career move
After my job as executive assistant, I wanted to gain a leadership position. This was not as easy as I had thought. As an executive assistant you work very closely together with the top management and you become an absolute generalist rather than an expert in anything – quite contrary to what you do as a scientist. In the application process, I felt people did not really know what I was able to do or whether I was able to accomplish specific demands of jobs I applied for. I had to write more applications and do many more interviews than after my PhD. It definitely helped to be persistent and to be self-critical and refine your applications and work on improving your performance.
Current job – and how it compares
Since April 2016 I’ve headed the Strategy Department of the University of Cologne, one of Germany’s largest universities, with more than 50 000 students. My team is part of the central administration and consists of six people. Together we coordinate the mid- and long-term strategic processes of the whole University. This includes writing the strategic plan, coordinating the target agreements between the rectorate and the faculties and planning the capacities – that is, determining how many students can enrol in the University in a given term. Moreover, we analyse important topics and trends in politics, science, technology and society and provide counselling to the rectorate concerning strategic developments.
I spend a considerable amount of my work time analysing reports and data and writing concept and strategy documents – this part of my work actually does not differ so much from my previous work as a researcher. I also spend a lot of time on team meetings and other leadership issues – such as discussing the different projects with the team members responsible, sorting out problems between team members and helping them in advancing their own careers. Apart from that, I meet many different people – students, scientists and administrative staff alike – as I am involved in multiple projects concerning the University as a whole. One major difference to my previous jobs is that I have fixed weekly working-hours, which makes it a lot easier to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
My experience as a researcher in no way prepared me actively or consciously for a life outside of research. However, over time – with each new challenge in my new job – I realised that there are many aspects of my experience as a researcher, which help me in mastering these challenges. These comprise taking a holistic approach, addressing problems from different angles, changing perspectives, being open to (constructive) criticism, having high standards with respect to your own work and many other factors often discounted as “soft” skills. My intrinsic motivation, generic interest in things and generally high curiosity also helped me in doing my job well.
There were two main things I had to learn outside of academic research: 1) Forget about perfectionism and scientific scrutiny and rather gain some good heuristic skills. There simply is not enough time to work like a scientist when you are not doing science. 2) Adjust to a plethora of motivations driving the people you meet in your work life outside of research. Act and communicate wisely, put yourself in the shoes of others and do not expect intrinsic motivation.
Reflections on my career path
I enjoyed my time in research while it lasted and I am thankful for all the great, motivated people I met all over the world. If given the chance, I would not do anything differently. I am even thankful for the self-centred, over-ambitious and narcissistic characters (yes, they also exist in the world of science!) I have met, as my negative experiences shape my interaction with my team in a positive way.
At present, I do not have any specific career plans. I love my current job and there is still a lot to do over the next couple of years. Strategic projects at big universities take their time and it would be very nice to see how some things we are currently working on will develop over time. The main challenges will very likely be 1) not to lose my enthusiasm in the daily routines and 2) to strive for the next career level, although I am enjoying my life as it is now.
Take your time and think about what you like and want to do on a daily basis. For example, if your job in research consists of giving presentations, writing papers and analysing data, do not become a data analyst if that’s the part you like least about your scientific work. Prepare yourself thoroughly for the application process and do not give up if you have to send 50 applications or more (that’s a very realistic number!).
Former researcher in education at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, UK and in media psychology at University of Kiel, Germany
Academic research experience
I was a Research Associate at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education from 2008 to 2012, working on a large project called epiSTEMe, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. The project developed interventions for teachers to improve critical thinking in maths and science learning in secondary (high school) students. I worked in a team of six and developed teaching materials and designed and trialled research instruments.
It was an unusual postdoc perhaps for someone who had done their doctorate in media psychology. At the time I applied for it my husband and I were experiencing the ‘dual career’ issue faced by many couples who are both pursuing academic goals. Due to my husband’s new position we’d moved to an area just north of London, so I was looking around for academic posts within commuting distance. I saw the postdoc advertised on jobs.ac.uk and it looked interesting. I felt I might get an interview as I’d had some experience of working in this field when I was a student, having been employed as a student researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Kiel, Germany. The Cambridge interview went very well – it was good fit on both sides. I had the research skills they wanted and my multicultural background was also helpful.
I’d been intent on an academic career when my postdoc started but lost my motivation part way through. First, I felt frustrated at a lack of clear guidance and information. Useful advice about routes into other careers was available (for example, at workshops run by the university careers service) but the key to unlock the secrets of academic careers remained elusive. Secondly, I realised that I lacked an absolute passion for my subject. Only this would justify the sacrifice of work-life balance that academic careers entail.
Nevertheless I enjoyed my postdoc in Cambridge and discovered important things about myself: I was more interested in research methods than research specialisms; I love learning new things; and I’d enjoy applying research methods to different social issues.
Towards the end of the postdoc I went on maternity leave. I chose not to return for the last few months but to take an extended break and move with our first child to Greece where my husband started his postdoc. After a short period in Greece we moved to Sweden (again with my husband’s career).
Transition from academic research
Once I decided to return to work after the maternity break, I looked at all kinds of jobs that would make use of my research skills (methods, analytical skills, and so on). Jobs both in universities and the government sector, but not necessarily in education – my skills were applicable across various fields. I was open-minded, but conscious that for many jobs I’d need to improve my knowledge of Swedish.
By chance, I heard from a friend of my brother-in-law who was working at a health economics consultancy (Quantify Research, Stockholm) that the company was looking for someone with a research background to join their team. I went for interview, was offered the job and became one of their data analysts. So my first permanent job was in a country that was new to me – I started with some trepidation!
On the day I signed my contract I was called for a job interview in a government agency, but I felt obliged to stick to my decision to move to the private sector and try something new and exciting. I worked in that company 2012–2016 (a time that included two further periods of maternity leave).
First job after academic research
I didn’t experience much of a culture shock moving to the private sector. It was a small business when I joined, consisting of a team of friendly young professionals who gave me a lot of support as I learned on the job. As a postdoc I’d met lots of different people, made many presentations and gained a lot of project experience, so it wasn’t difficult to adapt to working with disparate clients on a range of projects. I liked using my analytical skills and writing papers, and being appreciated for my project management (good structures, time management, and so on). Offering clients tailor-made solutions that were research-based, I could focus on applying the research skills I was good at: others provided the complicated economic modelling for which I was not trained.
All in all this was the perfect job to ease my way into Swedish culture. Although much of the report writing was in English (many international clients) I increased my language skills by talking Swedish with colleagues and working in some projects that were exclusively in Swedish.
Some aspects of the job took more getting used to. In contrast to academic research projects, time scales in consultancy projects can be quite short and require you to be focussed on the outcome and not ‘waste’ time by looking into things more deeply. It definitely challenged my previous way of working. Although I enjoyed my time at that company I struggled to build my ‘identity’ to become a full-blown consultant, so I felt this type of role was not a long-term career option. I wanted a move to contribute to something I believed in.
This time my job search didn’t include looking at opportunities in universities. I wasn’t in the running for permanent academic positions and I wasn’t interested in non-research roles such as university administration. My job search focused on two possible routes: continuing in the health sector – I looked at project manager jobs at the National Board of Health and Welfare – and going back to education by looking at opportunities at either the Swedish National Agency for Education or Sweden’s School Inspectorate. I got an interview at the latter for the job of ‘Investigator’, and was offered the job.
Current job and how it compares
Not long after I started my new job as an Investigator on a national quality review of sex education the project manager left and I was promoted to lead the project team. I’m responsible for designing the review: the project plan; assessment tools such as a school survey (questionnaires to 450 schools); training the inspection team; visits to a selection of schools; analysing survey data and interviews. The review asks a number of questions: What’s happening now? What’s good practice? How can schools improve practice and eliminate poor practice? At the end of the project we will report findings and recommendations to the Swedish ministry of education and research, which in turn may decide about national programs to increase the quality of sex education in Swedish schools.
Subject-wise, I’m back in the niche I want to be in. It’s fun to read all about school education again and to deal with research materials. I’m also learning a lot and developing a broader knowledge of education, for example understanding legal obligations and their implications.
The legal dimension is one aspect of my new work culture: learning what it means to work within a bureaucracy. Also new is the great range of colleagues – many with teaching backgrounds, from all subject areas, and others from different professions, all bringing a wealth of perspectives.
The most challenging part of my new role is adapting my style of working to the bureaucracy: becoming a state employee. An academic researcher works within different boundaries. Here I am working less independently, within policy constraints.
My inexperience in the role can also lead to difficulties knowing how to assess the demands or obstacles posed by other professionals and departments. What is the extent of my leverage? Whose views do I need to take account of? What can I decide on independently? I have a good line manager and more experienced colleagues who help as mentors for such issues.
One source of stress is thankfully absent. In academic research you have a nagging worry – will my research be published? Peer reviewers decide once your paper has been written whether it is worthy of publication. Working in this agency, I know that my reports will be published. The equivalent to the academic peer-review process happens to a large degree in-house before publication, as scrutiny is ongoing. This reduces anxiety because your career does not depend on the judgement of reviewers.
Competencies old and new
From my time in academic research I have brought many skills to my current role: analytical skills, working to deadlines, planning, executing a research project… Also relevant are the social skills developed from a long period working in multicultural environments and in different countries.
As for new skills, my accountability as a representative of the State requires new communication skills. In Sweden, open government means that the public can phone us at any time. I have to be available, transparent and knowledgeable in my responses. This is daunting at first – especially with the barrier of not being a native Swedish speaker. I’m pleased to have had media training in my new role, especially as I was interviewed recently for the radio.
Reflections on my career path
Looking back, I was pretty naïve as a PhD student and postdoc. I was the first member of my family to go to university and I knew nothing about the ways of academia. My assumption was that an academic career could develop straightforwardly if you were talented and worked hard enough.
I found the lack of clear career paths confusing and unexpected – I just wanted someone to magically show me the way to an academic career!
Although I discovered that academic research was not my vocation, I don’t regret the years I spent in academic research. Perhaps that was needed to show me the merits and demerits of academic careers, to learn what I value in a career and the research skills I did want to use. Plus the skills I learned as a postdoc have enabled me to do better in my subsequent career than I would have done otherwise. International mobility has also been important for my professional development: from doing my PhD in one country, my postdoc in another, and working since in a third I’ve gained skills and perspectives that help me stand out in the job market and in my performance on the job.
Looking ahead, I want to develop more project and people management skills. From being virtually a ‘one-person show’, I’m now responsible for a project team of 10–12 people. I shall be taking a management course next year.
Inform yourself about your opportunities – talk to colleagues, careers services, friends who have made the move from academic research, meet people in other kinds of jobs.
Discover what is most important to you. Are you driven by wanting to be an expert in your field and prepared to dedicate your life to research and publishing in your field? Then stay in academia. If you prefer the methods of your project and learning new and different things, there are many opportunities in other sectors.
You may well underestimate your potential to overcome barriers. I thought the language barrier of not having native Swedish would be a huge obstacle. But I applied for jobs and was selected in preference to native speakers. Writing and working only in Swedish has been a major challenge, but I’m getting there! So, I’d always recommend challenging yourself and aiming that bit higher.
Former doctoral researcher in astrophysics and research engineer in high performance computing (France)
Academic research experience
I hold a PhD in astrophysics that I did at Pierre & Marie Curie University, Paris Observatory and École Normale Supérieure in Paris. I completed it in three years. My work was mostly numerical and theoretical, focusing on star formation processes. It explained how protostellar discs (that form around forming stars and from which planets later form) can form in the presence of a magnetic field. This was an important challenge since magnetic field is present across the galaxy and tends to suppress disc formation, whereas we observe discs around forming stars – meaning that we know they exist, but it is hard to understand how they form.
After my PhD, I joined a team in the astrophysics division of CEA (the French equivalent of the American National Laboratories), working on numerical tools used in astrophysics. I spent almost three years there. I focused more on the technical aspects: I was previously a user of numerical codes and I then participated in their development. Astrophysicists are among the biggest users of computational power, which offers a fantastic tool for experimentation – as the physical objects we study are far away, immensely huge and have lifespans orders of magnitude longer than human beings. The main challenge there was to adapt an existing code that was primarily used to study protoplanetary disc dynamics so it could run on 100.000+ CPU and on graphic cards (the ones we usually use for videogames are also good for scientific computing!). I did an important job of rewriting, redesigning and improving the code to reach this goal.
I really enjoyed my experiences in academia, but I decided to leave for several reasons.
First of all, as in many – if not all – countries, permanent positions in academia in France have become scarcer: only about one in five doctorate holders will get a permanent position. It means that the period between getting one’s PhD and securing a permanent position is getting longer, with lots of uncertainties. My wife also did a PhD in astrophysics; if we had opted for academic careers it would have been challenging from a personal perspective, something we did not want.
In addition, during the final year of my PhD, we created with fellow astrophysicists an association to try to have a better understanding of what we could do outside of academia after a PhD in astrophysics. This question is important since most in our field are working on very theoretical and non-applied subjects. We knew we could become teachers, or programmers, but that was it. We needed a better understanding of our future opportunities. I was very involved for the first three years of the association (being president during this period) and it helped me think differently about the opportunities open to PhDs, and in particular about the competencies we acquire during our research experience.
I also considered the challenges in the way we do academic research: as a never-ending process, with lots of uncertainties. Sometimes it seems hard to see the end of a project (even though with some perspective we can recognise the advances we actually make). I was curious to experience other ways of working, with perhaps more concrete results over a shorter time span.
Lastly, in common with many researchers, and in particular astrophysicists, I chose to do my PhD in this field because I am passionate about it. But that is not the only subject to interest me; I was curious to discover other fields, other opportunities, other challenges.
Transition from academic research
While I was working at CEA, I applied for different kind of positions, both in and outside of academia. I focused mostly on high performance computing positions, since these corresponded well to the technical competencies I’d developed and I knew I could highlight them easily. I was almost successful in my different attempts (meaning that I always had interviews and in most cases went quite far in the recruitment process) and it was actually a good training, to better understand what recruiters in different sectors were looking for, how I could present myself, my competencies and draw the interest of recruiters.
Thanks to the association we created during my PhD, we met an executive recruitment company specialising in doctorate holders. Recruitment was their main activity, but they were also conducting studies about the competencies of doctorate holders and what PhDs do after their PhD. When they created a new position in their research team, I decided to apply. It was far from the technical skills I was usually highlighting in my applications, but I had a strong interest in social sciences and in the career path of doctorate holders and I knew and respected their work, so the position was very attractive to me. Since I knew people working in the company, I used my network and contacted them directly; that is how I got an interview. Then, the challenge was to show that I could fit the position and find a way to highlight my competencies – in particular the non- or less-technical ones – that I could learn fast and adapt quickly and so on – to convince them I could meet their needs. The process is very interesting in itself, to consider not only the scientific skills we are used to valuing but also all the other ones that we develop that are actually necessary for conducting research, including soft skills. It is a little scary because it is a bit out of our comfort zone to do this, but it is also very motivating to “discover” all the things we actually know.
My main concerns were about the technical skills needed for the job: statistical analysis (of a kind I had not done before); using programming languages I did not know; and, in particular, tackling questions related to social studies. But as scientific researchers we are used to monitoring developments and digging around in the literature when we want to understand something new. That is a really powerful skill – in only a few weeks it helped me to be fully operational, to have an understanding of the subjects I was working on, and to start to master the tools I needed.
Current job – and how it compares
My current job consists of three main activities. First, I manage and conduct studies on doctorate holders to have a better understanding of their career paths and competencies. It is crucial for us, as a recruitment company, to better understand the population with which we are working. We work in collaboration with universities, research labs and associations. Second, I manage software development projects to support the career development of executives and research staff. Lastly, I give training to early stage researchers on project management, how to find a position after a PhD, or about the business sector.
It is a very rich environment as I work with people from academia, the French government, companies, and early stage researchers. I work on subjects that are really interesting to me, like gender equality in higher education and research, and on which I would have not been able to work in academia with a PhD in astrophysics. Most of our projects last about a year, which is also rewarding because we rapidly have results to highlight. A final source of job satisfaction: I was active in the doctoral ecosystem as a volunteer, in an association; now, it is my job.
There are also some frustrations, of course. Since we are a small enterprise, we have to be creative to fund our research projects. It is sometimes challenging to find the funds to be able to do our work and conduct projects we believe in.
Competencies old and new
I developed many skills during my research experiences in academia that are useful in my job now. To be able to do scientific monitoring is actually fundamental for entering a new subject, as is being able to learn quickly and adapt easily to a new environment. This is linked to the flexibility of mind we develop through research. The ability to problematise a question and to apply a scientific method to find answers to this question is also important. The research mindset is utterly powerful in itself. To work in academia is also to both work in a team and to be very independent – two competencies that are very useful: being able to collaborate but to be independent enough to do one’s job. Research also teaches tenacity: we don't give up so easily – and perhaps are a bit stubborn!
I had new technical competencies to acquire, but it was not too difficult thanks to these previous competencies. Discovering a brand new environment with a different way of working and thinking is also challenging, but we have this capacity to adapt.
Reflections on my career path
I wish I’d had more information about the opportunities outside of academia when I was doing my PhD; there were fewer training courses or workshops about it at the time, and it is hard to keep track of people leaving academia, which is necessary if we want to have a better grasp of these questions. That is one of the reasons that pushed us at the time to start an association.
I am not sure I would do things differently. First of all, I am quite happy with my career path and I don’t feel it has been impeded in any way. I was lucky enough to do research in a field I dreamt about as a kid, I worked on very interesting subjects and had the opportunity to meet great people, people from different cultures, to travel across the world... Research is a fantastic experience. I did not meet huge obstacles to transition from academia to the business sector, and I am not sure that specific training to “get me ready for the outside world” would have made such a big change to my career. The main points are to be able to have a view of opportunities and a good understanding of our competencies. I think I more or less succeeded in that, so I don't know what I could have done so differently. Another important thing for me is to enjoy what you do and to make the best out of it. Whatever we do, if we do it because we are well-motivated, it will be of value later one way or another. And the reverse: it seems to me that if you don't take any pleasure in your work, if you don't learn anything from your experience, that is when it starts to be hard to justify, to explain and therefore for recruiters to understand.
I’d advise you to think as much as possible about the competencies you’ve developed during your academic research experience, and not to be shy about them: research is a very competitive environment with brilliant, very skilled people, and we tend to underestimate our competencies.
I would also advise you to go talk to people outside of academia, to hear their stories and see how they made their transition; there is always something to learn, some tips and tricks to understand.
Be proud of your career path and research experience: research is great, researchers do amazing things. In your job applications, find a way to tell a good story about your career path that highlights the main competencies acquired and how they meet the job requirements. It is important to be able to show that you are the one the recruiter needs, and there is always a way to tell your story to convince them.
Former researcher in software process improvement at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Hungary (BME); Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands (TU/e)
Academic research experience
In 2006 I started my PhD at BME in the field of software process improvement, but eventually completed my doctorate at TU/e, graduating in 2013. In parallel with doing my PhD I was working at a small software quality consulting company in Budapest. This way I was continuously in contact with both academia and industry, which helped me a lot in defining and refining the direction of my research.
My main focus was on the simultaneous application of multiple software quality approaches, namely, how a company can use CMMI, SPICE, and ISO standards at the same time, employing agile methodologies. What will the processes look like when a range of software quality approaches are used?
I loved this period of my life: the main and final achievement was managing to write the book (my PhD dissertation) and defending it in Eindhoven. It was a huge achievement, since at the beginning even the language was a barrier: I was not good at English, and also, I was not really aware of what it takes to write a scientific paper. Fortunately, all three of my supervisors encouraged and helped me a lot, I will be always thankful to them. I will never forget my supervisors’ unexpected but true advice: write an article, then you will learn both writing in English and scientifically. With hard work and innumerable reviews from their side, it became true: finally, I was able to write scientific papers. Besides the book and the defense, it was also interesting to teach students at BME, especially to supervise them in developing their personal projects. At the beginning, handling sometimes nearly 50 students in a class was a bit intimidating and challenging, but as I started to perform the lectures I was surprised how smoothly they went. This challenge taught me that sometimes we can do even more (and very different things) than we first think: all we need is to ‘take the plunge’.
Transition from academic research
After my PhD defense, I had 20+ research ideas to continue with, and thus my primary and first aim was to become a recognized researcher, to boost my research experience and publish as many good quality papers as possible, possibly in a strong research environment.
On the teaching side, I loved working with students one-to-one on their personal projects and I still believe this kind of work is amazing and always energizes me. On the other hand, teaching predefined classes was always secondary to me.
Leaving academia was really painful – to such an extent that I had quite some nightmares for months. I was offered the chance to teach classes at TU/e. Although I had the deepest wish to continue in the strong and motivating atmosphere of Eindhoven, the option did not fully fit my primary aim, as it seemed that TU/e was looking mainly for a lecturer, with a small amount of dedicated time for research.
In addition, like most of us I also had some basic personal goals: marriage, having kids and a properly sized apartment for the family. Spending 6+ years on my PhD was extremely creative, peaceful and joyful, but financially was not fully fitting my personal goals.
At the same time as my PhD defense, I got a job offer from a multinational automotive company in Budapest to work as a software quality engineer for electric power-assisted steering systems of well recognized car brands. This option seemed extremely challenging and interesting to me and offered a good salary. I realized that choosing the quality engineer position would move me closer to my personal goals, so finally I decided to stay in Hungary and move from academia to industry, at least until I can reach my personal goals.
Finding a job in industry was not really hard because I was always working in academia and industry in parallel. As a software quality consultant, I never lost my connection with industry, and it was always motivating to perform my research as closely to industry as possible. I found the transitioning part relatively simple: if you update your LinkedIn profile to cover the advancements in your career and you are working in IT or the automotive industry, then you will have a good chance of being contacted by recruiters.
Current job – and how it compares
I am now a project manager and a product owner at navigation company NNG, which develops the widely used iGO navigation software. NNG, sometimes called the Hungarian Google, is really famous in Hungary – it’s a real success story of a small Hungarian startup which became a global player in the automotive navigation market in a very short period of time.
My duties as a project manager include managing the large scale Navigation Engine SDK software architectural change project, often with the contribution of 10–15 teams, affecting the daily work of hundreds of developers. As a product owner my duties include setting the roadmap, targets and goals for architectural changes of different products, which involves interacting with some 300 employees. I am also a member of the NNG Product Owner Community of Practice and the NNG Innovation Board.
I see the main differences between academia and industry as follows:
- More work, less free time, but better pay in industry
- You most probably won’t have your own office in industry
- If you are a manager in industry, you will have way more daily contact with others – meetings, escalations to manage, communication issues, situations to handle – than you can imagine in academia
- Situations, jobs, opportunities are continuously changing in industry: the quicker you adapt the better the outcome will be
- Your work and results are instantly validated and judged by others
- No time for sleepy academic days
- No time for research, but you will have the money to buy what you want
- Your colleagues most probably will not hold a PhD; they may not see the benefits of research
- Less travel to conferences, but more options for professional training and development
Competencies old and new
Having a systematic way of working is extremely good in any situation; I learnt this mainly during my time in academic research. Academia also taught me about ‘knowing the why’, digging deeper, taking into account multiple views, and making fact-based decisions.
New competencies I’ve learnt in industry include taking quick decisions, recognizing changes and adapting to them, managing people, strengthening communication, quick validation of (partial and end) results, agility, openness, and organizing skills.
Reflections on my career path
I might have done many things differently, but most importantly I would analyze extremely seriously all my career decisions and the possible next steps. I have reached the level I feel comfortable and happy about with a nice degree of independence. A possible next step could be to organize a setup where I can gain a bit more free time. I can also imagine a setup in which I would return to academia, mainly for research and coordinating student projects.
Don’t be afraid, tasting a totally different world can be joyful; step forward and you will have all the benefits industry can provide.