When you are thinking of a career change, it can be tempting to start with the experience you have had so far and look around for employers or roles that match or require this experience. This is a sensible start but could lead you to limit your options unnecessarily, with the result that you may not find the job that best fits your career motivations and that will give you satisfaction in the long term.

Know yourself: What do you offer and what do you actually want? What are your priorities and values? What would make you feel fulfilled in a future career? What are the things you most enjoy doing?

What do you value?

Try going back to first principles – instead of looking at what you do now and thinking what you should do next, start with what you want to be doing, by articulating and prioritising what you most value or what motivates you in your career. Then you can start to look at types of jobs and organisations that would fulfil those values or motivations.

Watch the PFDC Career Goals Video and complete the Career Review exercise to help you reflect on your career to date and consider how you’ve made decisions and what you value.

What’s your motivation?

After a significant investment of your time in a research career, it can be hard to make the decision to leave.

First things first: moving to a different career does not mean you have failed. It means that you have made a positive decision to take control of your career and have found a different way to use your skills and experience, where they can have a big impact on the world (possibly a bigger or further-reaching impact than staying in research).  

The most common reasons researchers state for making a career change are:

  • It's a better use of their skills
  • Wanting to move to a different organisation or employment sector
  • Salary
  • Wanting a new/different challenge
  • Change of circumstance e.g. location, caring responsibility, marriage
  • A personal dream or aspiration
  • It was never the plan to stay in research
  • Wanting a better work-life balance

Proactive versus reactive motivation for change 

Make your own list of reasons for a career change. 

How many are reactive? Reactive reasons are things that you want to move away from or avoid in your current research career: the things you don’t like (e.g. fixed-term contracts, uncertainty, lack of flexible working, lack of progression). 

How many are proactive? Proactive reasons are things that you want to have, that ‘pull’ you towards a new career; things that would tempt or excite you (e.g. clear career progression and feedback, flexible working, living in a specific location, having an impact on a particular industry or problem, making a difference to society or the environment). 

The more proactive reasons you have, the more motivated you will be to: 

  • make a positive choice;
  • overcome or dismiss the myths and barriers;
  • look for evidence or ways to counteract or remove the barriers; 
  • take positive steps and have an action plan to make a change. 

Read our document: What's important in your role

What do you like and dislike in your current role? Use this template to map out or to log what aspects of your role you like, don’t like and don’t mind. You can then use this information to help you consider what’s important to you in future roles.

Review your lists – can you turn the reactive reasons into proactive ones? If you want to get away from a negative aspect, what is the positive thing you actually want? For example, if you are unhappy that you get little recognition for your work, then what you want to have is a career or employer that has a transparent progression or promotion process, or has a rewards/awards programme for its staff. 

Misconceptions about leaving academia and myth-busting!

There are many varied reasons why postdocs might avoid making a career change. We have collated some of the common ones below and are providing advice to help you overcome these barriers.

FAQ's

I can’t be flexible about location or moving somewhere new

Don’t make too many assumptions – find out the facts.

If you can’t or don’t want to change location, this is fine. Limit your job search to an area that you’re willing to commute within.

But double-check the facts before you limit your search too much. Do companies allow home working or have offices you don’t know about?

I don’t have any ideas for what else I can do

This is completely normal when you have spent years focusing on one (your academic) career. 

Take some time to reflect on what you want out of your career; what do you enjoy doing, what aspects of your role don’t you like, what type of company or industry do you want to work in? Then put your research skills to work and start looking for jobs and companies which match up with your values and motivations.

Make use of your own network, speak with colleagues, friends and family – you never know ‘who knows who’. This is just one way to make connections and find out about different opportunities. 

I don’t have the time to spend on researching careers

It’s important to manage your time effectively and make time for you and your career. No one else can do this task but you. Schedule in an hour or two a week for job searching or updating your CV. Set yourself goals and then plan in the deadlines that you need to meet if there are roles you want to apply for.

See it as a ‘little and often’ job: 20 minutes at lunchtime a few times a week will go a long way. 

Don’t get job search fatigue by searching every second of the day; this can lead to you being frustrated and feeling overwhelmed.

I have already invested a lot of time in specialising, it would feel like a waste to leave now. Or I am too specialist now to make a transition.

Yes, you are an expert in your field. But this doesn’t have to define who you are and what you do. Your research has equipped you with a very desirable and transferable set of skills that you have developed along the way. These are skills that can have a huge impact in other contexts.   

You need to recognise and be able to articulate how your specialised skills can be applied in alternative situations. 

Consider how your unique set of skills, experiences and behaviours are valuable to employers. 

I wouldn’t have a good salary if I started somewhere new and I don’t want to have to re-train or re-qualify

Don’t make too many assumptions – find out the facts.

Do your research. Find what the typical salary is by using websites like Glassdoor. Be prepared to negotiate a salary. You may be able to negotiate a higher salary if you have a PhD and relevant (or equivalent) experience, and many employers will see that your skills and experience are equivalent to other qualifications, so retraining may not be necessary. 

It will be important to be able to articulate how your skill set enables you to excel at the role.

My peers or PI will think I’m a failure for leaving or I don’t want to have to confront my supervisor or PI about leaving

Firstly, you are not a failure for leaving. It is not successful to stay in a job that is not suitable or that is making you unhappy – some may consider that as the failure! 

It’s important you make a decision that is constructive, and a positive move forward based on:  

  • a reasoned exploration of your options;
  • a good understanding of what you want;
  • weighing up all the options that are right for you and your life.

Don’t allow the opinions of others to dictate the decisions you make. This is where reflecting on what you want and value on your job role and life will help you make effective decisions.

Your PI may be very supportive and helpful with guidance and advice about how to move into a new role away from the academic career path. They may be knowledgeable about or have connections in the industry, which could be helpful for your move into a new sector. Your PI may not be happy about losing a valued member of staff, but in the long term, they would rather have someone who wants to be there and invest their time and enthusiasm in the role. Either way, it can be helpful if you can explain the reasons for your decisions. Being able to articulate your decision can help them understand your move and be in a better place to support you. It is your PI’s job to manage a team and plan for potential staff turnover, so you will be replaceable (even if it is hard to accept this!).