Understanding the world outside academia
Often when discussing career moves with postdocs, we hear a lot of assumptions and myths about what employers think about researchers. We also hear a lot of concerns from the postdocs regarding their suitability for a role outside the academic career path.
Getting to grips with and understanding the world outside academia is extremely important. The following links and assumptions/myth busters are a good place to start.
- The Careers Group (University of London) has produced a detailed guide to Research Careers Outside Academia with information on various sectors, which includes links and vacancy sources.
- Prospects Job profiles offer a range of detailed information on hundreds of roles, including responsibilities, salary, qualifications, skills, work experience, career prospects, related jobs and courses.
- Glassdoor: a website where employers can leave ratings, salary details and comments about their employer.
- If looking for jobs outside the UK, there might be country-specific differences you should be aware of. Imperial’s Careers Service has information on working and job hunting abroad,
including a link to the GoinGlobal website, which has country-specific guides.
The positive and negative assumptions listed here have come from various sources. For more details on what employers think of researchers, see some of the reports below. These will help you understand non-academic employers.
Researchers are likely to have a high capacity to learn and progress quickly, with complex problem-solving skills
You will have had to learn new techniques, approaches and quickly adopt new ideas to react effectively to emerging findings in your data collections and experiments, and when responding to reviews and criticisms from colleagues and peers.
Researchers are likely to have future leadership potential
Leaders are people who have a clear and compelling vision for where they are going and setting goals to get there. They are able to influence, inspire and motivate others, take risks. As a researcher, you will have influenced and inspired others (e.g. in defending your ideas at conferences or in peer-reviewing, acquiring funding, inspiring others through teaching, supervision or outreach activities).
Researchers are likely to have highly developed project management skills
Any research project you have worked on or led lends itself to examples of project management experience. You could provide evidence of:
- Defining the scope by determining the research questions and reviewing the literature.
- Managing time and resources: you have a set amount of time to deliver a research project, including milestones and deadlines for reporting, submission etc. There will also be restricted access to resources such as budget, equipment, technical support etc.
- Risk management: by definition, in research, you are doing something that has not been done before; there is inherent risk in this. Explain what you have done to appraise the risks, minimise the chances of them happening or having contingencies in place to deal effectively with problems and failures.
- Monitoring and quality assurance in research takes place via supervision, project meetings, peer review, scrutiny at conferences and in funding applications.
Researchers are likely to have initiative, drive, motivation and ability to work autonomously
The research process is full of examples of finding new ways to solve problems, dealing with failures, competing for scarce resources, dealing with criticism and rejection, and managing work by yourself; all of these show your commitment, resilience and self-motivation.
As a researcher, you will have plenty of examples of innovation, problem-solving, creativity, new applications, tools and processes.
Researchers have subject-specific knowledge (deeper understanding) and technical competence
As a researcher, you will be an expert in your area and you will have used specialist skills and knowledge on a daily basis. Remember that as a doctoral graduate in the UK, you are in the most highly qualified 2% of the population.
Researchers may have limited team working or customer service skills
It is very difficult to be successful in research without being a team worker. Although you will have had to work independently, you will have examples of working in teams (e.g. with students and PIs, collaborations across institutions or with industry, fieldwork, sharing office space and labs, as well as any other examples you have from societies, sports or outreach / public engagement activities).
You may not see them as ‘customers’, but if you think of your research, knowledge and skills as your ‘product’, you have a lot of customers that you can talk about (e.g. funders, other researchers in your discipline, undergraduate students, industry, policymakers etc). You can find ways to articulate their ‘consumer demands’ or ‘buying habits’ and how you market yourself to them or satisfy their needs.
Researchers may have limited understanding of commercial awareness
Many non-academic employers say that they find researchers are lacking in commercial awareness. Developing your commercial awareness will not only enable you to better understand the context and suitability of potential employers, it will also help you to present yourself more effectively in your applications.
What is ‘commercial awareness’?
If you are ‘commercially aware’, you have an understanding of:
- An organisation’s goals and values (what are they trying to achieve and what do they stand for; what reputation do they want?)
- The different factors affecting their success (e.g. economic, political, social or environmental issues affecting the sector)
- The financial concepts and issues affecting the company or its success.
You may feel that you don’t have an understanding of this, but if you think about it, you do have a lot of commercial awareness. If you were asked about your commercial awareness of a university or research organisation, you would be able to answer questions on these topics. For example, you would understand the processes that help or hinder an organisation to be excellent at research. These might include income, expenditure, supply and demand (and retention) of talented staff, reputation, development of competitive ideas, politics and policy internally and externally.
If you think of a research organisation as a commercial venture, you can see that you do have this understanding - you just need to apply it to a different sector. The good news is that most of this information is freely available on company websites, financial statements, social media and through their employees.
Imperial’s Library Services provide a list of key online resources available to help you increase your commercial awareness about businesses, such as the EBSCOhost database, Marketline Advantage and The Economist.
Researchers may lack flexibility/adaptability
Flexibility and adaptability are key strengths of researchers, developed through trial and error in data collections or experiments that have failed or produced unexpected results. This is the nature of research and as a postdoc, you will have adapted constructively to unexpected situations.
If you have been involved in funding applications, it is likely that you have had to adapt your ideas to fit new themes or work with new collaborators, and to react constructively to criticisms and peer review.
Researchers who have spent a long time in academia will find it hard to make a transition to a new culture
...and may be 'stuck' in their higher education research ways with a lack of interpersonal skills
As a researcher, you may have worked in collaboration with other sectors (e.g. policymakers, industry, public sector), as well as researchers from other disciplines and countries. You may also have been involved in public engagement or outreach projects. These collaborators all come with different perspectives, working practices, languages and cultures.
Your ability to listen, understand, communicate and work effectively with these different groups (and achieve results) shows that you are adaptable and aware of different ways of working.
Useful reports for researchers to understand non-academic employers and what they are looking for:
- Employers’ Perceptions of Recruiting Research Staff and Students (EMPRESS)
- Employers’ views of researchers’ skills - A comprehensive review of the existing literature into employers’ views of the skills of early career researchers
- Recruiting researchers: a survey of employer practice
- Talent Fishing: what businesses want from Postgraduates, CIHE, 2010