10 tips for researchers contemplating careers outside academia: forming and realising your Alternative Plan A!

Re-posted from Oxford University Careers Service Blog: http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk/10-tips-for-researchers-contemplating-careers-outside-academia/

Author: Network Co-Coordinator, Dr Eleanor David

1. Start early!
Doing your thesis or Postdoc alone won’t get you a job inside or outside of academia. Striking a balance between academic commitments and other activities can be a real challenge, especially if you are self-funded. Try and seek out experiences that can be pitched as relevant to a variety of audiences as you never know if/when you might want to consider a transition: teaching, public engagement and/or schools outreach, running events/conferences are good examples of activities that can be marketed to a variety of different employers. Remember to be reflective about each experience and identify skills and training gaps through a log. Look at Vitae’s resources or contact your Divisional or DTC Training Officer for templates that you can use.

2. Don’t be apologetic about your academic experience
‘I have limited administrative experience as I have been studying for ten years’ can be turned into ‘My experience as a researcher has given me invaluable skills in time and project management and the ability to balance a variety of competing demands.’ ‘I have yet to progress to a management role’ can easily morph into ‘The skills I have gained in teaching undergraduates are very similar to those required of a manager…’

3. Think beyond the academic/non-academic binary division
There are lots of academic-related positions that require an academic background or for which an academic background can be made relevant: museums work, knowledge exchange or technology transfer, press, admissions, alumni relations, consulting, charity work or government roles. There are many employers who are now actively looking for researchers and value the skills they bring to the workplace. It is also possible to balance a role in part-time teaching or research with something rather different.

4. Consider developing a ‘portfolio’ career (but be careful!)
Combining freelance and part-time roles can allow you to consider your options. However, as someone who had 5 different jobs at once following the D.Phil. (creating HMRC a tax coding and self-assessment nightmare!) remember that you are your only manager and the only one really in charge of your career and professional development. As you would in an academic environment, be selective about the positions you take on and try not to repeat experiences, unless they can bring you a new challenge or skill.

5. Have multiple versions of your CV
Take the same care when writing an application for a role outside pure academia as you would for any UK/non-UK academic audience. Some excellent D.Phil. and Postdoc candidates can be dismissed in the early stages of an application for entry-level jobs outside of pure academia without a thoughtfully edited CV that highlights for the employer how and why the research experience is relevant, not just your academic achievements.

For me, this was one of the most difficult parts of transitioning to a role outside of academia; it is painful when you have to delete many of those conference papers or articles you have worked so hard on. Instead of listing lofty journal titles that only mean something to those in your field of research, consider reordering your conference papers and publications by intended audience, or summarise by category, rather than including full titles and page numbers as you would in an academic CV.

6. Be flexible!
Career progressions are rarely linear; be prepared to go in to a role outside academia at potentially a more junior level than you expected, but if you can, do so in a department that might offer flexibility for developing skills. Starting as a librarian and admin assistant in a small and dynamic department at Oxford straight after my D.Phil. allowed me to help shape the role and take it outside of its original remit, giving me vital skills to make my next transition. A wise colleague at a training event during my first schools outreach job said: ‘As a D.Phil. graduate trying to make a transition, you might start lower than you want, but you will be surprised at how quickly you can climb, with the right attitude.’

7. Ask for feedback on interviews
In my experience, employers outside of academia are much more likely to give you clearer and more constructive feedback than your average rejection letter for a Junior Research Fellowship with over 500 candidates. If you are feeling brave, ask for a ‘To do list’ detailing how to be more competitive in a future application.

8. Find a mentor who is in a position you admire outside academia
Use Oxford’s alumni networks and Careers Service to gain contacts in a field in which you are interested and ask them for five things they could tell their younger selves.

9. Be creative in strategies to raise your profile inside and outside academia
Connect with others through Twitter or blogging (this may well also fulfil that ‘digital engagement’ criterion on your next application!). #altac and #ecrchat will field some interesting feeds for starters!

10. Be honest with yourself about what you enjoy doing
Only after well over 100 academic job applications and an encouraging welcome to the world of schools liaison did I realise that I loved working as part of a team, thrived on running events, and that teaching and the motivating of others, rather than pure research, were what I had most enjoyed about my D.Phil. experience. I had been socially conditioned to see options other than pure full-time academia as ‘failure’, but I remain hugely grateful to those colleagues in my early work in schools outreach for valuing me as a member of the team with a different set of skills and experience.

And finally….

Having a D.Phil. or postdoc is not, as it was once considered, merely an apprenticeship for an academic career. It absolutely can be for those who pursue this and for whom it is best suited. However, researchers are not trained for one finite career and, in a more challenging but flexible marketplace, it might just be time to consider other routes that are not a negation of all that you have achieved as a researcher (something the term ‘non-academic’ actually suggests!), but rather a genuine and (hopefully) fulfilling Alternative Plan A.


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