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.


Oxford University’s Sikh Society opens its doors

Guest Blogger: Network Member, Priya Atwal, DPhil student in History, Lady Margaret Hall

On 8th November this year, Oxford’s Sikh Society hosted its third annual Discovering Sikhism event at St Antony’s College. The programme was drawn up in the style of an academic conference: exploring the history of the Sikhs and the British Raj during the nineteenth and twentieth century, and featuring guest speakers presenting on their own research on topics related to the overall theme. However, the audience members showering questions on the speakers were very different to those usually attending your average conference. Instead of seasoned academics and keen research students, the room was filled with parents with their teenage children, young professionals recently graduated from university, local elderly residents from Oxford, and a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students from universities up and down the country. Perhaps unexpectedly, this combination sparked an incredibly lively, warm and insightful discussion!

I first set up the event series with a friend and fellow Oxford student, Dilraj Kalsi, back in July 2012. We felt that that the Sikh Society could become a great forum with which to start a more inclusive conversation with the wider public, about what can be learned from the intellectual debates of Sikh and Punjab Studies. Our hope was that we could thus promote a more nuanced understanding of Sikh history, religion and politics, but also go further and engage with wider, popular discussions that cut across lines of faith and reach outside of purely academic concerns. We really wanted young people of British Asian backgrounds to get involved too, as it has been our aim to encourage them to consider Oxford as a welcoming and captivating environment to study in, whether as undergraduate or graduate students.

With these ideas in mind, the new SikhSoc Open Day was brought to life. We decided to make it a free annual event held at Oxford and organized by students themselves. A friendly invitation has since then been permanently extended to academics, graduate students and independent researchers from all backgrounds to come and share their insights with us, in a style that should be accessible to non-specialist audiences. The organization of a typical open day programme is simple: it consists of three or four talks, where presenters speak for roughly 45 minutes each, followed by a 15-minute open Q&A period with the audience at the end of their individual session.

To attract potential guests, we have used a mixed bag of promotional techniques, ranging from distributing posters to schools and community centres, setting up a dedicated Facebook page, and using our existing SikhSoc Facebook and Twitter accounts more actively by adding new, relevant content; plus, working with community TV and radio broadcasters to spread the word widely. We have also held a lot of help from like-minded friends at university societies both in Oxford and across the country, which has opened up some amazing collaborative opportunities for the future.

All of this has enabled us to attract growing numbers of guests year on year. We started off with about 40 attendees in 2012, a figure which we doubled this year. Some people like to drop in for particular talks that pique their interest, whilst with others prefer to come for the whole day and use it as an opportunity to explore Oxford and its colleges – especially families bringing along children or teenagers.

As mentioned above, at this year’s event we looked at how research on Sikh experiences of British imperial rule can open up new perspectives on broader historical themes and contexts. The content of the talks showcased was extremely insightful and varied. On the one hand for example, we had an Oxford student, Amar Sohal, breaking down ideas from his Masters’ thesis to unravel the nature of Sikh identity politics during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. On the other hand, we featured the journalist and author, Christy Campbell, who shared with us the incredible life story of one of Oxford’s first ever Sikh students, Hardit Singh Malik – a young man who took on a tremendous struggle against racial prejudice to become the first Indian fighter pilot in the RAF, during the First World War.

We have been particularly keen to engage graduate students, who can gain valuable experience by speaking at our events. I myself saw the benefits of presenting in such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere at the 2013 open day – for a start, the audience was less intimidating for a first-time presenter than at a formal academic conference. In putting forward my ideas to those who don’t have much prior knowledge of my subject, I was forced to be as clear and concise as possible about the points I wanted to get across. I also had a couple of “curve-ball” questions from attendees who came from different backgrounds and perspectives, which challenged me to think about my topic in new ways and gave me food for thought for a few days after the event itself.

This is definitely just the beginning for the Society’s open day series, and I for one have hugely enjoyed this experience, where I have got to learn so much about working in outreach. It would be great to hear from any other DPhil students or early career academics who would like to get involved and help to develop this project further – feel free get in touch via email at oxford.sikhsoc@gmail.com. We were always looking for new research perspectives to discuss and would be particularly keen to do some interfaith work, but we also are facing an increasing demand for our talks to be put online, so we would equally love to be contacted by anyone with the technical know-how to help us record and digitize our content.

About me

I’m a second-year History DPhil student at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford and also studied for a History undergraduate and Masters degree at Oriel, Oxford between 2008 and 2012. My research project deals with the way in which new ideas of female sovereignty and a “royal family” were shaped in the nineteenth-century Indian Empire. I am focusing in particular on the links between Queen Victoria and the last Sikh rulers of the Punjab, Maharani Jind Kaur and her son, Maharajah Duleep Singh.

Hilary Term 2015 Training Update (and other things!)

We are delighted to announce that next term’s training session will be held on Wednesday 18 February, from 4.30-6.30pm, kindly hosted once again by my fabulous co-coordinator Foteini Dimirouli at Somerville College. Save the date! Booking will open in the New Year.

The programme will include an introduction to the UK education sector and Oxford undergraduate admissions (for our beginners) and for our improvers,  a research-informed look at what motivates students to make their Higher Education decisions.

As I introduced our Office for Fair Access agreement at this term’s training session, we discussed the impact of fee waivers or bursaries vs. outreach activity and we look forward to exploring next term the most effective ways to break down barriers for underrepresented groups to enter Higher Education. We will be joined by an expert in the field, the Head of Widening Participation at KCL, Anne-Marie Canning, who will lead us through this important set of issues and some recent published research on these questions.

We will also hear from the Brilliant Club on their programme of working with researchers and schools.

In terms of other things going on in 8th week, I will be at the TORCH Humanities Postdoc Lunch from 1-2pm on Tuesday 2 December (at the Humanities Division Building on Woodstock Road) chatting about the network, so do come along and share your experiences and help to spread the word about the value of public engagement and schools outreach 🙂

Finally, good luck to all network members involved in undergraduate admissions interviewing in the next few weeks. For anyone balancing academic, administrative and admissions commitments (myself included!), it has certainly been a hectic time. My personal highlight was getting to train some of our thoughtful and wonderfully engaged new admissions interviewers with the Oxford Learning Institute last week.

Keep in touch as always; I need guest bloggers to post about their outreach experience, so if you have an event coming up that you would like to blog about, please contact me:


Eleanor (Network Co-Coordinator)

“Investigating Options”; or, a demonstration of the relevance of all disciplines

Guest Blogger: Network Member Danielle Yardy (Keble College)

On 4 November, Year 11 pupils from around the country came to Oxford as part of the Pathways Programme. The day involved talks, tours, and take-home pamphlets. At Keble, 95 students and their teachers gathered to take taster sessions in the humanities, and the physical, life, and social sciences. D.Phil.s in English, Statistics, Ecology, and International Relations took to the floor to show what their subjects had to offer.

In honour of Halloween—and to put forward the case for both English and History—my talk investigated Elizabeth Sawyer, historical ‘witch’ and protagonist of the 1621 tragicomedy The Witch of Edmonton. I asked students to reflect on the nuance that literary analysis can bring to historical study, and how it opens up the subtleties of a past we might want to homogenize.

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Statistician and schools liaison officer Mareli Augustyn discussed chance and randomness. She warning against the lottery, and showed how it really is quite likely that an iPod set to shuffle will play songs by the same artist back-to-back. Harriet Downey then wooed pupils to Ecology with her research into tropical rainforests before James Shires discussed issues of ‘security’. International politics is performative, he argued, and school lunches could easily be ‘a security issue’, if only someone instated the sandwich police to prevent the rioting of hungry pupils.

As a presenter, it was the Q&A that proved most rewarding by offering a great insight into what the next generation is looking for in a degree. One topic dominated discussion, posed by both pupils and their teachers: relevance. What exactly are you going to do with that degree? What comes next? [The theatre scholar in me wishes to note: it started to rain.]

Sitting in the humanities corner, I was a little nervous—but, as it turned out, without cause. We discussed the broad career options for the different degrees as well as the relationships between disciplines. Presenters had come from different undergraduate courses and institutions, with time out of education and a variety of career experiences, demonstrating that all degrees open doors. Uniformly, the panel presented a successful degree as one undertaken with genuine interest.

Verdict: if you’re having a crisis of relevance, try telling Y11s why your subject is great (rather than your parents).

Book now for our training event on 13 November

Hello and welcome to our brand new blog!

The Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network aims to connect early career academics (D.Phil. students, postdocs or fixed-term lecturers) at the University of Oxford with opportunities to do outreach in Oxford and further afield, as well as to provide them with appropriate training opportunities and recognition for their work at an institutional level. The network is intended to complement current training provision elsewhere within the collegiate University.

We’re delighted to announce that the first training session of the academic year will take place on Thursday 13th November.

Kindly hosted by Somerville College, the event, which will take place from 16.30 – 18.30, will cover

  • An Introduction to Oxford outreach with schools (for beginners or those relatively new to outreach)
  • Age-appropriate academic taster sessions: best practice sharing (for those with some experience of outreach)
  • UNIQ Summer Schools: How to get involved with the University’s flagship residential summer school access programme, including sample taster content used by early career academics in the project
  • Out on the road for Oxford outreach: getting involved with the Student and Teachers’ Conferences

Following the success of previous sessions, we have once again arranged for post-training networking drinks from 18.30 at the Royal Oak.

Sign up to the training event now at http://bit.ly/1FVHNZr and if you haven’t already done so, feel free to add yourself to our database, which provides advance notice of future training events and outreach opportunities: http://bit.ly/ZCGU6x

We hope to see you at an event before too long! Do get in touch if you have any questions.

Dr Eleanor David and Dr Foteini Dimirouli