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The University of Southampton
Careers, Employability and Student Enterprise

Careers outside academia

Many doctoral candidates follow career paths outside of Higher Education and university environments. 

This web resource is designed to help postgraduate researchers and early career research staff consider the options of careers outside academia.

Although academia is a popular destination for PhD graduates, more opportunities exist outside of education. Around half of our doctoral graduates source employment outside of university environments and there has been a trend in recent years for companies to become more research orientated which has led to an increase in demand for highly skilled and intellectual graduates. The majority of PhD graduates working outside academia are employed in roles where they can use their specialised research skills and knowledge. Use the information below to identify how to make your PhD work for you in the wider job market.

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Why pursue a career outside academia?

An academic career is one of great challenges and achievements, diversity and opportunity. Although it is a good choice for many researchers, statistically, the majority will go on to a career outside academia. For this reason, the decision to move away from academic research can be a difficult one for many Early Career Researchers. The resources, links and activities here will help you to start to think positively and proactively about reasons both for a move away from a research career, and for a move towards a different career.

Ask yourself:

  • What are you leaving behind?
  • What might be different if you move elsewhere?

To help you think carefully about your decision, you need to have a clear idea of your answers to these questions. 

Make some notes about your reasons for pursuing a career outside academia and use the activity worksheet Reasons for a career change as a prompt to reflect on your own reasons for leaving academia, and what these might mean for a future career or for what you could change about your current post.

It might then be useful to hear other researcher’s stories of leaving academic research: There are two great websites that have video and audio clips of researchers talking about their career decisions after competing a doctorate. See if there are any that inspire you in Vitae’s collection of researcher career stories from a range of discipline areas or the BeyondThePhD website, which focuses on stories from the Arts and Humanities.

If statistics are your preference, then see if you can find inspiration in the range of reports on doctoral destination data that have been compiled by Vitae in the 'What do researchers do?’ series.

Once you have had a chance to reflect on all of this, it is time to start thinking about what you want from your career, what suits your personal values and motivations? 

What do you want from a career?

When thinking about a change of career, it is often tempting to leap straight for the recruitment websites to see what jobs are out there, but a more sustainable long term plan to help you find a career that is right for you is to start with developing your self awareness. If you are more aware of what motivates you at work and what you most value, you are more likely to notice and seek out opportunities that are a better fit with your personality, preferences and skills.

In this section of the toolkit we have two main activities:

Completing these worksheets will help you start to build up a picture of what you want in your working life: from practical aspects of the working environment to the kinds of activities you might do or the people you might work with.

If you want to learn more, there are other activities and resources that can further help you to think about the careers that might suit you.

Explore your personality by taking a psychometric test using the UoS Career Hub to help you to understand how your personality influences how you do things, interact with others, plan your work, use your leisure time and tackle problems.

Browse the Prospects Graduate Careers website.

Try something little different: for some people, a guided visualisation can be a powerful way to tap in to some of our subconscious thoughts on what we really want from our career – for fun: find a comfortable, peaceful place to relax and try a guided meditation.

If a book is more your style, then two great places to start are:

  • John Lees; How to Get a Job You'll Love: an all-round book for reflecting on your values and skills and finding a job – available at the Careers and Employability Resource Centre.
  • Edgar Schein; Career Anchors Self Assessment - discover your career anchors: the aspects of work that are important to you in your career such as working for a cause, or having a challenge.

Once you know more about what you want, you will be more effective at identifying jobs and opportunities: Broadening your horizons & finding opportunities. 

Broaden your horizons and finding career opportunities.

Knowing where to start when looking for opportunities outside academia can be daunting. It is important not to narrow your options down too soon. There are a range of different concepts, ideas and practical tools that can help you to start discovering a wide range of potential job opportunities. 

Start developing your networks: get some advice on developing your career networks during your PhD from JobsOnToast or sign up to LinkedIn to get connected to others who are interested in exploring and sharing tips on finding a new career. Another way to meet employers is at a graduate fair – why not plan a visit to a careers fair to talk to employers and find out about opportunities you might never have thought of’

If you haven't looked at them already, hear from other researchers about how they found their jobs after leaving academia, by exploring the collections of researcher stories collated by Vitae or BeyondThePhD.

If you are a member of research staff, there is advice available from Vitae on Moving on from being research staff.

Investigating the destinations of UK doctoral graduates – which occupations or work sectors of doctoral graduates from your discipline go in to – you may find some inspiration here:

If you have a good idea of sectors or job titles that interest you, then start to explore information about different job types on the Prospects website.

Finally, make sure you take advantage of the Careers, Employability and Student Enterprise events, resources and workshops:

If you have explored the opportunities and found a job to apply for or a potential employer to connect with, you will need to think carefully about how you communicate with employers outside academia: you can get further help on this in our final Topic: Understanding employers beyond academia: culture and requirements.

Understanding employers beyond academia: culture and requirements

If you have been in a research environment for a number of years, then the chances are that you will be adept at using research language and phrases, and will see the world clearly through a researcher's eyes.

The skills and competencies you have might be difficult to convey to a potential employer who is not used to the experiences you will have had in a research environment. It is your job as a researcher to learn the language and context of employers outside academia, so that you can clearly communicate what you can offer to them; don't expect them to learn your research language. Get inside the head of a potential employer to understand their context, the assumptions they might make about you, and what they might offer you if you worked for them.

The activity sheet Employer Offerings prompts you to reflect on what an employer might offer you – what might you prioritise or ask for?

The next step is to evidence that you have what the employer is looking for: what skills do you have, and how can you describe and explain them effectively? Explore the skills an employer might want and how these might match up to what a researcher can offer. How can you effectively describe your skills to a non-specialist, and what should you expect in the recruitment process. Start by assessing your skills in the Articulating Your Skills Worksheet attached below.

If you still need some help in thinking about how to learn more about employers, articulate your skills, market yourself and be competitive in the recruitment process then luckily there is a wide range of support and advice out there specifically for researchers:

  • If you want to find out more about what employers think about postgraduates and how they recruit, then read the Talent Fishing Report – it has some interesting perspectives on how and why employers recruit doctoral graduates.
  • If you are concerned about finding the right 'match' with an employer – you can plan the questions you could ask of them in an interview or at a networking event – as a start there are 15 suggested questions to ask an employer courtesy of 
  • To brush up on your marketing skills and applications, there is a variety of interesting perspectives via the Jobs On Toast website and Vitae have advice on improving your employment opportunities.
  • There are worked examples of how the typical experiences of researchers can be translated in to the transferable skills required by employers in Vitae's Researchers Development Framework.
  • If you want to see examples of how researchers write about their experience in a non-academic CV, then there are many examples on the Vitae website of example CVs to browse through.
  • Careers, Employability Student Enterprise also has a range of useful resources, presentations and workshops on applications and interviews for all students.

Good luck with your job applications! – don't forget that you can get one to one advice on your applications and interview planning from Careers, Employability and Student Enterprise!

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