Embracing Careers Outside of Academia
After 12 years working in researcher development, I still feel surprised (and frustrated) when I hear people talking about non-academic career moves as the Plan B. It’s not a new thing that people move out of academia, but there still seems to be a persistent sense in some (not all) subjects that this would be a failure and shouldn’t be discussed.
Having gone from a PhD in chemistry to Researcher Development Manager, I have first-hand experience of transitioning to a role outside of my academic field. Members of my old lab group have done the same: while two are academics, many of them are in industry, some are self-employed, one is a teacher, one manages a doctor’s surgery, and one manages a construction site. I think many of us were attracted to the field of materials chemistry because of its applications, so it was no surprise to find a lot of us out in industry, doing and making things using skills we learned completing our PhDs. I honestly never expected or wanted to become an academic during my PhD because that’s not what attracted me to the project.
I thought I would be entering the industry as a chemist, so at the end of my 2nd year, I attended a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) industry tour. I thought I would work out which type of industry was a good fit for me. Instead, I had a long and honest chat with one of the RSC staff about what I really loved about completing a PhD and what was important to me. For the first time ever, I realized that I didn’t have to work as a chemist to make a difference at my job and really enjoy it.
With the number of PhD graduates each year outpacing the number of available lecturing and research positions, it’s important for PhD culture and students in all fields to discuss careers outside academia and recognize that transitioning to a non-academic career isn’t a form of failure. It’s a form of success.
How do we create a positive perception of non-academic careers?
Firstly, we need to understand what the UofG community (students, supervisors, careers professionals, alumni…) feels about this topic on the ground.
To do this, we chose ‘careers beyond academia’ as the theme for our PGR townhall meeting in February of this year and invited participation from the groups listed above and other key stakeholders in the PGR experience. We captured short films of PGR alumni talking about what skills helped them move into other careers, and we heard from the Careers Service about destination data we hold on our alumni.
We followed this with roundtable discussions, from which we took away a few key actions that can boost understanding of and access to information of non-academic careers:
Get better and more recent data on PGR destinations post-PhD, and share this widely with supervisors and students
Talk to supervisors about this issue. We need them to know that academic careers are not the norm, that there’s a whole range of support out there to help students explore their own career pathways, and that while we don’t expect them to be Careers Advisors, we do need them to celebrate the variety of roles that their students move into.
Find ways to work with our alumni to better collect stories and facilitate personal connections.
What are we doing to raise awareness of non-academic careers?
Over summer 2019, we are undertaking a project to collect career destination data for PGRs and will look for ways to share this as widely as possible.
We are redeveloping our Supervisor training for next academic year to include sessions and online information on supporting students with their career and professional development.
We are continuing to run careers events targeted at PGRs and postdocs and share stories (such as these brilliant case studies from SULSA or the massive Vista resource from the University of Sheffield).
We are working with our alumni office to connect PGRs to alumni mentors. PGRs can join The Network, an online platform to get careers advice and find connections with global alumni. Join the Postgraduate Research Network Group!
While changing culture takes time, progress has already been made among PGRs in this area, and I hope these projects will continue the momentum. I have seen less change for postdocs, but the revamped Concordat for Career Development of Researchers will launch in late summer and is likely to include strong recommendations that postdocs are given support and protected time to develop their careers in a variety of different directions. This is a big step with added weight from funders who are on board with the change.
There are challenges with each stage in this process, but realistic discussions about careers are vital for the success of PGRs from the PhD onwards. The more we can talk openly about the fantastic careers available, the better.
What do you think? Are non-academic careers something on your radar? What questions or concerns do you have about them? Let us know in the comments, through the blog’s ‘get in touch’ form, or on Twitter @UofG_PGRblog!