Career options for researchers
Find out about the different career options available to researchers.
Probably the most common question researchers ask careers advisers is 'What are the options after my PhD/current research contract?' This can be a tricky question to answer in general terms, and you should take a look at the discipline-specific pages linked at the bottom of this guide to see the range of options related to your subject.
Broadly speaking, the options are:
- An academic career
- A research career outside of academia
- Working for yourself
- A non-academic job within Higher Education- in administration, policy, research management, training, student support or project management. See jobs.ac.uk to get an idea of the types of roles available.
- A job outside of research but related to the subject area of your research, for example as a medical writer, teacher or sales representative for scientists, or a teacher, journalist or a role in government for social scientists.
- A job outside of your subject area but using some of the technical or transferable skills you have used as part of your research, for example, using your project management skills in management consultancy, using numerical skills in the financial sector, using writing and editing skills in journalism or publishing.
Essentially, you could do anything. As a doctoral student or postdoctoral researcher you are eligible to apply to one of the many graduate schemes or graduate jobs. There are a small number of schemes which offer a PhD entry level route, for example within management consultancy (with companies such as Mckinsey or The Boston Consulting group), banking (with the Bank of England or investment banks including JP Morgan) and industrial research organisations (GSK, Astra Zeneca, BP). If you want to branch out further beyond your subject area (into landscape design..?) you may well need to do some further training or gain experience. Changing career direction is hardly ever an instant switch, which is why forward planning is so important.
Research your options
You'll need to do some research to find out more about the different options available. The resources below are useful starting points:
- 10 Career Paths for PhDs - jobs.ac.uk e-book outlining some common career options for researchers
- Discipline-specific web pages for researchers
- Prospects website
- Professional bodies and learned societies - these are often great sources of career information, advice, industry insights and contacts.
Bath Connection is an online networking tool allowing you to contact Bath graduates who have said that they are willing to talk to Bath students and graduates about their job role, their employer and diversity issues.
- For research students - find out more about Bath Connection
- For research staff if you're also a Bath graduate - find out more about Bath Connection.
- For research staff if you're not also a Bath graduate - find out more about Bath Connection. - and note that you will need to email email@example.com to request access, stating that you are a member of research staff.
Career stories are a useful source of inspiration and insights into others' career paths.
- Researchers' career stories are available on the Vitae website.
- Voices of Experience provides case studies from former PhD students at the University of Southampton.
- From PhD to Life has Transitional Q & As with former PhD students.
- PhDs At Work provides 'Week in the Life' stories of former PhD students.
Many doctoral and post-doctoral researchers would say that an academic (lecturing) career is where they see their future lying. However, there is a huge discrepancy between the numbers of researchers and the numbers of lecturing posts available. So, to maximise your chances you need to become aware, very early on in your research career, of what makes a successful academic. Here are some ways to find out more about what's involved in and required for an academic post:
- Talk to lecturers in your department about what they do and how they got to a permanent academic post, and look at their CVs
- Find job adverts for lectureships in your discipline and look carefully at the job description and person specification
- Manchester University have created a website dedicated to helping you find out more about what an academic career involves
- Workshops on careers in academia for PhD students and research staff are run as part of the Researcher Development Programme
- The Vitae website has some sections dedicated to academic careers
- The key careers resources for researchers has some blogs on life as an early-career academic
- We post advice on applying for and working towards academic jobs on our blog.
All lecturing jobs are split between research, teaching and administration, to varying extents depending on whether you are in a research- or teaching-intensive University. However, in some cases, it may be possible to obtain an academic post that only involves teaching, sometimes called a teaching fellowship, or a research-only post - see the Manchester Academic Careers website for more information on these different pathways.
Nevertheless, research, teaching and administration are the key areas in which you will need to take action.
- You have to know what you want to research - in other words, find your niche. You need to develop ideas for independent projects and investigate ways to get them funded.
- Showing that you have the potential to attract and secure independent research funding is a key criteria for obtaining a permanent academic post. You can provide this evidence in a number of ways, including applying for small research and travel grants. The rules around whether doctoral and postdoctoral researchers are eligible to apply for certain types of grants, fellowships and funding varies widely across disciplines and across funders. If you have an idea for generating research funding, you should talk to your current PI and others in your department about your plans and potential funding sources. Research & Innovation Services have information and advice on applying for funding, including a list of funders. See also the vacancy sources for researchers guide for possible funding sources.
- Publish! A good publication record is vital. Think 'where' as well as 'what' - publications in high-quality journals will carry more weight with academic recruiters.
- Understand how the REF works.
- Take every opportunity to present your research at conferences and seminars - this will build your reputation and develop your networks.
- You'll need to demonstrate that you can engage students with your teaching, and work effectively with both them and colleagues in your department.
- Get some teaching experience. Start with demonstrating and tutorials, and move up to seminars and lectures if possible.
- Supervise final year students, and postgraduates if you can.
- Take any training courses on teaching offered by the University.
- Go to as many departmental or faculty meetings as you are entitled to.
- Keep up to date with current University trends.
- Do the article reviews you get sent - it gets your name known.
- Postgraduates - consider getting involved with your Faculty Staff-Student Liaison Committee.
- Volunteer to help with University Open Days.
Routes and Pathways
Routes into academic careers vary according to discipline, so talk to academics in your department to find out which route is most common/advisable in your subject area. See also the Manchester Academic Careers website for more on academic pathways in various disciplines.
A career in research is an entirely realistic option for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. What is important to realise is that this career does not have to be in academia. The commercial and public sectors also do large amounts of research and all value the skills and experiences of academic researchers.
Research careers within academia
If you are interested in a research career within academia, see the academic careers section above, Manchester Academic Careers website, and our How to get a postdoc helpsheet. It’s also vital to talk to current academics in your field for advice on steps you need to take to be competitive for lectureships positions.
Research Careers outside academia
Depending on your discipline, you could pursue a research career in:
- industry (large or small)
- charities and NGOs
- central and local government
- cultural organisations
- research institutes and research councils
- social research organisations
- market research organisations
- think tanks - see this useful guide to working for think tanks, produced by The University of Oxford.
The Careers Group (University of London) have produced a detailed guide to research careers in various sectors which includes links and vacancy sources.
Enterprise and self-employment
You may not think of yourself as an entrepreneur, but there are many parallels between entrepreneurship and research; both involve independent thinking and creativity, as well as the responsibility for taking projects forward, finding your next project and locating funding sources. The increased emphasis on impact and engagement in research means that more academics are creating spin-off companies or engaging in various forms of freelance or consulting work alongside research.
If you are interested in exploring your entrepreneurial side, it’s well worth getting involved with the Researcher to Innovator Programme organised by the Set-Squared Partnership. If you’re interested in commercialising an aspect of your research, contact the Research Impact and Commercialisation (RIC) team in Research and Innovation Services. The Researcher Development Unit runs courses on enterprise and research commercialisation. For inspiration and examples of researchers who have become entrepreneurs, take a look at these case studies on the Vitae website.
If you like the idea of being your own boss and are not averse to risk-taking, you may want to consider freelancing or other forms of self-employment; below are some great resources and links to help get you started:
- Self-employment pages on Prospects
- Advice on working for yourself from the Careers Service blog
- Links and advice on freelancing for PhDs and post-docs from Jobs on Toast
- Shell LiveWire - a comprehensive website aimed at potential entrepreneurs aged 16-30. Register to receive a free 'essential business kit' tailored to your specific business idea, including contact details for a local coordinator
- HMRC - Simple, down-to-earth information on the regulatory side of setting up in business - what paperwork you need, and by when. You can also arrange a free workshop for practical advice on tax matters
Career options for your discipline
For more specific advice on career options that may be particularly suitable for your discipline, take a look at our pages on career options for each discipline.