New 'What do researchers want to do?' report now available!

New research probes doctoral researchers' career thinking

With a new Government innovation and research strategy published in December, Vitae is releasing new research based on views of over 4,500 researchers undertaking doctoral study in the UK. This charts their career trajectories into postgraduate research and also their future career aspirations and how these are shaped by their experiences.

‘What do researchers want to do? The career intentions of doctoral researchers' confirms that for many postgraduates, undertaking a doctorate is an exploratory career stage, not a definite first step to a research career. Even for those in later years of their doctoral programme, only a minority had definite ideas about their future. Their choice to undertake doctoral research had been overwhelmingly for intellectual curiosity and interest, desiring to develop more specialised knowledge and expertise, with few citing distinct career-related motivations. Those who entered doctoral research programmes some time after their prior first degrees (i.e. after periods in employment) were, unsurprisingly, somewhat more career-focused. ‘These findings have significant implications when considering the future supply of researchers for a range of employment sectors' said Ellen Pearce, Director of Vitae. ‘Given the undecided state of career thinking for many respondents, it's clear that the doctoral process is a crucial time for forming views about the career opportunities. University career services are highly valued by those doctoral researchers who seek advice; more needs to be done to align postgraduates' aspirations with practical career strategies'.

About half of final-year doctoral researchers were thinking about working in higher education, although the vast majority intended to pursue occupations or careers which related to their research discipline or built on their knowledge and research expertise. They tended to be seeking work that was interesting and exciting rather than being driven by opportunities for high financial reward. For most, this aspirational mind-set was yet to be tempered by pragmatic thoughts like job availability.

Experiences strongly shaped their evolving career thinking as postgraduates. ‘External work experience in particular is rated as very influential on career choices by around 60% of those that undertake it' comments Robin Mellors-Bourne, CRAC's Research Director and an author of the report. ‘However, the incidence of work experience amongst postgraduates seems to be very limited compared with first degree level, and varies strongly between subject disciplines'.

Find out more about the 'What do researchers do?' series