Research versus non-research careers

Research careers

Doctoral research training is challenging and thorough. It is an ideal precursor for a career in academia or for research in sectors including:

  • higher and further education
  • public and private research institutes
  • commercial research companies
  • health services
  • central and local government departments
  • trade associations and think-tanks.

Organisations employing researchers frequently ask for methodological expertise and subject knowledge, though they may be flexible if you can offer other valuable competencies or personal attributes in addition to your research training.

Academic settings generally give you the most autonomy to develop your research interests. Commercial research organisations require you to concentrate on their business priorities. Two-way mobility between public and private research sectors is becoming more common.

Non-research careers

You may decide to embark on non-research careers for various reasons. For example, maybe you would like to work in a role where you can:

  • engage with a new group – for example clients, or a classroom of children
  • expand your skills portfolio – for example business awareness
  • obtain results from your work faster than is generally possible in research project

If you are moving into a non-research role, it is important to assess your competencies and interests carefully. Do you want to remain close to your research discipline? For some non-research positions subject knowledge is critical, whereas others depend on using transferable competencies and experiences or may require re-training. Some researchers make a transition to a non-research role in a two-step pattern. For example, your first non-research role may not be your ideal role, but it offers you a chance to develop competencies and gain experience that will be key in securing the type of position you are aiming for.  

Applications for non-research roles are likely to require the most effort when you are moving on from a research degree. Careful explanation of your competencies and interests is necessary to attract employers' attention and convince them of the relevance of your skill-set.

How to generate ideas about non-research roles

For example you could:

  • look at vacancies in the press, university careers services, websites of professional bodies and other organisations, online job boards
  • explore career choices of other researchers in our What do researchers do series and our collection of researcher career stories
  • get in touch with alumni of your research group or department or with former colleagues
  • talk to your supervisor, manager, colleagues, friends or neighbours about destinations of researchers they know
  • attend a careers event with external speakers or take the initiative and organise your own.

In the majority of cases, researchers who moved to non-research roles say that their research training and generic competencies have been hugely beneficial to them. Their experience as a researcher helps them to be more innovative and influence the work of others, as might be expected of those with very high level knowledge. Many also report that it enables them to change organisational culture and working practices, presumably reflecting their high competency levels [What do researchers do early career progression of doctoral graduates 2013].

Once you have moved out of research, though not impossible it can be difficult to return, so bear this in mind.