Exploring career opportunities for researchers

Signpost careerCareer opportunities for researchers are not always obvious or easy to find. They cover a wide range of sectors including higher education, manufacturing, finance, business and IT, Health and public administration.

Even if your goal is a career in academia, the sector is highly competitive and so it is important to explore additional career opportunities to be prepared for all eventualities.

What do researchers do?

The most recent Vitae report What do researchers do? Doctoral graduate employment, activities and earningsfound the following:

Employment circumstances

  • Doctoral graduates were highly employable, with more than 90% in work or work and further study, which was higher than for contemporaneous undergraduates (UG) and masters (M) graduates
  • Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) doctoral graduates were more likely to be in full-time work than humanities, arts or social science (HASS) doctoral graduates
  • A much smaller proportion of UK doctoral graduates went abroad after doctoral study than the proportion of non-UK doctoral graduates who remained in the UK


  • Just under half of all doctoral graduates were employed in higher education (HE) - higher for HASS (especially social sciences, 72%) than for STEM doctoral graduates
  • Only 10% were in research jobs outside HE, whereas 27% were employed in Other common doctoral occupations
  • There were major variances in occupations by discipline

HE careers

  • Biological sciences (BS) doctoral graduates were most likely to be employed in HE research (37%) and arts and humanities (AH) least likely (16%) 
  • Half of social sciences (SS) doctoral graduates were employed in HE teaching, compared to less than 10% of STEM doctoral graduates
  • The proportion of those working in HE research roles employed on a fixed-term contract (89%) was much higher than in HE teaching roles (27%) or all other roles (21%)
  • There were a significantly higher proportion of AH doctoral graduates in HE teaching on fixed term contracts
  • There were only very small differences in earnings by gender or ethnicity within any HE cluster


  • Most doctoral graduates earned more than UG graduates, with doctoral graduate median earnings after one year higher than those for UG graduates after five years and for masters graduates after three years
  • Median salaries were very similar for doctoral graduates in HE research (£34k) and research outside HE (£35k), although the latter salaries were more widely spread
  • Those in Other common doctoral occupations commanded a higher median salary (£40k) and had more of the highest earners
  • Median earnings were highest for biomedical sciences (BMS) and SS doctoral graduates (£38k) and lowest (£34k) for BS and AH doctoral graduates

Value of the doctorate

  • 62% of employed doctoral graduates said their doctorate was required for their job, with an additional 24% saying it was an advantage in getting the job

Job fit

  • 80-95% of employed doctoral graduates felt positive about their work, that it used their skills/ knowledge, was meaningful, and fitted their overall career plans
  • 70% used their research skills, while over 60% conducted or interpreted/evaluated research - although these percentages differed strongly by occupational cluster.

Using career stories

Hearing the career stories of people who have a doctorate and have worked in research within and outside higher education can be a useful starting point if you are not sure what you plan to do next in your career. It can help your own planning to understand their choices, how they found their first position, how they made themselves ready to grasp opportunities and whether their career expectations have matched reality.

We have collected career stories from over 100 individuals with a research background and a variety of experience. The collection is searchable by discipline and by terms such as ‘mature student’, ‘career change’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘work-life balance’.