‘Non-academic jobs’: more ‘academic’ than you think?

In this post, PGR Careers Adviser Dr Holly Prescott shows us how academic research and teaching aren’t the only jobs that can let you ‘keep’ the bits of academia that you really enjoy. You can find a more detailed post on this on Holly’s PhD Careers Blog, PostGradual.

In academia, we’re often taught to value our ‘outputs’ (papers, theses, grants etc.) over the processes that went into achieving them. Saying that we ‘do research’ or ‘do teaching’ can often ‘hide’ the things we actually do to manage and execute those things, and the things that we get good at in the process. Hence, we can often forget this important nugget that Australian geneticist Joel Huey tweeted a few months ago:

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If we break this pearl of wisdom down, we realise:

  1. During a PhD we learn to manage a whole host of activities. Writing. Analysing. Teaching. Presenting. Maintaining professional relationships.
  2. By doing those things, we gather a bunch of skills that are useful both within and beyond academia: collecting information; synthesising that information; putting that together into meaningful conclusions; communicating our results to a range of audiences… the list goes on!

And thus by understanding which of these activities we like to spend most of our time doing, and which of these skills we most like using, we can then work on finding out what types of jobs will let us do those things most of the time.

However, as well as working out what ‘bits’ of academia we like, we also need to identify what it is we actually enjoy about those ‘bits.’ When I ask Postgraduate Researchers what they enjoy about teaching, for example, here are just a few common responses:

  1. ‘I love my subject and want to inspire others to enjoy it too’
  2. ‘I really enjoy taking complicated information and simplifying it into something that people can use’
  3. ‘I like giving students a good university experience’

If you enjoy academic teaching, then you should have a career in academic teaching, right? Well, as these responses show… not necessarily. The same applies if you think you love research: is that enjoyment necessarily tied to your research area, or is it also derived from the wider research process: from applying your ‘researcher brain’ to digging up ideas or solutions? I remember one PGR telling me how they got a similar ‘energy’ from scoping out potential wedding venues as they did from researching early Victorian poetry.

So, once you’ve got your ‘whys’ down, next is to identify types of work connected to them. For example, person 1’s love of teaching seems very much linked to their subject matter, so one option could be education-based roles with professional bodies or societies who encourage more people to study and engage with their subject. Person 2’s enjoyment came more from helping people to understand things better; for them, options could be policy-based roles, or industry roles like Consumer Technical Insights, which involve translating scientific insights into communications that consumers and colleagues can understand.

With research, if it’s synthesising and interpreting information that lights your fire, there are many places where research-based work happens. If it’s more the links to the university environment and relationships with academics that you enjoy, then there’s a whole micro-labour-market that exists at the intersection between academia and what lies beyond. In the UK, organisations like the Catapult Network bridge the gap between academic research and industry, whilst companies in the (AIRTO) network transfer knowledge between research, industry and government policy.

I hope this post has helped show just some of the ways that you can retain what it is you really enjoy about academic work, even if you’re technically working beyond academia.

You are not an academic. You are an interesting, intelligent, flexible, creative person who at the moment does academic work. And if you end up doing other work, you’ll still be all those things.

Dalgleish, M. (2018). Ten things I wish I’d known during my PhD: how I muddled my way to a great career anyway. IN Fruscione, J. and Baker, K. J. (Eds). Succeeding outside the academy: career paths beyond the humanities, social sciences, and STEM. University Press of Kansas.

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