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Career Planning Guide

Career Planning Guide

Career routes for PGRs

Having a research degree means you are a specialist, but that doesn’t mean there is only one career path open to you. Beyond your subject knowledge, you are also highly skilled in research, communication and managing large projects. For any career path you follow, whether in the academy or outside it, you will need to demonstrate your knowledge, skills and experience.

Widening Horizons

Vitae – the global leader in professional development for researchers – have called this the Widening Horizons Funnel, where as you move further away from an academic role, there are increasing career opportunities. We have visualised this as follows.

This is also available in the Vitae Career-Wise Researcher Booklet.

If you’re not sure where to start, look back to your exploration of your values in the first section: ‘Who am I?’ When considering what career path to take, a really simple yet important place to start is by asking yourself what you want from your career and the day-to-day reality of it.

  • Working alone?
  • Working as part of a team?
  • Working on large projects that take years?
  • Short-term wins?
  • Delivering work that focuses on social justice?
  • Digging deeply into complex data?
  • Problem-solving?
  • The craft of writing?
  • Focusing on the details?
  • Focusing on the Grand Plan?
  • A high earning job?
  • Location – Do you need to stay in the South West?
  • Prestige and recognition for your work?
  • Stability?
  • Creativity?
  • Having agency and being able to be self-directed?

So, to consider how different career routes might align with the answers to the questions above, let’s meet some imaginary people and explore where they might start looking for a job…

Person A. Person A has always thought they would love a job in academia, but whilst they’ve been doing their research degree, they’ve started to have doubts. Person A isn’t a fan of teaching and knows research-focused jobs in their field are really hard to come by, especially at entry-level. Person A loves focusing in on the details and working alone, prefers agency and being self-directed, and hates getting up early in the morning! Person A has just met a partner in the South West, who isn’t keen to move, so they would rather look for a job locally.

Person B. Person B loves teaching. They love being part of a team and they prefer quick wins to long term projects – they found the length of time it took to complete their research degree quite draining. They don’t enjoy sitting in front of a computer all day; they get their energy from being around other people. Person B loved their research topic, but “research” in and of itself isn’t why they did a research degree. They’re quite creative and the prefer a faster-paced environment, where ideas are being bounced around.

Person C. Person C doesn’t really know what they want to do. They’re not sure they ever have! They’re happy working alone, but also like being around other people – but not if they have to rely on them too much. Person C really wants to do something meaningful, and sometimes feels like academia is a bit insular. They crave security and their home situation is one where they can’t afford financial instability.

Person D. Person D wants to work in academia. They enjoy teaching and research and know that this is the career path for them. They’re passionate about their field and have used the time doing their research degree to build connections in their discipline, presenting at conferences and building up publications. Person D has made sure that they have been strategic in how they have used their time and resources, making sure that they have gained experience in applying for funding, organising events/conferences, chairing the odd panel, and doing outreach work. Person D is also likable, has good hair and volunteers for charity, so you do sort of want to hate them.

OK, so Person D is going to try and get a job in academia (either through a lectureship or a post doc) and good luck to them! In later sections, we’ll have a look at how you do that. Persons A, B and C might do that, but they also might not. So, what could they do?

  • They could start their own business. The Vitae website has a collection of 30 career stories from doctoral researchers who have gone on to become entrepreneurs, setting up their own business or enterprise. This resource offers examples from arts and humanities, biological sciences, biomedical sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and social sciences – so go and get inspired by them!
  •  They could teach in a school. One route into this is through Researchers in Schools. The Researchers in Schools Programme offers a tailored route into teaching exclusively for research degree graduates. It is specifically designed to utilise your academic expertise to the benefit of pupils, schools and universities. They place participants in non-selective state secondary schools across England, in partnership with number of teacher training providers. They have bursary and salaried routes (which vary in amount, depending on your subject). They could test the water by applying to The Brilliant Club Scholar’s Programme and get paid to teach their research in schools! There is more information about other routes in to teaching on the Prospects website..
  • They could apply for a graduate scheme – these are usually one or two year training programmes, often with large employers, and often with a fast track into management. Yes, your research degree means you are potentially “over qualified”, as BA students can apply for these roles; however, the University of Manchester suggests that there is anecdotal evidence that those with research degrees who enter either graduate schemes or graduate jobs may progress much more quickly than other graduates. Prospects has a useful list of graduate schemes. One of the most well-known examples is the Civil Service Fast Track Stream. If you ticked ‘a high salary’, this might be an attractive route, as the Fast Stream offers minimum starting salaries of £27,000 or £28,000, salary progression on the scheme, and earning potential on completion of £45-£55,000. They take two to four years and have fifteen different streams to choose from.
  • They could look for a job in a university, beyond traditional academic roles. This is sometimes referred to as ‘alt ac’ (alternative academic), to describe positions within or around the academy. These could be jobs in Researcher Development, Widening Participation, Library Services, Digital Learning Development, focus on impact, equality and inclusion, building partnerships, project co-ordination…the list goes on! If you go to a university’s job page – such as the University of Exeter’s – you can see what sorts of things are available.
  • They could build a “portfolio career”. This is when you jigsaw together multiple jobs, freelance work, short-term contracts and side-hustles, to create a mix of what works for you (and what you can get!). Depending on how it works out, this can be a very desirable choice. Unfortunately, it can also feel like a fancy way of saying you are juggling seven jobs and never have any financial stability! If you successfully curated this portfolio for yourself, it could mean you do a bit of teaching, short research projects, apply for one-off opportunities and create your own work – then see where it all leads you…

What would you suggest for Person A? B? C? (Person D might want to work in academia right now, but these options are available to them as well). What would suit each character and circumstances best? And what about you: have any of these suggestions inspired you? If so: get researching (you’re good at that)!

If you’re still feeling lost and not sure where to start, how about doing something like Career Interests tool in Profiling for Success? Or you can find out more examples of what alumni have done in the University of Exeter’s Beyond Your Research Degree podcast, or have a look at some more alumni career profiles in the next section

Many research degree students come to their research thinking that they would like to pursue a career in academia. In this PGR Careers Resource, we aim to support those for whom this continues to be/becomes their ambition; however, we are also here to support students who decide to pursue different paths. The decision to leave academia can be a daunting one, if you had your heart set on it or if you have never imagined doing anything else (or indeed if you left a lucrative career path to follow this dream), but we all know that the reality is that a) there are often far more candidates that there are jobs, so not everyone will be able to stay if they wish to, and b) that the job roles and work culture aren’t well suited to everyone. The key things are to know that you have other options and that you aren’t a failure for choosing them. If you’re going through this battle yourself, you might find it helpful to read, ‘It’s OK to quit’ and ‘Why it is not a “failure” to leave academia’.

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