A career in academia may not be straightforward. One report suggests that people change job up to 11 times in their lifetime. Even for those with a strong academic background, opportunities and changing circumstances can lead to jobs that might not have been expected.
Choosing your career
Dr. Sheila Dargan is a Lecturer at the University of Cardiff. Her career path has taken in academic and non-academic jobs, as well as a period of working in the United States.
“I got my undergraduate degree at the University of East Anglia (Norwich), where I then stayed on to do a PhD in Biophysics. This led to me taking up a Postdoctoral positionin California, USA.” Despite having an excellent knowledge of the subject area and an aptitude for academic work, “I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay in research forever”, says Sheila.
This is something that many can relate to. “I've never been set on only lab-based research. I'm more of an opportunist. I want to do what I enjoy doing and I always wanted to follow my own interests.” These instincts have served Dr. Dargan well. After coming back from America, she took on a role at The Biochemical Society – this time as a project manager.
On working outside of academia
“It definitely benefited me to spend a period of time outside of academia . My role as project manager helped me to build independent networks.” Sheila has a lot to say about the advantages of getting a variety of experience. “Research scientists tend to work alone or in small groups in labs. Sure, you can network at conferences, but my job gave me other transferable skills that have been vital.”
Among those skills, Dr. Dargan lists managing a budget, managing the timeline of a project, networking with a variety of people, communicating with all sorts of people (not just fellow researchers), and the opportunity to learn new things.
Job opportunities and interview techniques
People tend to view jobs in academia as having quite different application procedures to other sectors. “For research-based jobs within academia, you must be focussed on your area of research and your own ideas.” Did this cause a problem when going for interviews? “It wasn't an issue because I've always enjoyed side projects involving public engagement and things outside of academia. Non-academic interviewers are much more interested in what additional skills you can bring to the table.” As a PhD student, you have a lot to give.
“There are lots of opportunities for someone who has key skills like communication and project management. There are jobs in editorial work, journals, and conference organisation where a strong academic background is necessary. Many companies want people who have PhDs as they can communicate with researchers, scientists and other academics.”
The advantages of non-academic jobs
But why look outside of academia in the first place? “It's easier to find permanent positions. Some people like the idea of changing job every 3 years, but for others the stability you can get outside of university work is a plus.” Academic work can also be very demanding. “Other types of jobs are not dependent on your research or personal publishing work.” The flexibility of work outside of academia can be refreshing.
Dr Dargan cites her variety of experience as a key factor in the development on her career. “Get involved in everything,” is her advice to young students. “Take every opportunity available. The more people you talk to, the more you will find out about other careers. Go to CPD courses held by your university and find out what others are doing.”
Moving back into an academic role
Interestingly, since her role in project management, Sheila has moved back into academic work. This is something that others might find hard to believe. “Some people think it is an irreversible decision,” she says regarding the perception of returning to a lecturing position after working outside of academia. “There's a stigma that you can only be a proper scientist if you do research; that if you leave research there's no way back in.” Dr. Dargan strongly disagrees with this notion. “But there are lots of ways back in as long as you work hard, as I have found.”
So, was her work as a project manager futile? “Every experience I've had has contributed to my career development. Working in the US made me more independent. Working as a project manager gave me contacts. Research has given me the background to do teaching at my current level. I recommend getting a wide range of experience – it gives you a global view on things.”