Sideways moves- the pros and cons

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By Neil Harris

The article aims to address the following:

  • taking a look at the differences between working as say a researcher/ scientist within higher education and the public sector and working within a commercial environment
  • do different individuals suit different types of organisations?
  • how to initiate a sideways move - are you qualified to move?

You've been in the job some time. You may well enjoy it, especially if you are learning something new and developing new skills. But what should you do next? Should you stay or should you go?

If you are a university researcher on a fixed term contract the inevitable answer long term will be that you must look around for something else. In our work we get accustomed to the environment. We begin to understand the people we work with and what makes them tick. In some cases they become our friends. We become comfortable in our role and after a while leaving can feel like discarding an old shoe, not being sure that a new one will suit us.

It's easy to get into a rut and possibly enjoy it. But is it wise?

If you stay, where will it lead? Are there clear precedents that you find attractive?

Be wary of vague promises from managers. Consider the odds. Many employers, not least in the educational sector, value those who have gained a broad experience elsewhere. They sometimes prefer to bring in people with new ideas than to promote from within. Occasionally, of course, the opposite is true. They may prefer someone they know and rely on, a safe pair of hands, than recruit an unknown individual. Consider the evidence of your manager's inclinations and previous form.

If you decide to go do you want to stay in the same type of role in a related area of work or would you like to branch out into something different?

Whatever you choose it will need research, more so if you are seeking something entirely new. Your career options may be much broader than you imagine. Check them out.

Taking Stock

It's good to take stock of your career every couple of years, perhaps by asking yourself the following questions:

Are you developing as a person?

Have you learnt new skills and will you develop them more if you stay?

Are there new challenges on the horizon? - In academic life you can reach the stage where every year you just go around the same cycle.

And finally: Will you be more or less employable if you stay another year?

If the answer to that question is no it's probably the time to move on.

Always start by considering your skills.

Take a look at the list of academic skills in the box below. If you had to rank them, which would you consider to be your most proficient? Alternatively, think about which ones could be in need of further development.

Academic skills include:



Evaluating and interpreting

Writing and editing


Tutoring & Mentoring

Applying for funding


Liaising with others


Project management

Committee work

Now think about them in relation to alternative employment contexts.

If you are a researcher considering a move into industrial research there is definitely a different value system that you must take account of. Industrial research usually has more immediate application, whereas academic research can often be more speculative. There is always a profit motive and a calculated pay back time in commercial research and shareholders to keep happy. In recent times, however, universities and colleges have become more commercially aware. Finance they receive from commercial organisations for research and development projects are calculated to be financially beneficial for all parties.

What could you offer to an alternative context?

When applying for jobs in commercial research, stress any applications you have made for funding, monitoring of budgets, project management skills and ability to supervise the work of others. Express an interest, not just in their research but in the industry and the needs of their customers. Demonstrate flexibility and teamwork. Teamwork is much more highly regarded in commercial organisations than in educational institutions.

How to initiate a sideways move - are you qualified to move?

Start by surveying the specific industry you are considering moving into.

Who are the key players and how do they compare?

Research their trade association if there is one. Who are the big players?

Is there a research association (see for technology related industrial research)?

Are there organisations on science parks engaged in research that would interest you?

See for details of these. Alternatively there may be consultancies active in your field of expertise. Look them up.

Survey this web site for vacancies. Include looking at employer profiles in this, and go to and study the employers' web sites paying particular attention to the job vacancies and careers sections. Consider which newspapers or specialist journals they advertise in. Decide which of your skills are most attractive in this new field and prepare your CV to emphasise your most relevant expertise. Tell no lies but don't hide your true worth.

Your move may be from a job in research to one in lecturing and teaching. In this case, take every opportunity to strengthen your verbal communication skills. Get some lecturing, teaching or presenting experience, even if it's on a casual, part-time or evening basis. Explore the training opportunities provided by your employer and your professional body if you are a member of one.

Check if you need any further qualifications. For academic jobs look for courses that lead to qualifications such as those that lead to membership of the Higher Education Academy. Staff training departments at most universities regularly offer workshops designed to develop the skills you need to progress your career.

Finally, think hard what interests you have in common with the organisation you are applying to. Mention the common ground in your cover letter and underline it at interview. Relationships are built on that.

The Last Word

Moving to a new job, possibly in a new location, often means uprooting families, seeking new accommodation, leaving friends and developing new friendships. The payback, in terms of job satisfaction, remuneration, security and the opportunity to develop your skills still further has to be worth any personal or family upheaval. You may, of course, be lucky to find an opportunity nearby but this is not always likely especially if your work is in a highly specialist area.

Failing to take the chances that present themselves in life can lead to dissatisfaction later. For those on temporary contracts it can lead to frenzied job searching, which may be too late to avoid a period of unemployment. Sometimes your course of action is clear. On other occasions the decision is more finely balanced. If it is, then do seek advice from someone who is unbiased and not emotionally involved.

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