Working for a university in non-academic roles

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Not everyone doing postgraduate work is going to pursue an academic career, either through choice or because of the extremely competitive job market. Perhaps you have realised during your PhD that academic life is not for you, that you no longer have that desire to teach or do research. Or the prospect of spending several years working short term or part time contracts does not appeal to you, or is not an option for you due to family or other commitments. It is therefore vitally important to keep an open mind and explore other career opportunities that present themselves.

Postgraduate work brings a particular set of skills and these can be applied to any number of jobs. One of the options is working in university administration or management. The advantages to this are that you will still be working within a university, and your previous experience of Higher Education systems and structures will be invaluable here. Should you want to, this career path also allows you to keep in touch with the academic culture of which you were part as a postgraduate.

This is what happened to Andy Roadnight, a Research and Information Officer in Research Support Services at the University of Warwick. Andy had hoped to become a lecturer or researcher in an academic department, but after many years being out of employment to do his studies, it was imperative that he got a secure job. Currently Andy works for the Research Support Services team within Warwick's administration, one role of which is to help academics find research funding. There are members of staff performing these functions in most universities, but Warwick's approach is innovative because few universities have a dedicated team of research support staff. The academic community really value this sort of support, and the expertise brought by the team to the funding applications has been translated into successful award winning.

Andy started on a temporary contract but the role soon developed into something bigger and was made permanent. Obviously doing a PhD was advantageous for this role, but it was not essential. Does Andy regret spending a lot of time and money getting his doctorate? Not at all, he says. It was a fabulous experience, allowing him to travel to Australia and the US to do research and, of course, as anyone with a PhD knows, it is a great achievement and he takes pride in that. The transferable skills it provided: research, project management, writing, interpersonal skills, made him the ideal candidate for the job he does currently.

Joanna Oman tells a similar story. She completed a masters in Teaching English as a Foreign Language in the hope that she would gain a permanent lectureship. But, as Joanna says, after three years of being effectively unemployed every fifteen weeks she decided to seek out something more secure and stable. She had become disillusioned with teaching, finding it repetitive with no recognition for her hard work. Joanna's new job is Director of Marketing and Recruitment in a Business School, a role which involves overseeing the admissions offices and liaising with academics in the School to maintain application rates and improve its branding.

Andy's and Joanna's stories show that it is possible to use higher academic qualifications to get a job working alongside academics in a university environment, while avoiding the problems of job insecurity that many early career lecturers face. Like many successful academics, Andy and Joanna have the opportunity to travel abroad with their jobs, which is, as Joanna puts it ‘glamorous' and ‘hard work' at the same time.

There are many more examples of university management roles ideally suited to someone who has the skills and knowledge of Higher Education acquired while doing a PhD. Like Joanna, many people choose to work in a particular faculty, school or academic department. This is one of the ways that you may build on your own subject specialism and work very closely with academics. An example of a suitable role for a PhD-holder is a research co-ordinator. This role involves building the entire department's research portfolio and making strategic recommendations for the future. Other departmental opportunities include a project manager who might liaise with academics across many different universities, administering the financial side of research grants as well as organising events and monitoring output. If you have a flare for information technology and its relationship to education provision, many university departments are looking for I.T. support officers or e-learning advisors both of whom work with lecturers to develop I.T. projects that enhance both teaching provision and research output.

Outside the academic departments there are many positions open to those with postgraduate qualifications. University management has a wide range of sub-departments and any of these could accommodate a highly qualified individual: development and alumni relations, research support, international office, undergraduate or postgraduate admissions, student services, IT services, learning services, external relations, human resources and marketing to name but a few.

So if you have a PhD, lecturing is not the only opportunity available to you in a university. There are many ‘back room' positions that are ideally suited to someone of your skills and experience and which allow you to remain in the university sector. As Andy's experience shows, you do not have to be EITHER an academic OR a manager: working in administration does not mean completely leaving academia behind. Every year Andy gives one lecture on his specialist subject to first-year students, and he has recently been providing teaching cover for a history lecturer on maternity leave. If you are a postgraduate student unsure of what to do next, or an academic considering a career change, think about all the opportunities offered by universities and how your specific credentials could match those roles.

Check out to see the sorts of non-academic jobs you could do at a university with a PhD.

Link to case studies:

Joanna Oman 

Andy Roadnight

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