Using Research Skills Outside Academia

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So you enjoy research.  But you are unsure if an academic career is right for you.  How else can you use your research skills? 

You may find a research post outside academia that uses the full range of your skills – perhaps in a biotech start-up or social policy ‘think tank’.  But these opportunities are rare, so do consider alternatives. 

A good first step is to identify your strongest skills and those you most enjoy using.

So find or make a skills list – the headings below are just examples – and give yourself a mark out of ten firstly for your strength (10 = strongest) in that skill and secondly for the enjoyment you derive when using it (10=most enjoyable).

Most of us will have a pattern of stronger and weaker skills, and a separate pattern of those we enjoy more and those we enjoy less.  With a bit of luck we can find a match.  So think most about finding a career which values the skills you are strong in and that you enjoy using.  Here are some examples.

Literature reviewing – finding, reading & analysing complex documents 

Very few jobs outside academia require the high-level literature reviewing skills developed during postgraduate study.  But working in many areas of central or local government, or in those sectors – such as health or housing – that depend on government policies for their income, requires people to be able to ‘read between the lines’ of policy documents and to understand the thinking behind the development of such policies.

Qualitative research - getting information from interviews and/or focus groups

Those who enjoy qualitative research – often finding information from interviewing people - have a huge range of job opportunities.  Many jobs, such as sales, market research, and product development, will need people to find out information from customers – and not just ‘Would you like fries with that?’.  Those not in front-line roles will still have so-called ‘internal customers’ – people in other parts of the organization who depend on their work, and will help to define what is required. 

Nowadays even in roles such as computing or finance, not previously associated with ‘people skills’, there is increasing awareness of the value of such skills.

Quantitative research - finding patterns, correlations and causal relationships in data

If your strengths and interests lie in working with data, think how your skills can be used in different sectors.  Particle physicists are good at filtering large amounts of data to find small numbers of significant events, perhaps in searching for the Higgs boson.  These skills could be useful in the analysis of seismic data for oil companies, financial data for banks, or patient data in the NHS, to spot patterns of successes and failures in patient care.

Similar data skills could be used in government to answer questions of economic and social policy, such as ‘Do changes in housing benefit mainly affect poor tenants or wealthy landlords?’.  The answers are not easy to find – and those with the skills to find significant patterns in complex data are much needed in these areas.

Developing an international perspective - working with overseas colleagues

Many researchers have the chance to work on international projects during their Ph.D. or postdoctoral research.  Such experience can be useful outside academia.  Too many UK-based organisations have little awareness of the world outside the UK, and a graduate who can add information on how things are done in other countries can add value, making these employers more open to different ideas and more successful.

Writing - conference papers, progress reports, newsletter articles, the thesis itself

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of your research is the writing?   Very few jobs outside academia require thesis-length written work.  But many will require proposals for new projects, bids for funding, and progress reports, so the ability to write clearly and concisely will be useful.

In many jobs there are also chances to write conference papers or journal articles.  These may not be as formal or rigorously-referenced as academic papers, but they do help to make your reputation in the business sector. It is also useful to have a few publications on your CV in case you decide to return to academic life in the future.

Oral communications - to large audiences, to small-groups or just chatting about your work to non-specialists

If you enjoy speaking more than writing, the good news is that jobs requiring the ability to talk confidently in front of colleagues and/or customers are widespread. Most large employers will also provide training in public speaking – do take advantage of such training if it is offered. 

If you get really good at presenting, you may wish to consider a career in the media.  For a TV career, it helps if you have the looks of musician Katie Derham, historian Lucy Worsley, or physicist Brian Cox.  For the rest of us, there’s always radio…

So if you want a change from academia, do think about your research skills, strengths and weaknesses, and your likes and dislikes.  Bring these out in your job applications and interviews, and your research skills will find a suitable home.

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