As you reach the end of your PhD and find yourself unsure of the next step, the most obvious question is: Should I pursue a Postdoc or explore other options? Undertaking postdoctoral research is an important initial step towards establishing yourself in academia. However, if you genuinely don’t envision a long-term commitment to performing cutting-edge research whilst managing the challenges of securing funding for your own research team, it’s advisable to start exploring your career options. When I completed my PhD in 2005, the mere suggestion of transitioning to industry or consultancy was deemed inappropriate and was referred to as a move to the so-called ‘dark side’. Fortunately, this perception has since changed, and I discovered that transitioning can actually be an exhilarating journey, filled with endless opportunities!
Once you make the decision to leave your academic roots, the next question arises: What alternatives can you explore? There are in fact many! You can engage in research within an industrial setting, venture into consultancy, or pursue other research-related careers. It’s crucial to reflect on what you enjoy, your strengths and values. Would you like to work in a multidisciplinary team? Would you like to see how research can drive innovation, leading to new commercial solutions for real-world applications? To make a decision, it’s essential to become informed. So, tune in, log on and link up! Let's briefly explore some career options beyond academia, gradually stepping away.
The natural progression would be to pursue a research position in industry. In this context, the key difference is that the research will be less exploratory and more goal-orientated aligned with the overall strategy of a company. Industrial research is driven with the objective of bringing new products, technologies or solutions to the market. Factors such as customer/end user needs, financing and return on investment will now determine the research scope, objectives and deliverables. The pace of research is likely to accelerate as industrial research typically operates within shorter timelines to meet market demands. Intellectual property will become a key asset and protecting it with patents will take precedence over publishing in high impact scientific journals.
Taking a step further away from academia, you can consider transitioning into research-related consultancy, either by joining a consultancy company or working as an independent consultant. In this role, a key distinction is the switch to a customer-centric mindset where you become a service provider. The research results will now belong to your customers. The scope of your work will expand providing expert advice and guidance to support your customer’s business goals. As a consultant, you will likely work for multiple customers, possibly spanning different sectors or developing specialized knowledge or skill sets. The chances are high that you will remain directly involved in research and/or development, innovation and engineering either through hands-on practical work or by managing its execution.
Other research-related careers
Taking an even further step away encompasses a wide range of research-related career options. These could include for instance, becoming a patent lawyer, policy maker, innovation government advisor, technical writer or an innovation grants consultant. In these roles, the key difference is that these professionals apply their specialisation to research-related activities rather than providing advice and guidance on the research activity itself. The focus of the research efforts shifts towards conceptual work that enables decision making and strategic planning. These professionals often work on even shorter-term projects, continuously staying updated on recent developments and adapting strategies to align with the rapidly evolving world of R&D and innovation. However, an important consideration in this transition is that you will no longer be directly involved in long-term research projects in practice.
Innovation grants consultancy
From my experience as an innovation grants consultant, I have gained valuable insights into this fascinating role. It is important to have in-depth knowledge of the ever-changing rules and regulations related to the various grant funding modalities and master the art of effectively applying them to projects. It is essential to stay updated on government policy that influences funding decisions and stay attuned to the latest sector and tech trends. Understanding the evolving business models, market and investor trends is essential. All of this is in addition to conceptual research ability and communication skills. Having then combined this with entrepreneurship adds another dimension to the challenging yet highly fulfilling journey I have experienced in terms of knowledge expansion and professional growth in this field!
The more you transition away from academic research, the more focused research expertise gives way to a broader range of competencies. Likewise, a highly refined skill set is replaced by transferable skills. For example, scientific articles tend to become replaced by patent applications, project progress reports or grant applications which require communication skills tailored to a broader target audience, rather than fellow scientists. Additional training is often required, and teamwork tends to become more diverse, collaborating with partners or colleagues from different departments.
Continue to grow
When exploring career options, it’s crucial to choose a path where you feel you can continue to grow and build on the skills and competencies you have already acquired. As scientists, we possess strong analytical thinking, problem-solving abilities, attention to detail and creativity. However, it is important to note that accomplishing a PhD is not the sole path towards a successful career nor does it guarantee one. There are many routes to achieving a great career including engaging in practical experience, continuous learning, and acquiring specialized skills etc. Undertaking a PhD provides the opportunity for a dedicated period for focused development enabling the application of scientific knowledge and honing critical thinking and problem-solving skills within a specific research area.
Ultimately, the decision to pursue a postdoc or explore alternative career options after obtaining your PhD is a personal one. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities, interests and personal goals and then explore the various career options that align with them. Whatever path you choose, keeping an open mind, staying curious, and continuing to learn and grow, will undoubtedly pave the way to a rewarding career that creates meaningful impact.