How to turn your research career into a launch pad to alternative worlds of employment

Earlier this year, I wrote about “Why I left research-and what would have made me and other women stay”. I’ve been blown away by the number of researchers (women and men) who’ve responded by asking how I changed careers successfully.

In the halls of academia, many a water cooler conversation concerns ‘Plan B’, especially during the nervous wait for announcements of grants for scientific research. With grant funding success rates dropping significantly in the past 5 years (below 15% for NHMRC in 2015), many researchers are thinking harder about alternative careers.

During my career as a medical researcher, studying complex immunological pathways, when I contemplated alternative careers, I’d think But what else could I do with my skill set?  Surely time spent at the lab bench won’t translate to another field?

I was wrong!

As a PhD student or post-doc, you tend to label yourself as a specialist in a particular research area. Yet even without realising it, you have probably gained a broad range of skills applicable to careers outside the lab.  These include:

  • Project management
  • Information/knowledge management
  • Problem solving and innovative thinking
  • Working independently AND as part of a team
  • Time management
  • Report and grant writing
  • Networking and PR skills
  • Event and meeting organisation and facilitation
  • Presentation skills
  • Computer literacy

Recently, someone said to me ‘You were preparing yourself for 10 years to leave research weren’t you?’ I was surprised by this comment and realised they were partly correct: it was 15 years.

Don’t get me wrong: I threw myself wholeheartedly into my research career, working every weekend during my PhD and many nights after the kids went to bed as a post-doc. But I knew that I needed well-rounded skills if I wanted to progress my career, whether within or beyond academia.

Looking back, I see now that even as an undergraduate, through a part-time job promoting my university to school students through campus tours, careers days and other events, I was developing my understanding of marketing, communications and PR.

As a PhD student and post-doc, I continued to acquire transferrable skills. I conducted tours of my institute (communication), got involved in Science Week events (PR) and put my hand up to organise conferences (event management).

When I temporarily lacked research funding, I took a 6-month contract in a Business Development position at ANSTO and learnt a lot about market research, commercialisation and business strategy.

In my current role, as Marketing and Communications Manager for gemaker, as well as promoting our consulting business, I also assist clients, ranging from researchers to inventors to small-to-medium enterprises, with their market research, marketing and communications. Our clients come from the physical sciences, ICT, mining and manufacturing sectors, so being able to translate technical information is a must.

The two biggest skills I have brought across from my research career, which I use on a daily basis, are my abilities to: (i) ask the right questions (market research) and (ii) distil complex information into a digestible format (communications).  How many journal articles do researchers read each week: ten? Twenty? More? After a while you become adept at extracting the relevant information quickly: an incredibly valuable skill.

Launching from a research career to another world of employment isn’t rocket science, so I’m sure others can do it as I have.  I’m going to commence countdown with my top tips for achieving escape velocity:

10…   Have a can-do attitude.

9…      Focus on the big picture.

8…      Develop your psychological flexibility and agility.

7…      Take risks. A new experience may not appear interesting or suited to you, but you won’t know unless you try it.

6…      Put your hand up for informal learning experiences and sign up for any professional development or training that will develop your skills in other areas.

5…      Volunteer for mentoring programs or groups.

4…      Participate in any industry liaison activities or other public outreach programs run by your institute or university.

3…      Explore the entrepreneurial sector and see if you can pick up any knowledge or experience, perhaps by volunteering.

2…      Leave the traditional academic hierarchy and status symbols behind. Outside the research sector, experience counts more than a ‘Dr’ in front of your name.

1…      Buckle up.

Send me a postcard when you get there!

This Insight was written by our own Dr Julie Wheway.