Too many doctoral students graduate without a clear idea of their next career step. They need help to understand their career options. Here I talk about 4 steps universities might take to help PhD student careers outside academia.

After graduating, around half of PhD students initially stay in academia. They work either as a contract researcher or doing a mixture of research and teaching. Most are on fixed-term contracts – typically 1-3 years. Many remain on such contracts for 10 years or more. There are insufficient permanent positions in universities to accommodate them all. I have covered these points in an earlier post.

When contract researchers move to another sector, the vast majority are happy with their new role. But it is clear from a Vitae report that many would have benefited from more information and support to make the transition. They might also have been able to move sooner.

We need to find ways of ensuring that contract researchers understand more about careers that might interest them outside academia. One way might be to start with PhD students and to embed interaction with other organisations in all PhD programmes.

I believe that there are simple and inexpensive steps that universities could take to help.

Have at least one external organisation involved in every PhD student project.

This could be any organization that is not a university. The ‘organisation’ could also be a self-employed person. Some subject areas, like the creative industries, have a high proportion of self-employed individuals. The organization would not have to make an in-kind or financial contribution to the project. But it might make a large contribution. For research subjects, such as pure mathematics or English literature, where jobs outside academia are less likely to draw upon the content of the research, the organisation might be a school or local government, for example.

Have one person (stakeholder) from the organisation who is associated with the student and their project.

The stakeholders should be available to attend some project meetings and other events at the university. The stakeholder should be interested in learning about the research and be prepared to ask questions about it. They might be a former research student of the university who has moved to a role in another sector. In some cases they may become a co-supervisor. The scope of the research and the research plan might be discussed by the student and supervisor and stakeholder.

Ensure that the PhD student development plan includes gaining skills relevant to obtaining a job outside academia.

This could include includes people skills, enterprise skills, employability skills and understanding of the workings of at least one organization in another sector. The student could spend time at the premises of the organization (maybe at least one day per year). This might provide opportunities for the student to perhaps shadow a member of staff, visit a factory, or have short meetings with different employees to find out about their roles. It might also mean the student having an internship in the organisation.

Establish a network for the students, their supervisors and the stakeholders.

This network could be multidisciplinary. For large numbers of students, it might be helpful to have more than one network – possibly with a theme that addresses a global or regional challenge (such as climate change). Network meetings could provide opportunities for students and others to draw on ideas, especially from other subject areas, to progress their research. The network could also provide peer support for students and networking opportunities for the stakeholders.


In many cases these steps could build upon contacts, networks and skills development plans already in place within the university. For example, many departments and research institutes have advisory boards with many members from other sectors. Most universities have a skills development template in place for their research students. This could be evolved to include skills, experiences and knowledge helpful for research students who see their future career outside academia.

In other cases, the steps outlined above could start new relationships between the university and other organisations. They could also promote interdisciplinary research and other projects.


This post is based on a project developed for the Entrepreneurial Leaders Programme run by the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education.

This post follows my previous posts First Class Postdoctoral Career Opportunities can embrace Different Sectors and  Roles and How different is being Self-Employed from being a Contract Researcher? and Contract Researchers – Check Out your Transferable Skills.
During a 25+ year career as an academic, Jenny Ames graduated ~25 PhD students and mentored ~25 contract researchers. Some have careers in academia while others work in different sectors. Jenny is now Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd. She is available to give talks, run workshops, lead brainstorming sessions and provide mentoring for research students and contract researchers. She can advise managers on strategy development and implementation regarding the professional development of researchers.



Author Jenny Ames

Working with Universities, Businesses and their Stakeholders to benefit Society.

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