How can you want what you don’t know about? The importance of career visibility

Posted on: 13 January 2021 by Dr Fiona McBride and Dr Catherine Charlwood in Blog posts

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Our Research Staff Developers, Dr Fiona McBride and Dr Catherine Charlwood, take a look at what we know about postdocs' hopes and expectations for their careers, plus what Prosper can do to broaden these.

This post originally arose from our early engagement with employers, when we often found ourselves being asked “why are postdocs aiming for an academic career?” or “why do postdocs want to stay in academia?” Bear in mind that many of these employers have employed postdocs and understand the vast amount of good they do in the world beyond academia. There are many ways of answering such questions as the above, of course, and one important factor is love of academic research. However, that’s not what we want to focus on here.

We got to thinking about how little postdocs might know about roles beyond academia – and how little we knew about this as postdocs! – and how these questions betrayed our assumptions that postdocs know about career options which might never have crossed their busy, often very academic-focused path. And the more we thought about career motivations among postdocs, the more we returned to the old adage ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

With applications open for Prosper’s first postdoc career development pilot, this blog explores what we officially know about postdocs’ career interests, contrasted with what former postdocs have told us anecdotally in our case studies and ongoing stakeholder engagement. The number of people who by chance ‘heard so-and-so speak’ or ‘saw an event’ on a particular career as the stimulus for their consequent career direction is telling. Only by raising awareness and putting role models in the paths of postdocs can we broaden their horizons.

Aspirations and expectations

Through the data-gathering from surveys like the Careers in Research Online Survey, or CROS (which has newly been combined with the Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey, or PIRLS, to become Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey, or CEDARS), we know that the majority of postdocs aspire to a research and teaching, or research-only career within academia. And these numbers appear to be rising, if the aggregate data of CROS 2017 and CROS 2019 are anything to go by (CEDARS aggregate data has not yet been released). However, this contrasts with the percentages of research staff who expect such a career.

Research staff are asked explicitly to select one option for each when asked ‘In which area do you aspire and expect to work in the long term?’, with responses as follows: 


Career in higher education – primarily research and teaching

39.9% 33.4%
Career in higher education – primarily research  36.2% 24.5%

There has been some shift since CROS 2017, since previously those aspiring to a career in research and teaching were 43%, those expecting it 36.7%. However, the proportion of those aspiring to do only research in a university has risen, from 34.4% to 36.2%. Yet the academic job market remains somewhat static and doesn’t match these indicators well.

And what such data doesn’t tell us is how many career pathways these postdocs know about. Admittedly, that would be impossible to measure(!), but it’s a good question for researcher developers to ruminate on: Which pathways have never been represented inside the university? What’s the most ‘out there’ role you’ve heard of a postdoc taking on? Who would you love to come and have speak to your researchers if only they’d say ‘yes’?

As part of our engagement with former postdocs, we’ve asked lots of people ‘Apart from your own aspirations, what has influenced your career development?’. As a project, we’re particularly interested in understanding what affects career choices – both the positive and the negative. Realistically, it doesn’t all come down to a single career aim: we are all rounded individuals with familial and geographical ties and personal circumstances around which we forge our existence and preferences for our lifestyle.

Among those influences apart from aspiration, people have cited (both staying near and starting a) family, a wish for greater work-life balance and personal development.

Widening the gaze

Returning to the CROS data, the figure that’s always fascinated us is the percentage of research staff who respond ‘Don’t know’ to the question of aspirational and expected careers. There is a significant population who aren’t served by current provision with regards careers advice if they’re answering ‘don’t know’.

% answering 'Don't know' in 2017  4.9%  14.3%
% answering 'Don't know' in 2019   5.9%  15.9%

As you can see, there’s a big jump between the percentage of research staff who ‘don’t know’ where they aspire to work in the long term, and those who ‘don’t know’ what to expect for their future work prospects. This is why the sharing of a wide range of career stories is so important, and in this Prosper builds on the great work of Vitae’s researcher career stories and the University of Oxford’s Research Careers – Showcasing careers beyond academia.

In all of our former postdoc case studies, we ask ‘What impressions did you have of employment options beyond academia before you moved? How did these impressions change?’, because we’re aware that the view from the academy can often look very different from the one beyond it. Here are just a few examples from postdocs now in careers beyond academia:

“I think I was unaware of the numerous options open to me”.
Dr Shona Jones, former postdoc turned IP Manager

“In terms of the impressions I had of the employment options, I had the wrong impression that those options […] I thought they were very limited. You know, I had done a PhD in Shakespeare, what relevance is that to anybody beyond that little clique of Shakespeare people? Actually I think, 'Thank God I did that,' because it has given me all sorts of perspectives, part of the fibres of my being, and influenced my approach to everything I do.”
John Miles, Founder and CEO of Inkpath

“When I was a postdoc I thought my options were: academia, or – the only other option I thought there was – go and work as a scientist in an industry lab (which was also not very enticing).

And then, as I read What Color is Your Parachute?, went and did some research, started looking at the job pages, started going to interviews, I realised “oh, there’s a whole ton of stuff out here!”. It never occurred to me that all of these industries and all of these things existed.”
Kate Whelan, COO & Head of Notch Scandinavia and former postdoc

Raising awareness of all the myriad opportunities available to postdocs is paramount if we want to see real change in career understanding, equality and destinations. As Dr Bryony Parsons, former postdoc turned Learning Developer states, “I still think there are jobs out there I don’t know about, so that’s why the Prosper Project is a great idea.”

University of Liverpool postdocs can apply to join Prosper’s first career development pilot before the application deadline of Friday, 22 January.

A broad range of 50 University of Liverpool postdocs to join a pilot cohort in April 2021 and undertake development activity designed to enable them to explore multiple career pathways.

Participants will gain direct access to Prosper’s 40+ employer partners, as well as dedicated career coaches, to explore their skills and aspirations and how these align with the range of roles and sectors open to them as postdocs.