Life as a Researcher doesn't have to mean Life as an Academic

Posted on: 24 January 2024 by James Reynolds in Blog posts

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As we finalise preparations for our first ‘business as usual’ Prosper career development cohort at the University of Liverpool in 2024, we find ourselves reflecting on our two pilot cohorts, and what we learned along the way.

One of the most common threads we encounter among the postdocs we work with relates to identity – specifically identity as a researcher, and its close relationship to another identity category: identity as an “academic”.

We’ve (very intentionally) worked with postdocs from a tremendously diverse range of backgrounds – all sorts of different personalities, with different life goals, priorities, interests, working styles, skillsets and strengths. We’ve worked with postdocs within the arts and humanities as well as those within the scientific disciplines, and what life as a postdoc entails day-to-day varies considerably even within each discipline, never mind across disciplines.

What unites most postdocs is a love of research and researching – a natural curiosity about their chosen research topic/area and the wider world at large. This makes sense when you consider the selection bias at play – it takes years of hard work, study and commitment to become a postdoc in the first place.

Where things get trickier and more complicated is how this relates to identity as an academic. Many (not all!) postdocs have spent their entire working lives within academia, having progressed along what might be called the ‘traditional’ linear academic pathway that stretches right back to student life (undergrad -> masters -> PhD -> postdoc).

This academic environment - with its intense workloads and relative lack of information about the world beyond academia – can make it easy to conflate the concept of ‘researcher’ and ‘academic’. This can reach the point that the two are seen as one and the same, or at least so closely entwined that the academic pathway is seen as the only way to truly make a career out of being a researcher. As one of our pilot postdocs, Alex James, put it:

 “My thinking was that I would inevitably end up as an academic fully committed to the researcher life. And why wouldn’t I? I had spent my adult life working my way up the academic ladder. We aren’t told any different and are surrounded by people on a daily basis who have done the same.”

There is often a more pernicious cultural element to this too. The ‘traditional’ linear pathway can give rise to an ‘academia or bust’ mentality. There is a perception of a single track to success – securing a permanent academic position, and to deviate from this path can be seen as failure or ‘selling out’. Leaving academia can be seen as equivalent to giving up on the dream of being a researcher altogether.

This all-or-nothing mentality can become a barrier for postdocs. It can lead them to feel they don’t have a choice but to say in academia if they wish to have a career as a researcher.

Putting aside the supply versus demand aspect of permanent academic positions compared with the global number of postdocs, there are other practical considerations involved.

The academic postdoc job market is largely centred around fixed-term contracts and often necessitates having to physically move around every few years. This can be inhibitive when it comes to other aspects of life such as caring responsibilities or acquiring a mortgage. It favours the able-bodied and financially comfortable, further marginalising those without these advantages. It can also prove a major challenge in cases where those in a relationship are both postdocs (sometimes known as ‘the two-body problem’).

And again, we find that many postdocs naturally feel they have a hard and absolute choice to make between their broader life and being a researcher. The gambler’s fallacy also rears its head here (“I’ve come this far….”).


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The rise of the academia-adjacent career pathway

The good news is, it simply isn’t true.

The perception that being a researcher is something that you can only pursue as a career within a University is false, an illusion. Life as a researcher does not necessitate life as an academic, following the “traditional” academic pathway.

This has always been the case, but it is especially true of today’s job landscape. There are a host of roles and career pathways across a range of sectors – at organisations large and small – that are very research-focused, and often mirror aspects of life within academia more than postdocs might realise. To quote another postdoc from our pilots, Revathy Krishnamurthi:

“I had never thought about anything else other than academia. I just wasn't aware of all the kinds of research settings outside of academia. After talking to people in those kinds of roles, I got to know that it's not actually so different. You can still conduct research, publish papers – many companies will help you upskill as a researcher.”

There are the most obvious and well-known routes of this type – such as the pharmaceutical industry for Life Sciences researchers. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Governments, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), software companies, museums, the third sector, transportation, the creative industries (to name just a few) all contain a plethora of research-intensive career pathways to pursue.

We live in a highly specialised tertiary economy where data and analysis is now the lifeblood of nearly every enterprise going on some level, even those that in the past may have had little use for the type of specialist that postdocs represent.

And the skills that postdocs of all disciplines naturally accumulate during their academic career are exactly those that are in high demand. This applies to more technical skills such as logical thinking, analysis, familiarity with programming languages and so on, but also to transferable skills.

The scope of the possibilities here are broader than people often realise. I myself come from the world of London PR agencies. When I first entered this profession in the late 00s, none of these agencies would have ever considered hiring a postdoc because they were a postdoc. Any such candidates would have been viewed as overqualified and not particularly needed. Now, just over a decade later, the agency I worked for most recently directly looks to recruit postdocs to support its research function.

Connected with all this is the rise of what often gets termed the ‘academia adjacent’ career pathway. This term covers a range of different job types but typically it refers to roles that support research and/or researchers but usually aren’t directly conducting research themselves. Thus, even within Higher Education Institutions there is a wide and growing range of ‘professional service’ roles that mirror aspects of academic life and for which postdocs can be well-suited – from technician roles through to research coordinator/project management roles. 

This case study of Dr. Madeleine Beveridge from the University of Glasgow’s excellent Pathfinder series is a good example of the latter. Madeleine secured a role at the University as Research Development Manager, facilitating interdisciplinary and collaborative research. To quote:

“I get to hear about amazing new ideas and watch them as they develop; I get to make links with other ideas, and see connections and overlaps where others who are closer to the details of the research may not; I get to think about gaps in the landscape and where we might expect funders to prioritise next.”

So there are many ways to be a researcher outside of academia, and there are many ways to be closely involved with the world of research within academia beyond the confines of the researcher-pathway.

The ‘academia or bust’ mentality often carries with it certain myths and what transitioning beyond academia means giving up, often connected closely with the outmoded ‘lone researcher’ archetype. For instance, we often come across the idea that leaving academia, even for a research-based role, means giving up intellectual freedom and creative control over one’s research. But the traditional academic pathway – especially at the postdoc level – rarely comes with this kind of total control, and many research roles many research roles beyond academia offer a similar balance in this regard.

Another misconception we frequently encounter relates to the ‘selling out’ idea – that to work in academia means putting ideas first, whereas organisations beyond academia are purely money and profit-driven. But again, this simply doesn’t reflect the complexity of the landscape. Apart from the fact that there are many research roles in non-profit organisations and Government, postdocs also know first-hand that money and funding is an unavoidable feature of University life itself.


The point is choice - and having the tools to make an informed choice

It should be emphasised that none of this should be taken to mean that there’s anything wrong with the “traditional” academic career pathway, or that career pathways beyond academia are “better” per se. Like anything in life, there are pros and cons, and those pros and cons are specific to each individual and what they want and need from a career.

Indeed, many of the postdocs we worked with, while appreciating the chance to gain a more informed view of their options, decided that an academic career pathway is what they primarily want to pursue – some have since gone onto secure other postdoc roles and even permanent lectureships.

The point is that postdocs should know that there is no single pathway to having a career working as a researcher, or in the world of research. And they should have access to the tools and resources they need to reflect on what they want, in order to make a more informed choice. Even the decision itself is not a fixed one – researchers can embark on career journeys that take them in and out of academia at different points in their life.

This is what we at Prosper are all about at the end of the day – giving postdocs the support and resources they need to realise the breadth of their options. We want postdocs to feel supported to make the best career development decisions for them, without feeling trapped or that a role or career decision is for life or irrevocable. With longer working lives and the changing nature of work it’s increasingly likely that we’ll all have more than one career in our lifetime. We want to ensure postdocs feel able to make informed career choices that suit what they want from a career.


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