Myth-busting careers beyond academia – challenging assumptions and preconceptions

Posted on: 18 June 2020 by Catherine Kennedy in Blog posts

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We've come across a range of preconceptions about work beyond academia. Read on to seperate fact from fiction.

Over recent months, the Prosper team has been (virtually!) out and about meeting with former postdocs, PIs and employers as we go about laying the foundations for our development model.

In amongst conversations ranging from what it means to be a postdoc to the challenges employers and institutions alike are facing as a result of Covid-19, we’ve come across a common reoccurring theme – the preconceptions and assumptions that often colour postdocs’ thoughts about exploring roles beyond academia.

In this blog, we’ve laid out the most common assumptions we’ve come across and done our best to do some myth- busting!

Myth no.1 - Getting a job beyond academia is a failure 

We’ve discussed in previous posts the level of commitment, time and hard work it takes to have reached a postdoc position. Having invested so much in the academic track, it’s unsurprising that we’ve heard from many former postdocs that anything apart from continuing to pursue an academic career initially felt like a less preferred option.

It’s not you, it’s the numbers!

It’s important here to look at the figures and hopefully shed some light on why progressing in academia is tougher now than ever before, as opposed to being a reflection of you or your abilities. Research shows that whilst the number of postdoc positions has increased significantly over the past 30 years, tenure-track positions haven’t kept up with this, meaning there are less opportunities for progression available. We highlight the research above not to dismiss progression in an academic career as option, but to hopefully help you to begin to reframe any current attitudes you may have towards your progress on the academic path so far. As we've mentioned in previous blogs, self-identifying as an academic researcher can be part and parcel of being a postdoc and forging a new way of seeing your professional self can be a process. That's why the Prosper portal has a whole section dedicated to identity and what you can do to expand how you view your potential for new roles and professional identities.

Digging a little deeper into the literature, it becomes clear that not only is a career beyond academia not a failure, there’s also a good chance you’ll be happy in a new role beyond academia. According to Haynes’s 2016 research into postdocs who’ve made this move, ’three-quarters are satisfied with their current employment, while only 18% of respondents continue to have aspirations of an academic career.’ These facts are also born out in conversations we’ve had with former postdocs now work in industry settings such as IBM, arts organisations, start-ups and elsewhere. 

For University of Liverpool postdocs, the Prosper portal comes with a section dedicated to hearing from former postdocs on what is like to thrive in roles beyond academia.

Myth no.2 – If I move to the commercial sector, it’ll be boring and I’ll lose intellectual freedom

“It’s still a constant learning basis for me every single day and I think that’s something that’s really important. People might think “if I leave academia I’m just going to be in a really boring, dead-end job” and that’s so not the case."
Kate Whelan, COO & Head of Notch Scandinavia and former postdoc

One of the attractions of being involved in academic research is being able to spend your professional life exploring often-niche areas, with some freedom to pursue your interests and reach your own conclusions.

So, what happens if you move to a role in the commercial sector? This may be the point where preconceptions of profit-driven organisations with a sole focus on making money come to mind but as we’ve discovered, this often isn’t the case. Some of the biggest insights we’ve gained over the past 6 months came from a day spent with a group of IBM researchers who also happened to be former postdocs. We heard repeatedly from them about their reservations about moving to a commercial setting and how their actual experiences have been far removed from what they’d imagined. One participant described their experience of research culture in industry:

“At university you work with your PI, who is also your technical lead and they secure the funding; they lead on the work. In industry, you work on research with impact and in collaboration with your colleagues, your managers, mentors and technical leaders. You are encouraged to lead and collaborate (work with people in other disciplines and within your own area as well) on your project.”

Furthermore, if your current role involves some teaching, it may be that a commercial role offers you more time to focus solely on research, allowing you to follow your passion with even greater freedom than in an academic setting. This was certainly the case for another of our IBM colleagues who understood the opportunity an industry position presented for this:

“It [moving beyond academia] was definitely about me spending more time on doing research. This is because I was teaching in an academic institution and for people like me, the possibility of solely doing research typically lies in an industry position. There are not many academic positions in which you can spend the majority of your time in research. I enjoyed teaching, but I wanted time to do my research.”

Myth no.3 – The skills I’ve gained as a postdoc aren’t valued or wanted by employers beyond academia

At first glance, it can be easy to see your postdoc skills as niche and through the narrow lens of research. Whether that’s being able to identify the work of 18th century satirical cartoonists or analysing the wheat genome, there’s sometimes a missing link when it comes to abstracting these as examples of your ability to pay attention to detail or work with disparate data sets. Explored more widely, it quickly becomes clear that the skills, attributes and mindsets you develop as a postdoc are highly prized by all kinds of employers. The trick is to identify these skills in yourself and know how to demonstrate and translate them beyond academia. In true Blue Peter style, we have content specifically designed to help you do this on our portal.

A large part of what we do at Prosper centres around working with employers to gain insider information on exactly what they're looking for in employees they need for the future success of their organisations. Passing these insights on to postdocs to ensure that you're able to stand out in the recruitment process and bring your unique skillset and attributes to the fore is an equally important part of our work.

A great example of a skill you might not automatically recognise in yourself as a postdoc is leadership if you don’t lead your own team. But as Dr Martyn Spink, Programme Director, IBM Research told us, “[leadership doesn’t] necessarily mean people who can manage or lead a team. It’s about taking a problem, taking ownership and responsibility for that problem, and getting done whatever needs to be done in order to solve that problem. It’s about taking ownership.”

If you are still wondering what it is that you can uniquely offer to an employer as a postdoc, our employer insights on the Prosper portal can help to get you thinking.

Another preconception we’ve come across in this area is the belief that only those with a STEM background have marketable skills sought by employers. This can be compounded by governmental narratives and policies that sometimes appear to place greater emphasis on doctoral scientists [Hancock, 2019]. However, based on our work with employers from a range of sectors and who employ postdocs from various disciplinary backgrounds, we can happily de-bunk this myth too. The Prosper portal has multiple examples of former postdocs now with fulfilling careers beyond academia in the arts, social good organisations and career development start-ups and we’re regularly adding to these.

Myth no.4 – If I decide to stay in academia, I’ll have to focus solely on my career and sacrifice my personal life/work-life balance

We've spoken a lot in this blog about myths surrounding life beyond academia but we're well aware that for some postdocs, continuing in an academic career is still one of several options you might be considering.

Although in some instances (including the personal experiences of members of the Prosper team) academic careers can demand significant personal sacrifices, through our discussions and focus groups with PIs, it's become clear to us that there is another way. One of our favourite PI case studies on the Prosper portal comes from Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Chemistry. Tom’s honest account of taking shared parental leave shows both the challenges and opportunities of this as a PI with his own research and responsibility for a postdoc. If this has piqued your interest, University of Liverpool staff can find out more about the institution’s parental leave policy in this video.

It also appears that culture change is on the horizon for those in academic careers. The Wellcome Trust’s January 2020 report on research culture confirmed that for many researchers, although they are ‘passionate and proud’ about their work, issues such as job insecurity and research and workplace culture negatively impact their professional lives. However, since then some shoots of change have begun to appear. Many institutions, including the University of Liverpool, are now signatories to Vitae’s Researcher Development Concordat and a statement of expectations for PIs and research staff is now available too. Most recently, UKRI has released its action plan to support research careers, which promises to do its part to ‘raise the bar on professional development and employment conditions for researchers’.

Collaborating with PIs and providing them with best practice models and networking opportunities that will allow them to support their postdocs career development is a central pillar of Prosper and we’re looking forward to playing our part in the development of UK research culture.

More about Prosper

Based in The Academy, Prosper is a new approach to career development that unlocks postdocs’ potential to thrive in multiple career pathways.

Our ultimate goal is to open up the huge talent pool that exists within the postdoctoral research community, to the benefit of postdocs themselves, Principal Investigators, employers and the wider UK economy. And this is of particular relevance now more than ever. Unlocking postdocs expertise and experience can be a vital part of how the UK moves into a post-Covid 19 world.

The Prosper portal

The prototype Prosper portal is now available to all University of Liverpool staff and can be accessed using your university username and password. The portal will be available at our partner institutions, the University of Manchester and Lancaster University, in summer 2021, with national roll-out in 2023. 

The portal’s career development resources are designed specifically for postdocs and Principal Investigators. This initial set of resources are aimed at enabling postdocs to reflect on their existing skills and values and the career pathways that these open up, both within and beyond academia, and the action they can take to pursue these further. Similarly, PIs can find information to support them in their role in postdocs’ development and success.

We will be developing and expanding these resources based on feedback from postdocs, PIs and our employer partners as the Prosper model evolves.