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Alternatives to Academia

Vitae‌More than 75% of PhD graduates will eventually leave academia  (Royal Society, "Scientific Century", 2010). There simply aren’t enough permanent academic posts to go around, so there is no shame in accepting this and moving into the non-academic workplace. Here you may find yourself a rarity, someone with a qualification held by only 2-3 % of the UK population. You will need to demonstrate to prospective employers that you can do more than simply conduct research into a single academic subject, and that your research, teaching experience and further study make you a good prospect for them.

Marketing your research

How would you describe your research to someone outside academia? It's important to be able to articulate the what and why of your work, and what it means to conduct exhaustive research in an academic environment. Take a moment to practise summing up your research and its impact in one minute, for a non-expert audience (ie most interviewing panels).

Unless you are able to move into a closely related area, there is a good chance that your research subject matter itself will not be completely relevant to your new employer. The Vitae Researcher Development Framework offers an easy way to track the skills and competencies you gather through academic research. In particular consider the RDF Employability Lens for non-academic roles, which focuses on the skills most in demand outside academia. It’s important to consider which of these transferable skills you can offer an employer:

  • Leadership & managing others – supervising students; organising conferences or other events; team working.
  • Professional conduct – research ethics; health & safety; administrative responsibilities.
  • Commercialisation – industrial collaboration; knowledge exchange; intellectual property; filing patents.
  • Funding – application for research funding; managing budgets; sourcing equipment; maintaining stores.
  • Teaching – tutorial teaching and marking; laboratory demonstrating; fieldwork; lecturing; teaching qualifications.
  • Research – the ability to conduct literature surveys and compile references; analyse, evaluate and criticise data; navigate academic search engines; manage your own work.
  • Drafting – writing academic papers; public engagement materials; textbook chapters; website and blogging material.
  • IT skills – coding; programming; web design; social media use; database maintenance; sector-specific software.
  • Technical skills – archive & manuscript work; good laboratory practice; electronic engineering; First Aid; instrumentation specific to your field.
  • Communication – presenting your work to a variety of audiences; conferences; posters; outreach; public engagement.

Where should I look for work?

Consider the following:

  • Where have others gone? Talk to your research colleagues, as well as other academic staff, about their career routes.
  • What do researchers do? Vitae produce annual reports and case studies charting the destinations of post-PhD researchers. also offers an easy way to track the career trajectories of PhD holders.

  • What do I want to go into? The job search resources open to you are vast, and it will help if you can narrow the field by giving serious thought to what you do or do not wish to pursue. Many worry that their PhD will make them overqualified for typical graduate roles ; this should not stop you applying. While it’s true that some companies may wonder why you are applying for a role which a Bachelor’s graduate could do, your three years’ research work should be laid out like any other work experience in your CV. This should allow you to showcase the additional skills which you’ve taken from your further study, in addition to intense subject knowledge in one area.

  • What do employers want? As well as sourcing contacts in your field of choice and asking what they look for, consider reports like Talent Fishing 2010, which asks some top employers which skills they do (and do not) value in research graduates. 

Enterprise and self-employment

A number of successful businesses have been set up by University of St Andrews graduates, including PhDs, for example Ambicare and FifeX. If you have the beginnings of a great business plan, now is the time to explore it through the support available at St Andrews:

  • Contact Ewan Chirnside at the Knowledge Transfer Centre to see where you stand regarding Intellectual Property rights and the University.
  • Discuss your plans with Bonnie Hacking, the University Enterprise & Employability Adviser
  • Take a look through our online material on Starting A Business.

Alumni case studies

The Saint Connect alumni network offers a chance to contact St Andrews graduates and hear their stories. A small but growing number of case studies is also available from the Careers Centre charting the course of PhD alumni careers from St Andrews, and the stages they had to go through to establish them.


Recruitment & Options:

Advice and Insight:

  • Beyond the PhD, an archive of online resources for Arts & Humanities PhDs
  • Shinton Consulting. Dr. Sara Shinton offers some very structured advice on CVs and Fellowships, as well as her own blog
  • Jobs on Toast, Dr. Chris Humphrey's erudite blog on moving out of academia
  • From PhD to Life, Dr. Jennifer Polk's blog containing great resources and interviews with PhDs who now work outside academia
  • The Unemployed Philosopher, by Dr. Daniel Mullin
  • Viva Survivors, Dr. Nathan Ryder's excellent podcast of interviews with PhD graduates, as well as other advice