How would you sum up the central purpose of academia in one word? As a doctoral or postdoctoral researcher, what is your core business? The answer, I would venture, is KNOWLEDGE.
Academic researchers are knowledge professionals whose fundamental role is to answer a question, or to discover something new that no-one knew about before. To achieve this, you design research protocols, employ or devise new technology, interpret your findings, reach conclusions and disseminate them to others. As a knowledge professional, publications are the mark of your productivity and success*.
In addition to these core activities, there are many other responsibilities that support the knowledge process, such as: learning about others’ research, collaborating, teaching, supervising, managing, problem-solving, outreach, creativity, finding funding, being collegiate, considering the bigger societal perspective, and many more!
In my infographic above, I’ve split these academic ‘knowledge activities’ into three major categories to demonstrate the range of skills associated with each of them and how they can translate into a variety of careers:
CREATE – COMMUNICATE – CONVERT
CREATE: Creating knowledge is at the heart of a PhD or postdoc project and includes the processes connected with research, such as generating a hypothesis, devising methods and designing experiments to test it, using ethical and objective approaches. The data generated must be analysed and interpreted in relation to the knowledge landscape associated with this discipline, and then translated into communications, such as journal papers, conference presentations, general interest articles and even as the subject of media stories. The skills developed from these experiences lend themselves to a variety of research and analytical roles, both within and outside of academia.
For example, if you love doing research, and have lots of new research ideas, you might prefer to continue within academia to secure a fellowship or permanent position, ultimately establishing your own research group. Depending on the research institute or university, you may have a teaching obligation, be expected to conduct multi-disciplinary projects, or apply for international research grants. All of these complementary activities will count towards your application success to one degree or another, according to the institution’s priorities.
Depending on the areas of research you prefer, you may decide to develop further your enjoyment of technology and apply it to research and technical careers within industry, or even combine it with a love of teaching into emerging roles, such as digital learning and educational technology. On the other hand, you may prefer to direct your career to the multitude of other career sectors that welcome experienced professional researchers, for example, working in sectors such as policy and think tank governmental or private organisations, the media and finance.
COMMUNICATE: Many PhD researchers enjoy communicating their science in more creative ways, beyond the prescribed academic journal format. During the last few decades, more and more opportunities have arisen for researchers with a penchant for creative communication to get involved in all sorts of initiatives alongside their core research. This can range from helping out at local school visit days, through to external activities such as volunteering in a science centre or museum, creating interactive displays at Summer science festivals or producing on-line videos for the world to see. I have witnessed some amazing creations by PhD students who find these more creative endeavours a welcome release from some of the more routine tasks associated with their research.
Relatively recent, more formal initiatives, have enabled researchers to learn how to communicate science in an engaging way, such as ‘Falling Walls’ and the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT). Organisations such as Euroscience, the British Science Association and Pint of Science provide a platform for researchers to disseminate their science, and there are even initiatives to allow researchers to do outreach in their own native language. For some (many, even), this experience ignites a desire to pursue science communication as a career – and there are a multitude of options to choose from: presenting, writing, interviewing, blogging, creating videos, infographics and podcasts, to name but a few.
CONVERT: The majority of big research funders, nowadays, require academic researchers to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research beyond the academic community, such as its wider communication and also as technology transfer in the form of products, materials, mechanisms, services, biotechnology and methodologies. Many PhD researchers are interested in the more enterprising side of science and are stimulated by the idea of producing something tangible from research beyond a journal paper. They are inspired to move out of academia and into business and industry to put their entrepreneurial aspirations into action.
However, the transition can be quite challenging, since many researchers do not get the opportunity to actually demonstrate their enterprising skills during the course of their PhD. Having said that though, there are ways and means for researchers to engage in associated research activities that will add value to their CV. For example, connecting with their university management school, attending in-house and external courses/events and getting real-life experience through an internship, networking with alumni, or by applying for structured business-academic partnership projects, such as Code-Switch Consultants and YESBiotechnology. In this way, researchers can really test out their research innovation potential, with a view to forging a new career path for themselves.
I hope this (rather longer than I had intended) blog has given you some useful ideas about how to put your professional KNOWLEDGE skills and experience to good use, whether it’s to remain in academia or to move into business and industry.
Footnote: *although indicators, such as the H-index, are coming under scrutiny as a limited measure of a researcher’s quality and potential.
Related blog: Knowledge is Power