If you’re an aspiring or experienced researcher, you might be considering research career options outside of a traditional academic environment.
An increasing number of graduates, PhDs and postdocs are choosing to pursue their interests in alternative research roles in industry, the charity sector, public bodies and research organisations.
This post provides you with all the information you need to know about non-academic research careers, the skills you’ll need and where to find jobs.
Higher education remains the largest employer of researchers globally. However, there is a wide range of employers looking to capitalise on the transferable knowledge and skills of qualified researchers.
- Research Institutes/Councils – Research institutes play a lead role in basic and applied research, innovation, knowledge generation and new technologies. They collaborate with universities, governments and industry. A large majority of research institutes are concerned with STEM research and development, however, there is a range of organisations dedicated to social sciences, economics, arts and humanities research. You can find a full list of the UK’s public and non-profit research organisations at The Royal Society.
- Charities and Non-Profit Organisations (NGOs) – Charities and NGOs conduct and support research activities in a wide variety of sectors, from medical and healthcare research to conservation. They partner with higher education, governments, international policymaking bodies and multi-sector industries to research issues faced by the global population. To search for a charity by research sector in England and Wales, visit The Charity Commission.
- Private sector companies and industry – The commercial sector is a popular route for many postdocs. Ever-closer research collaboration between academia and industry has resulted in transformative breakthroughs in multiple sectors. You’ll find that the bulk of industry research jobs are available in STEM-related companies and sectors such as biotechnology, pharma, engineering, AI tech companies and financial services.
- Government departments and public bodies – Researchers are in demand in government departments and public sector bodies, such as in the Civil Service or the NHS in the UK. Comprehensive research is vital in formulating policy and rolling out public services and projects.
What qualifications, experience and skills do you need?
The qualifications needed to become a researcher in either a research organisation or a commercial company depend on the type and level of role you’re interested in.
Most research and development roles require candidates to have at least a postgraduate qualification and preferably a PhD in an area that aligns with the core business of the organisation. For instance, researching and developing equipment for MedTech companies or machine learning technologies in a tech company.
However, some organisations and companies are more flexible in the essential qualifications they require and will accept equivalent professional experience (for example, having worked as a clinical scientist in the NHS).
When assessing your suitability for the role, organisations will be interested in the experience, knowledge and skills you can bring to a research project, product or service. You’ll be expected to have expertise in some or all of the following:
- Quantitative and qualitative research methods
- Data collection, analysis and interpretation
- Technical/programming/statistical knowledge
- Academic and report writing
- Project management and product/business development
- Teamworking and networking skills
- Excellent presentation and communication skills
- Laboratory practice skills (if applicable)
- Budget management and leadership skills
What to expect from a non-university research job
Advantages to research roles outside of higher education can include better salaries and work-life balance, improved job security and progression, access to cutting-edge R&D facilities (particularly in industry), better teamwork/networking opportunities and larger budgets.
Most non-university research roles involve the following duties:
- Contributing to or project managing R&D in line with your interests and skill set.
- Working within an inter-departmental, multi-skilled team.
- Conducting research activities in either a laboratory, in the field or in an office.
- Networking and collaborating with external partners and organisations.
- Record-keeping and administrative duties.
- Conducting business development activities and industry analysis.
- Writing reports and presenting research outcomes.
- Managing staff (senior-level roles).
- Engaging in training and career development.
- Engaging in media, marketing and communication activities.
In any sector, research activities depend on funding availability. Therefore, your first research job may be offered on a fixed-term basis for the duration of a project or collaboration. If you’re an industry researcher in a large company, there is more scope to move up into a project management role or shift into other areas of the business, such as sales or distribution.
Promotion in any research job depends on the success and visibility of your research, teamwork and networking abilities and the value you can add to the overall strategy of the organisation.
Research salaries outside higher education depend on the role and organisation. Entry-level research positions start at around £30,000 to £39,999 p.a. in research institutes and charities/NGOs. Research careers in industry and the commercial sector command the highest salaries at any level, particularly in STEM research jobs.
Where to find jobs
The specific skills acquired in a PhD are highly sought after outside of academic research and you’ll find a wide range of opportunities across multiple sectors.
However, this does not mean that jobs will fall into your lap – job hunting in research can be competitive and you might have to wait for the right opportunity. If you’re looking at jobs in the private sector it’s a good idea to research how your academic experience and skills will fit within a commercial context.
Networking is key – many postdocs find that a personal recommendation from an academic supervisor or through contacts made during doctoral studies can be useful in landing a role.
The best place to start your search is here at jobs.ac.uk. We’re dedicated to bringing you the latest academic and non-academic research jobs, as well as offering up-to-date advice and guidance to help you at every stage of your career.