Is there life outside academia?

01 November 2017 - By: Caroline Wood

Is there life outside academia?

By Caroline Wood

Given that only around 3.5 % of PhD’s land a permanent research position1, perhaps it would be more accurate to call academia the ‘alternative’ career. During our session ‘Is there Life Outside of Academia?’ at the 2017 SEB Annual Meeting in Gothenburg, we heard from a range of speakers who had successfully made the break – and in some cases even transitioned back again.

“You gain fantastic skills throughout your PhD”, said Bennett Young (Assistant Editor at the Journal of Experimental Botany), skills that lend themselves to a whole range of industries. But according to global career coach, Tina Persson, to find a fulfilling career, “you have to transfer your drives and motivations, not just skills. Knowing your talents and personal values is essential to find an organisation where you complement the other roles within the team”. To get ideas, Tina advised “follow people you admire on social media, watch inspiring TED Talks and read books on personality”.

You will need to look beyond the job titles when searching for your ideal match. For instance, “many jobs in publishing don’t actually involve much, if any, science writing”, said Bennett. Meanwhile Outi Vaarala, head of Translational Biology, Innovative Medicines (iMed) at AstraZeneca R&D, spoke of how industrial companies often have surprisingly large research operations. “An increasing amount of science is done in-house on our site and there is a surprising focus on publication”, she said. Yet even when you find your ideal role, you may need to be prepared for a culture clash at first. Erik Alexandersson, now Associate Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and director for the  research network PlantLink, recalled his 2-year break from research as an editor at BioMed Central: “It was quite a shock to me: an open plan office with scores of different departments, all integrated and not focused on different areas”. Outi agreed that “it may take time to understand how a complex organisation works so you need an open-minded attitude”. But it is still possible to find your crowd: “Nerds, aka brilliant minds, are everywhere, even outside academia”, Erik reassured us!

Perhaps the most critical attribute is flexibility and a willingness to take on new challenges. According to Bennett, even in the publishing world, “you will encounter a new scenario every day, some new quirk, which you have never done before, particularly when dealing with peer review”. Erik agreed: “I was really thrown in the deep end at BioMed Central: I was suddenly put in charge of four BMC journals, including nephrology which I knew absolutely nothing about. But my time outside academia reassured me that I can jump between fields more than I thought”. Yet that shouldn’t make you afraid to take a risk, as “it is when we are under pressure and out of our comfort zone that we develop the most”, said career consultant Sarah Blackford2 former SEB head of Education and Public Affairs. As Outi added: “It’s OK to ask, ’What if I fail?’ Then simply make a plan B. See it as an experiment, not the place you need to be until you retire”. Tina agreed: “You shouldn’t expect to nail your dream job in one go. People arrive there because of all the ‘failures’ behind them”.

So don’t despair if you are considering leaving academia. Clearly there is a bright world waiting outside your laboratory window…

1. Taylor, Martin, Ben Martin, and James Wilsdon.  The scientific century: securing our future prosperity. The Royal Society, 2010.


Category: SEB Gothenburg 2017
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members. Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.