Academia vs Non-Academic Careers After Postgraduate Research

Quote reading: "Don't just have career or academic goals. Set goals to give you a balanced, successful life. I use the word balanced before successful. Balanced means ensuring your health, relationships, mental peace are all in good order." - Chetan Bhagat.
– Chetan Bhagat

If you’re debating whether to aim for an academic vs a non-academic career, author Chetan Bhagat’s advice above is a great starting point. Which pathway will enable you to have the balanced life you envisage?

While having a postgraduate qualification (e.g., a Masters or PhD) can be a passport to embark into academia, academia is not the only destination after completing a postgraduate journey. Academia is not for everyone. It’s a dream career for some, but not a good fit for others.

The two of us both completed PhDs, but then we took different forks in the road: Kwong Nui into an academic role, and Anaise non-academic. We sat down for a chat about our careers and how they have evolved from our postgraduate research. Here are our thoughts on academic and non-academic careers. We hope they help you in your own career planning.

An academic pathway?

Dr Kwong Nui Sim

Being an academic is more than a role; it is a lifestyle. This is particularly when an academic doesn’t and cannot work only from 9am to 5pm in a daily basis (e.g., international collaboration means one needs to adapt to different time zones). Wearing different hats on at all times (i.e., teaching, researching, service and leadership), an academic has to be able to shift from one mind to another constantly.

For example, today I began my day with a meeting with an overseas colleague about a possible research collaboration. It was then followed by a supervision meeting with my doctoral student who would like me to be one of his referees for his award application. After that, I was scheduled to do a filming with my lovely colleague to produce online materials for postgraduate students. Later, I had a research team meeting to work on the granted research projects before I sat down and drafted this blog. While I think I can finish my day at 5pm today for my weekend, I would like to answer all my emails (if I could) and do some work on organising a conference as well as preparing my presentations in the upcoming international conferences so that I can begin my weekend at ease. But it is not uncommon if ideas emerge during the weekend, and I will start working on my laptop again – not a recommended practice yet it is better than losing the ideas, at least for me.

Hence, the work-life balance is crucial being an academic. If this sounds like you, start preparing yourself from the beginning of your postgraduate journey, get involved in any teaching and service (e.g., be a volunteer at a conference) opportunity and most importantly, start publishing either a conference presentation or a journal article if you could.

Or a non-academic pathway?

Dr Anaise Irvine

I considered an academic career, but the state of the job market in my field (dire) meant that I would have had to probably move countries, and/or publish like a demon, to make it work. That just didn’t fit for me, especially as I have a young family to consider. My motivation was always to think, write, and share the spark of learning with others. An academic career would have been one way to make that kind of contribution, but I found another. In my current role, I oversee academic resources, workshops, and events for postgraduate research students at AUT. That means I get to think, write (see: this blog) and help others in their education without sitting in a traditional academic role. I don’t do research or publish in journals, and a part of me misses that; but I’m also free of the pressures and deadlines that follow many academics through their weekends. I still get to use my research experience every day, and earn a decent living. Most importantly, I’m proud of the work I do, and feel it fits well with my values. But I also have a really good balance with my home life as well, and I don’t think I would have found that in the competitive world of academia.

There are many non-academic roles within higher education that, like mine, reward the effort you’ve put into a research qualification without holding you to the demanding requirements of an academic role. I also have a great many colleagues who have gone into industry, leveraging their Masters or doctoral research into rewarding roles that require a high level of critical thinking and subject matter expertise. Looking at my PhD friends now, some work in research & development; others in policy roles; quite a few have become project managers (because what’s better training to manage a project than managing your own research?). There is an incredible variety in career paths that can follow a research degree, and I think it would be a mistake to imagine that academia is the default.

Preparing for employment

Even if you’re not sure which pathway to follow, you can still prepare for a post-qualification career by building strength and diversity in your CV. Look for experiences building opportunities during the postgraduate journey. This could include internships, placements, a part-time job, and/or voluntary service when you are still a postgraduate student. If you think academia might be for you: get yourself out there! Go to conferences, publish, take on teaching work, and seek out contributions that can help you to understand the university context (e.g. as a student rep, group leader, or committee member).

All in all, try to avoid having an empty CV during the time you are doing postgraduate study. It sounds tough to do both at the same time, but hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. You get what you work for and not what you wish for!

About Drs Kwong Nui Sim and Anaise Irvine

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