Non-academic jobs in Higher Education

When it comes to thinking about a career after a PhD or research contract, people tend to polarise the potential routes forward as either academic or non-academic, but it may be that there is a middle way to be found in academic-related jobs in Higher Education.

For those people who enjoy working in a University context, academic-related jobs within HE can have many of the benefits of an academic post without the same pressures. For instance, many non-academic staff have similar terms and conditions of employment to academic staff (including pensions, maternity rights and leave allowances) without the pressure of the RAE/REF (although inevitably some accountability or quality assurance measure is employed). Academic-related roles also utilise the skills gained by researchers and PhD students who, for example, understand how Universities work, can relate to and work with academic staff and understand the complexity of academic work.

Such a move to academic-related work is even easier for researchers who do other things alongside the PhD. For instance, I taught at two different Universities as well as working for student support, and that meant that when it came to applying for a non-academic job in the HE sector I considered a real range of roles. My experiences meant that I could use my student support work as evidence of the potential to work with international students, use my PhD experience to show that I could help to implement Personal Development Planning for graduate students, and use my research skills to be a credible candidate for work as a Project Officer. The job I ended up getting and accepting used my teaching experience and qualification to work in Educational Development, helping to prepare graduate students to teach.

Perhaps, though, a snapshot of my current workload will say more about how being in an academic-related role can work. This week, I’m finishing off a paper for a conference that I have coming up in a couple of weeks, and I’m also working on the final touches for a workshop for this year’s Vitae conference here in Manchester in September. I had an e-mail this morning asking me to review an article for a journal, and I’m also waiting for proofs for an article that a colleague and I recently had accepted for another journal. I’m also about to start revisions on another piece for a different journal. In terms of development work, I’ve just put together next year’s research staff development programme, and I’m beginning to organise the timetable and approach people to help to deliver the sessions. In a couple of weeks I’ll start making changes to the sessions that I deliver based on last year’s evaluations and my own reflections. And then there also interviews that I’m conducting for an on-line resource to support Teaching Assistants. 

In many ways, then, this is a fairly ‘academic’ job, comprising of ‘research’, service and ‘teaching’, (I put teaching and research in quotations since only my service would probably be accepted as legitimate academic work by academic staff because my research will not contribute to the REF and my teaching won’t contribute (directly) to student satisfaction or recruitment).  However, the fact that my ‘research’ won’t contribute to the REF also means that I’m not under any pressure to research if I choose not to. In addition, for the most part, I come in around 9 and leave around 5 (unlike a lot of academics), although there are busier and quiter times of year when I may put in more or fewer hours. And like many academics, conference trips or development courses often take me away from Manchester overnight. Although my job is only one example, it does show that, in some cases at least, academic-related work is just that – closely related and similar to the work that many academics and researchers do.

I know several other people  who have moved into a non-academic or academic-related role in Higher Education, including someone who did go into a student support role and another who went into a researcher development role and then moved on to work for the NUS. Both were Humanities Researchers, and both are using knowledge and skills directly related to the experience they gained during the PhD. Those of you who have been along to the Careers sessions that I have run with Sonja will also know that, before becoming Manchester Careers Service’s Consultant for Research Staff, Sonja was a postdoctoral scientist.

Of course, it isn’t completely a bed of roses – there are some disadvantages that you might not experience outside of academia. Like academic or research posts, the funding for academic-related posts can be temporary, and developing a career can involve having to move around the country, chasing the funding and the jobs. As with fixed-term research, you have to take your own career development seriously and plan to develop skills and experience that will facilitate a change of direction if necessary. And, as with most other industries at the moment, there are changes afoot – the pension scheme, for example looks like it will have to change in the near future, and so that aspect of non-academic University work may be less attractive to people who are thinking of a non-academic career outside of academia.

If you are still interested in a non-academic University post, you may find this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (a US publication) useful. It outlines some of the non-academic options open to people with a PhD who would like to work in HE, as well as offering some advice on how to get and progress in a non-academic post: http://chronicle.com/article/The-University-as-Nonacademic/45151/

You can also use jobs.ac.uk to search for non-academic posts – generally the category called ‘Professional and Managerial’ returns a range of non-academic and academic-related jobs at an apporpriate level for people with a PhD and/or some research experience. Go to www.jobs.ac.uk to search or set up an e-mail alert.

You can also view some short films outlining the career stories of some researchers who have moved into non-academic roles in HE (and other HE and non-HE roles) on the Vitae website at: http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/136961/Career-stories-on-film.html

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