Increasing numbers of docs and postdocs follow a career path outside academia; they are not failures but successes in the eyes of employers across universities and businesses.

Last year, almost 25,000 PhDs graduated from UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) but only 10,000 new posts were created. Admittedly not all graduates come from nor stay in the UK, but neither do all new academics come from the UK. The reality is that over half of doctoral holders will start their careers in non-academic posts (or abroad), and even for those who do start their career in academia, a permanent role as an academic may not be a viable future.

We simply have more doctoral graduates than established academic posts, and as a result, for PhDs, for postdocs, and for researchers early in their academic careers, there are opportunities as well as challenges in non-academic work. The latest NCUB research report, commissioned by RCUK, gives a voice to universities and businesses about the early careers of researchers in the UK, to register barriers, and to offer ways forward for the UK’s most valuable asset in research and innovation: the people.

Why should the fate of say, 15,000 workers, matter for university business-collaboration? Researchers underpin all aspirations of the Government’s Plan for Growth: Science and Innovation. Researchers drive the openness of the innovation system by moving across countries and between universities and industry, they uphold the excellence of the research base through their everyday work; they deploy, develop and maintain the excellent facilities that make the UK a destination for foreign talent, and they translate knowledge into welfare. They may seem small in number, but collectively they are the future of our research and innovation system.

Sceptics should refer to respondents to the NCUB report, actual employers of experienced researchers, academic and not, who value these researchers for their capabilities and unparalleled problem-solving abilities. These researchers may not identically bring the same benefits to universities and to businesses, but both sides concur that early career researchers and post docs have a fundamental role to play in pushing the boundaries of what is feasible, wherever they work, and whatever they do. Independent thinking is their main asset, practical solutions is their main contribution.

As much as they concur on their value to the innovation sector, advocates of research careers also agree that more needs doing to smooth transitions of postdocs and young researchers in and out of academia. Universities and business compete for the best research talent, for research roles and for other roles. Both sides agree that the expectation is for most researchers who start their career in academia is to remain academics, and that a career outside academia continues to be seen as a second best option. It is like those who try their luck outside academia, fall off, rather than voluntarily step down the ivory tower. This perception has to change and the NCUB report suggests it better change by action than by submission.

The recent review of University Business Collaboration by Dame Ann Dowling notes precisely the need to re-value collaboration with industry as an integral part of academic work. The NCUB report on the mobility of researchers between universities and industry supports this view and calls for better and more accessible information about the career options for researchers, on and off the ivory tower.

This article was cross-posted from

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.


About The Author

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Dr. Fernandez is the Research Director at the National Centre for Universities and Business in London. She is developing the research and analysis function at NCUB, including a specific research programme but also working across innovation and talent projects, overseeing the gathering of new evidence and the analysis of old and new intelligence. Rosa’s team is responsible for delivering the State of Relationship report and, to support analysis across the organisation, they are building an observatory tool for monitoring collaboration using data but also case studies. Rosa’s team also works with members and funders to produce bespoke reports, past examples include studies of the changing demand for graduate skills, of the costs and benefits of inter-sectorial mobility of researchers or of the growth of knowledge exchange income for different universities in the UK. Rosa joined NCUB after 4 years as a government economist responsible for evidence justifying and monitoring the UK science budget, following 10 years as an academic economist at Oxford University.