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Your career pathway

Naoimh O'Connor, Research Careers Manager, UCD

What employability skills do researchers develop?

Researchers forget that even though they develop a lot of technical skills while studying a PhD or a Masters, really the most important skills are the transferrable skills as it’s those they will carry into their careers. Researchers probably don’t think of themselves as project managers but actually they are because if you essentially start and finish a project in an undefined period of time, you set the targets and timelines, and you manage yourself along with other people and products. If you think of your career as a project, where you’re working towards a goal with a timeline, you can think forwards and work backwards. A list of transferrable skills that researchers aren’t always aware they’re very good at includes communicating across disciplines, explaining complicated stuff in an accessible way. They work with a lot of different stakeholders on their projects and don’t always think to use that language. It’s only when someone comes to you with a job description and aren’t really sure what it means that we start to take that apart and look at what exactly is working across teams, leadership, how important those things are.

How important is networking for researchers?

It’s the most critical thing for their future careers. When you go to conferences you talk to lots of different researchers and stakeholders for your project. A lot of the time researchers aren’t actively having conversations about their career and it’s something that’s really important because a recent UK study showed that at least 40% of researchers have found their next job through their networking. I find it’s closer to 80% with the post-docs I work with. The people in your current network will be the people who introduce you to your next role, either through sending you a job description, introducing you to somebody or making it easier for you to understand the company or organisation you want to work in.

What is the biggest challenge for a researcher?

The biggest issue is being a technical specialist with no idea how to do anything else or how to transfer skills into another area. There is an element of practice to this. If you’re going to an interview for something you have little experience in, in the same way as you would prepare for a presentation for a conference you need to prepare and understand the company and organisation.

What supports are available to researchers?

The obvious place to go is the career development centre in your university, or the HR department, depending on what category of researcher you fall into. The funding agencies themselves actually run career days, and there are great resources that Grad Ireland are developing. There are more and more resources being developed because we’re moving into research and development becoming an important part of the economy.

What careers advice would you give to all researchers?

Think about where you want to be as opposed to what the next step is. Think about where you want to be in five years’ time in your life as well as your career and work towards that rather than the next role, because the next job you take on probably isn’t going to be your ideal job; it might be the one after that. In order to do that, get talking to people who have done something like what you want to do, so get in touch with people within or beyond your network. Don’t ask them for a job; have conversations with them about what they do and make connections that way. Remember that researchers now transition primarily into a number of different jobs and cross-sectors as opposed to single-mindedly pursuing an academic career. Most researchers are working in funding agencies, in science communication, with policy or in government jobs; somewhere you can actually influence how society understands and uses research.