Due to the broad range of postgraduate study opportunities, the information that follows inevitably has to generalise in places. Use it as an introduction, and follow it up by using the various information resources to which it will point you, or bringing specific queries to the Careers and Employability Service (CES).
Begin your career planning early and don't wait before taking action: many large employers will advertise their vacancies well in advance. You also need to network and make contacts at this level as many jobs will come via such contacts. There is further information in our Career Planning Guide for Postgraduates and Contract Researchers: you can pick up a copy from the CES building or download it here
What do postgraduates do?
The vast majority of postgraduates enter employment at the end of their studies. A smaller number continue studying, for further academic or professional qualifications. The work which postgraduates enter will depend not only upon the type of degree and the subject studied but also upon the individual graduate, and their interests, skills, experience and abilities.
Administrative ie. Research strategy
Research Councils and Institutes
State or Independent Schools
Further Education Lecturer
Civil Service Fast Stream
Research and Development
Opportunities with a postgraduate degree
An academic position is the main career goal for many research students, and higher education will often offer the best opportunities to use your postgraduate studies directly. However, this is not an easy option: the job market for lecturers and contract researchers is getting tougher and it is increasingly rare for postgraduates to obtain a position as a lecturer immediately after completing their PhD. More typically they will start out as a Teaching Assistant/Research Assistant/Postdoctoral Fellow. These will generally be temporary contracts lasting one, two or three years and may lead on to a permanent academic post, although there is no guarantee of this. Teaching posts in particular are likely to be part-time and remunerated only on the number of hours taught.
Universities will look at more than just the quality of your research: candidates for academic posts should be able to offer all of the following:
- Publications: you should be able to demonstrate that you have begun to disseminate your work to the wider academic community through published journal articles or books and/or presenting papers at conferences.
- Teaching experience: teaching at undergraduate level is also an essential part of an academic career and you should take advantage of any opportunities to gain teaching experience during your postgraduate studies. Departments frequently require, or strongly encourage, their research students to do this but, if your own department does not offer any teaching opportunities, you may be able to obtain part-time teaching in further and adult education
- Administrative skills: academic staff also have a number of administrative responsibilities (such as convening courses, managing exams, sitting on committees, quality assessment, etc.) so any experience of people or project management would be helpful here. The academic job market is highly international with lecturers and postdoctoral researchers moving between countries to find employment and develop their career.
- Academic posts, both in the UK and abroad, are normally advertised in the Guardian, Times Higher Education and on jobs.ac.uk
As well as “traditional” academic-related roles, universities are increasingly reducing the administrative role of academic staff by employing staff in a variety of management and support roles. These roles include:
- Accommodation, catering and conference services
- Arts, music and events
- Careers, employability and enterprise
- Financial management
- Health & safety
- Human resource management
- IT and systems support
- Library and information services
- Public relations and marketing posts
- Scientific support, e.g. laboratory technicians
- Student welfare and support: counselling and advice services, disability support, international student support
Teaching in Schools and Colleges: a number of postgraduates will go on to train as teachers, either through a PGCE course or while working in a school. Funding to cover fees and maintenance may be available for PGCEs, depending on the subject. A PhD may be looked on favourably in private schools and further education colleges, but a teaching qualification is not an essential requirement to teach in these types of schools, although it can be advantageous. If you intend to teach in schools, you should have some work experience with the relevant age-range.
Other areas: related to your subject
Humanities: outside education, jobs which make direct use of a degree in the humanities are unlikely to be more numerous at postgraduate level than they were after your BA. Areas such as the media, publishing and the heritage sector are highly competitive and, although your degree should be able to help you demonstrate an advanced level of skills and knowledge, employers will usually be seeking practical and transferable skills rather than purely academic expertise.
Social Sciences: You may be particularly interested in the field of social research: working for central or local government bodies, think-tanks and consultancies. Commercial organisations, such as market research and advertising agencies, also make use of social research techniques and skills. Subjects such as law, business and economics can also be applied with commercial employers specialising in these fields.
- Law - a postgraduate degree doesn't in itself entitle you to practise law - it will still be necessary to complete professional exams and practical training before qualification. Legal employers may value your postgraduate degree if it is in an area related to their field of practice - International Commercial Law, for example, may be of interest to a City solicitors firm.
- Business and Management - although employers, particularly large corporations, value the skills and business knowledge gained through a Master’s degree, they do not normally have a separate entry level for Master’s graduates without professional work experience.
- Economics - a postgraduate degree will greatly enhance your chances of getting into a directly-related field of work such as economic consultancy, the Government Economic Service, economic development work in local government and economic research, analysis and forecasting in business and finance.
- International Relations - many postgraduates in IR hope to develop a career working with an international governmental or non-governmental organisation. Getting into such organisations takes time and it's normally essential to obtain experience before gaining a permanent post - through an internship or by work in other organisations.
Sciences: research & development scientists are employed in many organisations including manufacturing companies, energy and utility companies, Government laboratories, charities and Research Councils. These employers may look for very specific research skills which closely match their own research areas. Increasingly, though, employers of researchers in science are looking for more than academic research skills. They are looking at recruiting researchers who have the potential to develop into project leaders, department managers and ultimately heads of research. This may involve moving out of research into more commercial roles. You will therefore need to show more general personal and employability skills as well as specialised research skills.
Employability Skills Obtained through Postgraduate Study
Employers want postgraduates to be able to offer more than their academic subject knowledge. They also look for a range of skills:
- Academic achievement - demonstrates application and high standards of performance
- Written communication skills - the ability to use language effectively in order to put across your arguments, to express your ideas clearly and in an audience-appropriate fashion
- Verbal communication skills - listening, speaking confidently and clearly, and pitching what you say in such a way to have the desired impact on your listeners
- Analysis - considering differing ideas, information and theories; picking out key points and details in order to construct or support your arguments; distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, identifying issues and problems; following complex reasoning; applying logic
- Critical thinking - the ability to question and not to take things at face value. Interpreting information and arguments; considering their validity in the light of issues such as their source, the evidence provided to support them and other material on the topic; arguing a case with logic and constructing a reasoned argument for your own point of view
- Research/investigative skills - use of a variety of sources, constructing research proposals, testing theories, using specialist techniques (i.e. statistical packages/lab equipment).
- Planning and organising - approaching tasks and projects systematically, managing your own time and work, setting targets, monitoring progress, delegating, ability to handle a number of different tasks simultaneously
- Problem solving - taking a systematic approach to problems, being flexible in finding solutions, looking at different angles and approaches, identifying the most appropriate solution for the situation
- Innovation - ability to take a fresh approach/think laterally, being capable of original/creative thought; develop new concepts/ideas; willing to try new things/adapt to new environments
- Capacity for hard work - embodying self-motivation, self-discipline and commitment
- Co-operation - the ability to work with other people, inside and outside your own department or organisation; working together to achieve a common goal; allocating and sharing responsibilities and tasks; supporting and motivating other people
- Practicality - realism, ability to set attainable goals
- Maturity - wide experience of life generally and specifically of working with other people; strong career focus; credibility with employers and clients
- Self-motivation - work independently without the need for constant direction or feedback; anticipating what needs to be done; setting your own goals and working towards them; being positive and professional; taking responsibility for your own work and personal development
- Commercial awareness - of the environment in which an organisation operates. A focus on the purpose of the organisation and its clients and/or stakeholders
- Decisiveness - fact-finding skills, clarity, judgement, courage
- Computing skills - knowledge of statistical packages, spreadsheets, databases and programming languages
Many of these skills are developed to a high level through postgraduate study and research. Others can be demonstrated through other aspects of your experience, such as part-time or vacation work and extra-curricular interests, so make sure to get involved in activities outside of your studies and to use these activities in your applications.
Analysing your skills
The Careers Award can help you to analyse the skills you have developed through your studies and to communicate them to employers. The award consists of quizzes and assignments: it is all done online and takes just a few hours to complete.
The sites listed below also provide resources to help you identify the skills you have developed through your studies and those you wish to develop further:
- Vitae includes a self-evaluation exercise
- Prospects Planner - an online self- assessment and career choice program that also helps you to relate your skills to jobs
- Your Masters - What Next?
- Options with your subject
- What can I do with my masters?
- Once you have worked through one or two of these resources you may wish to talk over the results with a Careers Adviser.
Applications and interviews for academic jobs
When applying for research posts or lectureships, make sure you have a good understanding of the department, the position and your own area of research. All this may seem self-evident, but candidates for academic posts are often too focused on their own specific research and don’t think about what the job actually involves or what they can contribute to the department through their skills or experience.
So, before you start to apply, put your research skills into practice to find out all that you can about the department, its staff and students (any contacts that you have built up through networking will be invaluable here). This will help you to focus your application and to demonstrate clearly what you can offer them that distinguishes you from the other candidates.
Academic CVs follow a different format from a “normal” CV, most notably in the content and the length. They are generally longer than the standard two-side CV, often running to five or six pages, as they need to include information such as:
- A detailed synopsis of your PhD and any other research
- Publications – books, articles, reviews, conference proceedings
- Conferences attended (especially if you have presented papers)
- Membership of relevant professional bodies
- Teaching experience
- Awards – such as funded studentships, academic prizes or travel grants
- Details of relevant scientific or specialist packages/techniques you are familiar with (such as SPSS, LexisNexis, NMR or chromatography)
- Evidence of skills such as IT, time management, project management and report writing
- Work experience – list experience relevant to your application, such as teaching, student ambassador roles, exam invigilation, industrial placements, internships etc.
In your covering letter or personal statement, you should outline your skills and strengths, show real enthusiasm for your subject, evidence of a wider knowledge of the area beyond your specialised field of research and awareness of recent developments. At one time, interviews for academic, contract research or postdoctoral posts were less formal than interviews with other types of employers. This has now changed – there is fierce competition for these posts and you need to prepare well, show enthusiasm and ask appropriate questions.
- An academic interview is likely to be carried out by a panel made up of a number of members of staff, from both the academic department and the human resources department.
- Candidates will often be required to give a short presentation, usually on an aspect of your research. This allows the panel to assess not only your teaching skills but also your ability to plan, research, analyse and present information. Presentations need to be pitched at the right level – at a well-informed and knowledgeable audience who may nonetheless not be familiar with the detailed nuances of your specialised area of research.
- You can also expect to be asked questions, and how you respond to these will also form part of the assessment.
- Alternatively, you may be asked to prepare a presentation of the sort that would be delivered in an undergraduate lecture.
- There may also be a social side to the interview, such as a lunch to which all members of the department will be invited. While this will not be assessed, remember that people who are not on the actual interview panel may also be asked for their opinions of the candidates, so don’t get involved in any heated debates or inappropriate topics of conversation.
- The interviewers will also want to find out about you as an individual - will you fit in to the department? Are you a good team member?
Before the interview
- Research the university and the department carefully
- Check out the research interests of the current academic staff
- Try to speak to current students in the department and look at notice boards, social networking sites, etc.
- Read over your application again. Try and put yourself in the interviewers’ shoes and think of questions they may want to ask you
- In addition, think of questions you want to ask
- What do you feel are the key strengths of this department?
- What are your most successful courses in terms of student numbers?
- Do you have any plans to introduce new courses or modules?
- What training and support is available to new members of staff? Would I have the opportunity to take a PGCHE? What staff development opportunities are available?
You can expect to be asked about:
- Your research: research already carried out, work in progress, your future direction
- Studentships, research grants and other funding achieved
- Teaching experience – what you have taught; to whom; teaching and assessment techniques
- Any relevant specialist technical expertise
- Any other ways in which you have contributed to University life, such as administration experience, involvement in open days and student recruitment
Remember that they will be looking at your ability to think for yourself;your capacity for independent and original thought and your ability to communicate and reason. Be polite, but don't be afraid to enter into discussion and to stand your ground. Some interviewers will deliberately challenge your replies to see if you can stand up for yourself and argue your point effectively. They will also be looking for evidence of strong interest in your subject, as well as enthusiasm for the subject. Do you keep up to date with developments? Do you genuinely seem to enjoy talking about the subject?
- How did you choose your research topic?
- Why do you feel that this research is important?
- What have you got out of your postgraduate study?
- How would your research interests fit in with the work of this department?
- What teaching experience do you have?
- How would you approach teaching first-years on our ….. module?
- What other relevant skills or experience can you offer?
- Have you considered any further potential areas of research?
- How would you go about persuading a funding body to support your research?
- What makes you the right candidate for this post?
- Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
Many of these questions demand a fairly detailed response but make sure that you don’t go into too much detail! Watch the panel for signs of impatience and be prepared to pause occasionally, giving them the chance either to encourage you to continue or to move on to another question.
Make sure that you ask questions of the panel, as this demonstrates your enthusiasm and interest.
Smart-casual dress may be acceptable for academic interviews, particularly those for research posts rather than lectureships, but many departments now expect more formal business dress. If in doubt, go for the smarter option - you will never prejudice your chances by being too smart, but dressing in too casual a way risks being interpreted as unprofessional or not sufficiently motivated.
Applications and interviews for other jobs
While your postgraduate study or research will have equipped you with a large number of the skills that employers want for graduates, if you are applying for posts outside the academic or research field, you will need to convince employers of two things:
- that the skills you have gained can be useful in a non-academic setting
- that you are motivated and enthusiastic about the position that you are applying for
In other words, you not only need to convince prospective employers that you can do the job, but also that you want to do the job. This is particularly important for research postgraduates who may otherwise run the risk of being viewed by employers as over-qualified. Your CV should therefore be more similar to an undergraduate CV, using your postgraduate study alongside work experience and other activities as evidence of the skills and personal qualities required in that particular position.
Interviews for other positions
The format of these, and the questions asked, will naturally vary according to the employer and the type of job. You will usually be interviewed by one or two people rather than a panel and the questions are likely to focus as much on your skills and competencies as on your studies and research. As with academic interviews, thorough preparation is the key to success. This will help you to appear confident at interview (however nervous you feel inside!) and provide evidence of your motivation and enthusiasm by showing that you have taken the trouble to research the career area and the employer to which you are applying. As part of this preparation, you should:
- Think about why you want the job – what motivates you?
- What you have to offer that will help you to do the job – relevant experience, skills and/or competencies
- Prepare examples that demonstrate these skills
- Anticipate questions that you might be asked during the interview
Demonstrating your motivation and competencies will be doubly important if you are applying for a position that has little or no direct relevance to your studies. While employers may find your academic qualifications impressive some, particularly in smaller organisations, may equally find them intimidating. They may also have concerns about the relevance of these qualifications, your practical and people skills and your commitment to a career outside academia.
- Why did you choose to take a postgraduate degree?
- What did your course/research actually involve?
- How might your degree be useful to us?
- Why are you applying for this job? What do you expect to be doing in this job?
- Apart from your degree, what can you bring to the job?
- What other jobs have you applied for?
- Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
- You have a Master’s degree - have you thought about carrying on into a PhD?
- You have a PhD – don’t you want to be a university lecturer?
- Vitae - a national organisation supporting the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff in HE institutions and research institutes
- Social Science Space - a resource for social scientists with pages of advice for those at the start of their career
- Postgraduate Careers Blog from the University of Manchester
- Research Fundermentals by Phil Ward, research funding manager at the University of Kent. Excellent information on research funding
- Shinton Consulting provides careers advice, information and professional development training to scientists, academic researchers, research students and academic staff
- LinkedIn group for PhDs seeking career opportunities outside of academia
- Reflecting on the value of your PhD
- Times Higher Education