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A Silver Lining to Redundancy?



Dear CareerDoctor:I'm in a quandary.I'm a university lecturer in Chemistry, but after a long period of uncertainty within my institution, I recently found out that I am likely to be made redundant as funding levels and undergraduate numbers have dropped to apparently untenable levels. I'm 35 and have lectured for 5 and a half years, following 5 years as a postdoc.As no other universities in my area are recruiting, I am now considering my options outside academia. I've been an active and successful researcher and have one project running at the moment funded by an overseas pharmaceutical company, so this is an industrial sector that might interest me. Am I likely to find more security in industry? I would be able to relocate for the right job and would also consider working overseas.I'm not interested in scientific publishing or journalism, but I am open to wider suggestions as I am feeling quite disillusioned about research and science in general following my recent experiences.What can a 35-year-old academic do outside of science and technology?Jeff

Dear Jeff

Although being made redundant may be a devastating experience, it sounds as if you have already started to look towards the future. Your disillusionment is not unusual as a recent Guardian article makes clear--as many as a third of academics want to quit. Yet I think it would be a mistake to associate the problems you've had in your institution with science and research as a whole. By all means, eliminate them as career choices, but make sure you do it only after you've looked seriously into alternatives.

It is difficult to comment on whether the pharmaceutical industry is more secure. Many readers might view academia as a "job for life" and will be surprised to hear that you are facing redundancy. The pharmaceutical industry is a large and profitable sector that utterly depends on novel research, but the mergers and takeovers of recent years have resulted in job losses and recruitment freezes.

In any case, it is probably better to think in terms of "employability" rather than "job security". Many people confuse the two, assuming that if they have a job they don't need to think about planning their careers. The truth is, having a job doesn't necessarily make you secure, whereas being employable gives you security by making you less likely to face redundancy and by putting you in a better position for getting a new job. Employability is about ensuring your skills are both in demand with your current employer and appealing to other organisations should you face an enforced change. Perhaps here is one, dare I say, benefit of having had such a disruptive experience as redundancy--you've learnt the hard way that keeping your career going is your own responsibility.

I can help you to get back on track in the job market as soon as possible, but I have to leave it to you to find ways to cope with the distress of facing and going through redundancy. I can't emphasise enough how essential it is that you come to terms with this situation before you start applying for jobs. If bitterness and resentment are entirely understandable and a feeling of uncertainty only adds to the burden, a negative attitude is a big turn-off to employers who may think it is the reason behind your situation rather than a response to it.

My suggestions will thus focus on three areas:

  • Alternative careers for researchers

  • Identifying what you have to offer

  • Determining where to get individual help

Alternative Careers for Researchers

The1996 Research Careers Concordat has had a real impact on the availability of career resources for academic researchers, and you will find a range of tailored materials on the HESDA Web site. These include almost 50 case studies of researchers from a variety of disciplines who have made successful transitions into new careers. These will help you choose your new career in two ways--by giving you ideas for attractive alternatives and advice on how to make the transition out of academia. Although written for postdocs, the messages are entirely relevant to your situation as your strengths and successes are also in research. Even if you are planning to leave academia, by demonstrating talent and accomplishments in your discipline you are proving to the employer that you have the potential to triumph in a new arena.

The site also carries a report on employers' attitudes towards researchers, which makes slightly less positive reading. Don't let it affect you, though, as the report gives you a worst-case scenario of misconceptions that you can use to your advantage by ensuring you convey a professional, commercially aware attitude. Bear in mind that the employers approached were being asked general questions and several were very unfamiliar with the concept of academic researchers. It makes the very important point that you have to do all the selling, so never assume that the recruiter is aware of skills or qualities you haven't made explicit.

If you are keen to look at jobs a bit more in depth, I'd suggest the Prospects Web site as the most manageable gateway to further information. Although aimed primarily at graduates, the occupational profiles will give you an introduction to a huge range of careers and point you towards further information sources.

Alternative careers featured on Next Wave

Medical Writing

Patent Law

Science Broadcasting

Science Editing

Science Policy


Technology Transfer

Translating and Interpreting

Scientists Serving Science

To see more click here

Identifying What You Have to Offer

If all you have ever done is research, you may feel that the skills and knowledge you have gained can serve this sole purpose. But I can reassure you that you have many abilities that can be transferred to other sectors, and Swansea University's Career Development Planner for academic researchers will help you to recognise that. Use it to build up a list of the skills you have to offer, not forgetting the ones you developed through your administrative and teaching responsibilities. This self-awareness will make you much more confident and point you towards specific types of jobs according to which skills you enjoy using most. You can also use your skills list as a reality check against the options you will uncover while researching job opportunities in new areas.

Determining Where to Get Individual Help

More than anything, what you need is some face-to-face advice. The easiest option may be for you to visit the careers service at your institution, even though I must warn you that the degree to which a university careers service can help an academic may be very variable. But they should be aware of the redundancy situation and may have been asked to provide some guidance to staff in your situation. Be cheeky and see how much help you can get. At the very least you can spend some time browsing their career library and might find career ideas you would never have thought of.

I've also spoken with the RSC and they can send you a tailored career management pack including advice on redundancy (assuming you are a member). They also have a list of contacts in various chemical industry sectors you could use, a job-seeker service provided by a scientific recruitment agency, and telephone career advice and CV feedback. They also run career surgeries around the country and offer advice at conferences.

At this stage I'd be unwilling to suggest you go to a commercial resettlement agency unless their fees are paid by the university. I think you will get more suitable advice from the RSC and even if you have to join in order to get this, it is likely to be cheaper. One advantage a commercial agency would have is that they are unlikely to have much insight into what academics do, so it will give you an idea of how you need to present yourself outside the ivory tower.

Redundancy is tough but there surely is a silver lining--it gives many people opportunities for change and development they would have been unlikely to seize had they not faced redundancy. And with your network and success in research, I'm confident that you will find the right job and boost your employability in the process.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor