Independent Graduate: When the Answer Is Academic ; A Doctorate Isn't Vital for a Career in Research - and the Skills You Acquire Will Serve You Well in the Future
Williams, Emma, The Independent (London, England)
If panic is setting in at the thought of leaving the stimulating and youthful environment of university, then a career in research could be for you. Contrary to popular opinion, a doctorate is not a pre-requisite; many researchers simply hold a good degree. Not surprisingly, an MA or MSc will help, and a PhD will be seen as even more favourable, but the bottom line is they are not essential.
Dr Anna Hansell had practised medicine for several years when she decided that she wanted to move away from the clinical side of disease and be more involved with preventing it. Now a Public Health Trainee at the Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine, she explains, "It is so stimulating thinking about why people get ill, what action we can take on a societal level and how we can get people to live longer."
Like many researchers, Hansell is undertaking her PhD as part of her academic placement and uses data from her research post in environmental health issues for her thesis. She says it can be tough returning to learning again, particularly if you decide to take a PhD. "You'll probably be expected to undertake training in research methodology and statistical skills and that's yet more work. But I love teaching and to become a senior lecturer you must have a doctorate. So all in all it is well worth it."
Bob Adams, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University, encourages as many of his research assistants as possible to complete a PhD whilst in post. "If researchers have a goal and a personal aim in the research, then their commitment to the post is higher," he says. What's more, the achievement of a PhD can lead onto a variety of careers. "Some have ended up in academia, some undertake consultancy work and others have opportunities in government," he explains.
Dr Marjoritta Jarvelin, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Epidemiology at Imperial College, agrees. "It is possible to combine your research skills and your practical work. Furthermore, many senior medical staff undertake research and have an input into clinical work as well."
Indeed, some clinical posts are advertised with a focus on research but state that the applicant will be expected to participate in clinics. "It gives you the freedom to arrange your work but still keep you in touch with real life," explains Dr Jarvelin.
In fact, it is the assumption that the skills gained are not transferable that prevents many people from applying for research posts, says Barbara Graham, Director of Careers at the University of Strathclyde and representative from AgCAS. "The important thing is to make researchers aware of the value of their skills," she says.
Along with many other universities Strathclyde runs a course for contract research staff focused on this. According to Graham, "The course offers staff the chance to realise the potential of their skills in the business world. Part of the problem is getting employers to understand the relevance of research skills too. Courses can help researchers recognise their ability and help them pitch their message to different audiences."
Another major concern people have about becoming researchers is embarking on a life of short-term contracts and insecurity about the future. These concerns are well founded, says Professor Newby, from the Vascular Biology Department at Bristol University. But the rewards are worth it. "Research is good fun. You have the freedom to pursue your own ideas, and discovering new information is exciting and challenging,' he says.
For Ruth Thomas, research assistant at Bristol University's Mechanical Engineering Department, the appeal of flexibility, after having children, bought her back to an academic career. "I have been here 10 years and so far the funding has been extended," explains Thomas. "The most exciting part of my research is that eventually I will see my work being applied in the environment. …