Male and female postgraduates in the university's Hallward library

Examining careers in academic research

The field of academic research may still struggle to shake off its rather lofty and detached from the real world image, but countless programmes in the field of engineering, technology and sciences are proving that nothing could be further from the truth.

Testimony to this is that the sectors have been more fortunate than others when it comes to receiving funding from both government and industry even in these challenging times.

Manufacturing, for instance, may have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in recent months, but in March this year the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced £45m of funding for nine national Centres for Innovative Manufacturing. The first officially opened at Cranfield University this summer and aims to tackle the major long-term research challenges in through-life engineering services.

Meanwhile, for those wanting to see what the brightest engineering minds in the UK can come up with, The Royal Academy of Engineering’s annual Research Forum in October provided the perfect showcase. Presentations ranged from Putting the Mission into UK Nuclear Decommissioning by Professor Neil Hyatt of Sheffield University to Using People to Form Future Wireless Networks by Dr Simon Cotton of Queen’s University Belfast. High-speed rail and heart valve technology also made up the diverse mix of subjects covered. The Academy sponsors 39 research chairs and senior research fellows as well as 60 research fellowships, which cost around £500,000 over the five-year support period.

Academic research opportunities

In this age of austerity it is important not to paint too rosy a picture in any sphere of life but sources of research positions such as www.jobs.ac.uk, www.phdjobs.com, www.career.edu, as well as university websites, seem to suggest a range of potential opportunities for engineers and technologists who want to spend time in the field of research.

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham is one of the biggest employers of researchers with more than 200 research staff. One of them is Dr Kevin Brown AMIMechE, research fellow in the polymer composites research group, within the materials, mechanics and structures research division. He was offered a job before finishing his PhD thesis in the faculty.

“I’ve been a researcher for almost four years,” he says. “I don’t know of anyone who has a PhD in engineering who has struggled to find employment, whether it is academia or industry.”

Alex den Haan, client services manager for the websites Academictransfer.com and Career.edu, believes there are a lot of opportunities for engineers including in areas they might not initially identify. “If you take something like bimolecular life sciences, as an engineer you might not look at this area but they could apply their thinking and use the knowledge an engineer has,” he says.

Den Haan sees the research community becoming even more international in the coming years and encourages individuals to look at what opportunities exist overseas. Career.edu has an international audience but even Academictransfer.com, which primarily focuses on the Dutch market, has a global following and, after the Netherlands, US and UK universities and organisations are its biggest users. "If you are a researcher you are a global citizen and want to go where the gig is going to be, which might not be round the corner,” he says.

Securing a position

With even Masters graduates finding it harder to secure a position in industry these days, clearly there will be increased competition for research positions. Dr Brown says the more “high-quality” peer-reviewed journal papers you have the better your chances of securing a position while Cranfield advises candidates consider carefully where they “fit and offer value”. While there are some excellent online sources, don’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face networking and good old word-of-mouth for hearing about opportunities.

What can you expect from a career in research?

So once you have managed to find a suitable research job, what can you expect? Is it like a normal 9-5 job or more like being a student?

"A research post is meant to be like having a normal job working from 9-5,” says Dr Brown. “However, it does sometimes take a while for some candidates to shake off the student routine, especially if you’ve been employed immediately after graduating at the same institution where you did your PhD. Nonetheless, most researchers make a smooth transition from student to professional researcher with some working well beyond the typical eight hours per day.”

Brown’s typical day certainly provides plenty of scope.

“I undertake applied research in state-of-the-art numerical modelling and experimental characterisation of polymer composite materials under dynamic impact and blast loading conditions,” he explains. “In addition, I write research reports and journal papers. I undertake further dissemination of my research through presentations at international conferences and seminars. I’m involved in drafting research proposals. I also supervise undergraduate and postgraduate students.”

How will you be viewed by industry?

A concern for those contemplating the research route is how they will be viewed by industry afterwards. Cranfield says industry related research skills and experience are sought after and its close partnerships with leading businesses ensure graduates often do their research projects in industry.

Dr Brown says it depends very much on the type of career and can be an asset but admits it can make you look highly specialised which can limit employability outside of your research area.

Den Haan, is among those trying to challenge such perceptions though. He believes the problem often stems from the HR department rather than employers, as they don’t know how to assess the person's skill set.

“They see that maybe you have spent ten years in academia so view you as a starter in the labour market,” he says. “In reality though, these individuals should be viewed for senior positions. So it can be a problem but we try to get across the value of these people to industry."

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