What careers outside academia are really like

When I finished my postdoc, I wanted to stay close to technology but didn’t necessarily want to do the research myself anymore, so I looked for roles where I could transfer my technical skills to a more commercial field. Whatever your motivations may be, it can be helpful to understand the seemingly different work environments across the employment spectrum. So below is a comparison of employers from academia, government public sector, and private companies to help you decide which is best for you. Opportunities for early-to-mid career candidates in both technical and non-technical roles are presented for each employer type.

The employers’ size, levels of commerciality, and work conditions reflect the nature in which they are funded and their broader mission. The exact work conditions you experience will vary depending on the sector you work in and your specific qualifications and expertise, as well as the wider economic backdrop. For simplicity, only full-time roles based in the UK are discussed here but be aware some places, notably the US and Canada, pay higher salaries for PhD graduates, while some EU countries offer much more amenable standards of living. Choosing where to work is just as important as what role to apply for. 

Employer types

Academia: a large, publicly funded body delivering non-economic work (for example, early-stage technical research almost exclusively funded by government grants). Non-technical jobs within universities include commercial support activities spanning HR, marketing and finance. More recently, many universities have developed enterprise departments to commercialise research, secure investment to spin out new technologies and develop partnerships to deliver university strategy.

Public sector: mostly large, government funded bodies with a mixture of non-economic and commercial objectives. These span traditional civil service work and independent bodies that operate at ‘arm’s length’ such as the National Physical Laboratory, the Catapult Network and Innovate UK. Their remit is to support businesses and grow the UK economy. Technical jobs include delivering both early and late-stage commercial research, while non-technical roles include administrative, sales and other professional services.

Private sector: These entities almost exclusively deliver commercial work because of the nature of their funding. This is usually via private capital invested by the company owners, and eventually through sales, while high-technology companies will also seek grants for commercial research. The private sector comprises small start-ups (including university spin outs), small and medium enterprises, and large companies.

Working conditions and pay

While the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that the average full-time working week is between 36 and 40 hours, this likely does not include undocumented overtime. Realistically, working late to meet ad hoc project deadlines and responding to urgent requests occurs across all of the employer types. The key is how often this happens, and whether it is rewarded or not. Client-facing private companies, particularly in financial consultancy, can face long workdays and working weeks of 50 hours or more (in which case, employees must voluntarily opt-out of the UK’s 48-hour legal limit – however, you cannot be sacked for refusing to do so), but this is usually well remunerated both in base salary and bonuses. Academic work, especially research, has a culture of long hours too, but the salary awarded does not reflect the overtime. No one should be expected to work for less than what is contractually agreed. And yet, when you work unpaid overtime, you are effectively taking a pay cut.

82% of UK employees are in the private sector, earning on average £38,500, while the remaining 18% in the public sector (academia and government) earn £33,000. The private worker averages a 20% bonus of £7700, whereas bonuses for public workers are typically reserved for the most senior staff.

An experienced scientist or engineer in the private sector may average £42,000,, whereas a similar level postdoc at university may earn £37,000k. The typical PhD stipend is now a paltry £18,622, which is shockingly low compared to entry-level roles in both government and private sector of £27,000–30,000.

The highlights from Royal Society Chemistry’s 2021 pay and reward survey of members shown below reflect the reality that commercial industries and public sector work offer higher salaries that academia and education. This table more accurately reflects pay within chemical sciences, whereas ONS data is often limited.

Median salaries as reported by participants in the RSC’s 2021 pay and reward survey 
 Median salaries by sectorMedian salary  Lower quartile Upper quartile
 Industrial or commercial company  £51,200  £37,000  £76,300
 Public sector  £51,000  £38,000  £68,000
 Consulting practice  £47,000  £25,000  £75,000
 Academic institution  £45,000  £31,600  £69,000
 Research institute  £44,800  £29,900  £62,000
 Government (including local or central)  £43,000   £29,000   £60,000
 School, further education college or equivalent  £40,000  £24,000  £45,000
 Not-for-profit  £36,000  £30,400  £51,000

Employers will try to put you on the lowest rung in a pay band, but you should still try to negotiate better conditions. Academia and public sector employers have strict policies on pay, so you may have more negotiating power with private companies. The best time to negotiate your salary is just after a job offer. But if you want to improve your conditions at your current employer, good tips include asking your manager for feedback on how to progress and preparing a short supporting document or business case for a raise. Commercial organisations are more receptive to this, while the public sector is typically slow at accommodating pay rises. 

Does changing job or sector improve my working conditions?

Salary is not the only condition you should consider. Working hours, annual leave, bonuses, remote working and career progression all contribute to your work-life balance. Some of these are negotiable but that depends on your position, experience and the job sector. If you want flexibility in where and when you work, the public sector and academia are ideal. If you want high-wage growth, the private sector is more competitive.

Private sector wage growth reached 6% in March 2023, while recently public sector workers have had to strike to secure pay rises for teachers, civil servants and doctors of 5-7% after many years of low increases. This is likely because government funding is limited whereas private companies can increase their fees (and employee salaries) in line with market trends more readily. Working from home is increasingly common; ONS data from January 2023 suggest 28% of UK employees are hybrid workers, and 16% work fully remotely. Historical data suggests that remote workers tend to miss out on promotions and bonuses so bear this mind when you request it.

All employment, even university research, is commercial in essence. For instance, writing multi-million-pound grant proposals requires articulating the benefit (or value add) the funding brings to the economy or society. This is something job applicants, especially academics, need to recognise about the job market. Some sectors are more commercial than others and businesses that are funded through sales, or securing partnerships that realise revenue, have a greater opportunity to reward their staff through bonuses and commissions. This is why it is less common in the public sector, and even rarer within academia, unless you are a senior director.

How easy is it to change jobs or sector?

Finding suitable employees is time consuming and expensive. Academia and other large employers continually have empty roles to fill (both new and old). They will source employees both externally and from other departments, so there is plenty of opportunity to change roles within those organisations. These may be advertised as job-share, secondments or part-time roles.

Small, private companies face similar recruitment challenges, but they have less access to financing. This means they can fund fewer empty positions and the opportunities to move within the company are less frequent – but when the company grows, so will you.

Job changers represent around 10% of the workforce each year. Of those, 75% tend to change industry, work location or job type completely. The rest typically moved within the same organisation. The former group tend to experience higher pay growth, most likely due to new employers paying more to acquire staff who are already trained. Equally, job changers need a sufficient incentive to move, to overcome the risk of doing so.

A barrier that academics often face when changing sector is articulating how their current technical and non-technical skills are transferable. A similar challenge is present if you want to move back from a non-technical role to a technical one. Once you learn how to present your skills to match the language of the employers, the transition across any sector is surmountable.

Should I stay or should I go?

If you are unsure whether to change your job sector, here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

1. Do you prefer job security or higher wages?

2. Do you seek work–life balance or career progress?

3. Do you prefer well-defined job roles, or opportunities to gain new skills quickly?

If you want immediate job and pay security, public sector work is best – although career progress and pay increases are slower than in the private sector. There is much less security for academic research as your funding can run out and many roles are fixed-term, while administrative jobs in academia are a little more protected.

Academic administration and the public sector normally offer better work–life balances, work flexibility and pensions than the private sector. The private sector offers excellent career progress with varying degrees of work–life balance, while academic research is the least progressive or rewarding unless you are very senior.

In some ways, universities behave like large organisations, but academic research groups themselves resemble small businesses. In the latter, cash and resources are limited, so employees will often need to teach themselves how to deliver work outside their immediate job responsibilities if there isn’t a team member providing that capability. This can be challenging but also beneficial if you want to gain new skills. Conversely, large public and private employers have strict governance, hierarchy and job definitions to protect the organisation, which also hinders skills development and operational speed.

Having worked across all three environments, I prefer the flexibility and career progress the private sector offers. However, where you work is a deeply personal choice. There will always be private companies hiring talented candidates, even in recessions, as economies prepare to bounce back. The public sector will also continue to hire but it is more limited to the whims of government spending.

You can always change back to a sector or job you left, provided there are still open opportunities and you can articulate how your skills meet the job profile. Although, the real question you need to ask is why do you want to? What motivated you to consider a change the first time and has that been resolved?