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Careers Café

Relevance and Employability


There is a lot of talk about making academic research relevant and about the employment of PhDs. Unfortunately, most of this discussion happens at an abstract level with very little discussion of the specifics.

What these debates have in common is research knowledge.

Your research knowledge, and your research skills, may be relevant to non-academic organizations. The fact that those around you cannot clearly articulate the relevance of their work (and yours) to those outside the discipline and the academy doesn’t mean that it is not relevant. Similarly, the fact that non-academic organizations are not explictly looking for people like you, doesn’t mean you couldn’t be an asset to their organization.

Learning more about those organizations and how your work is or could be relevant could open up new opportunities for employment and for future research collaboration. This isn’t about Plan B. It is about expanding your knowledge and skills to make you a better candidate for a range of possible careers.

Humility will serve you well.

You know a lot about some things but you are a beginner in the world you seek to connect with. No one wants some “expert” coming in from outside and telling them what they “should” be doing.

Just as you didn’t dive into academic research without training, guidance and support, you don’t want to dive into this without careful planning. The support you need will likely come from different people than you are working with now.

Talk to people in your university’s technology transfer or knowledge mobilization unit (hint: they are probably connected to the Research Services Office). Attend workshops. Seek mentors who have experience of this kind of work.

Learning how your research is relevant takes time and effort.

You need to identify organizations that you think might be able to use your knowledge. You need to meet people who work in those organizations and learn more about what they really do and how they really work. Networking and information interviews are useful here.

Your goal is to learn more about what kinds of organizations could benefit from your research and to get a better sense of how, specifically, it might be useful. You will also learn about what kinds of research knowledge they need that isn’t available to them right now.

You also want to learn more about the basics of the work they do and how they do it. It seems mundane but the lack of that kind of understanding is what gets in the way of effective knowledge transfer. Why would anyone take your “expert” advice or hire you to work with them if you don’t understand the most basic things about their work?

You can’t see the next part from here.

Where this will lead is unknowable until you get further down this path. The possibilities include employment with a non-academic organization, a stronger knowledge transfer component to your research program, new research partnerships, employment in an academic related job in knowledge mobilization …


Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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