Weighing Up the Options
The Pros and Cons of a Career in Research
Soon after the completion of a Master's degree or PhD, everybody is faced with the big question: what next? Although it may seems like natural progression to continue with further research, there are many other careers open to academics in business,education,communications and journalism, to name but a few examples. So how do you know if research is the right career choice for you? Well, like with most big decisions, a good way of figuring it out is to weigh up the pros and cons.
Travel and relocation
One big difference between a career in research and most other fields is the expectation of relocation. The first step for a Master's student or PhD who wants a career in research is to find a position at a university in a town, city or country for which they are willing relocate. It is typical for researchers to move to a new city or country every few years, particularly when pursuing postdoc positions – it's the natural consequence of there not being that many jobs to go around.
Pro: Moving around does have its advantages - it is a unique opportunity to travel to new places and experience life in different countries and cultures. One can meet new people and obtain contacts, both of which are extremely rewarding. Furthermore, it offers the experience of jobs at various institutions, which can give a insight into how cultures vary across universities. Lastly, being part of an institution like a university provides you a pre-existing network to explore, both professionally and socially, which can make settling down in a new country a whole lot easier.
Con: However, arranging international relocations is a lot of work, and it can be hard to make new friends and create a social circle in a new city. Particularly for those with families, relocation may be very demanding - your partner may also need a job in your new city and new schools need to be found for children, which can be a challenge. If your partner is also in research, some institutions offer dual career programs which help to find research positions for both members of a couple. Moreover, relocating can be stressful on the mind, causing some to slip into depression, meaning having adequate support for a move is essential.
Independence and interest
Pro: One great advantage of a career in research is how interesting the work is, and the independence one is afforded. Particularly if you are able to secure third-party funding (that is, funding awarded directly to the researcher as opposed to a university or department), you can organize your own working schedule and priorities, and choose the topics of research which are of most pressing interest to you. Within many research institutions there is the possibility of flexible working hours, which can be especially advantageous to those with young children.
Security and career prospects
Con: One particularly difficult aspect of a research career is in the lack of job security. Postdocs are typically employed on short-term contracts for two years, and at the end of this period they must find another position. For the ambitious and determined researcher, this can be an opportunity for fast career progression and the chance to work in a variety of labs. However, this insecurity can also be a source of stress for many researchers as there is no guarantee of long-term stable employment. Progressing from a postdoctoral position to a professorship can be extremely competitive, and in many countries the number of professor positions are being reduced due to budget cuts. Overall, many more PhDs and postdocs are working than there are professorships available, so you must be extremely determined to follow this path.
Pro: Although the competition for academic positions is so fierce that a career in research may seem risky, in fact the skills one acquires in the performance of research can be transferred to many other fields. Aside from the skills of critical thinking which are highly trained in researchers, there are specific skills which can be adapted to other career paths. Researchers may acquire expertise in mathematics or statistics, in written communication, or in poster and oral presentation. All of these skills can be put to use in other jobs, so if a research position is not available, then you still have other career options open to you.
Whether a career in academia is for you or not will depend entirely on your own levels of determination and persistence, along with weighing up the pros against the cons of having to move around a lot, having flexible but unstable work, and where you think it could lead in the future. In the end, only you can make the choice - but keep in mind the various advantages and disadvantages of going down this particular career path.