Research paths after undergraduate or Masters

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What research paths can you take after an undergraduate or Masters degree?

If you’re a recent graduate and think you want a research career, there are lots of options you could consider. For example, if you’re a life sciences graduate and you’re interested in biosecurity, you could pursue an academic career and do basic laboratory research, go into industry to develop specific therapies, or try to inform government policy by working at a think tank.

Whatever your subject of study, below is a brief overview of different research career paths that you could pursue and ideas on how you could test your fit for them. 

As a general rule, try to start with a test of your fit for research that is as close as possible to the experiences you would have if you pursued a particular research career, but that doesn’t take a great deal of planning or investment. Move on to more time intensive tests if you feel you still need more information. 

We have more advice here on how talking with others and reflecting on your skills and experiences can help you assess your fit for research, whatever paths you’re considering.

Staying in academia

If you want to become an academic, you’ll need to do a PhD. This often requires a Masters degree, but it depends on the country and PhD program in question. 

You can think of a PhD as an entry-level role in academia: as well as doing research, you might take on administrative roles, teaching responsibilities, and generally do similar activities to those you’d do as a university professor or research scientist.

Depending on your subject, you might:

  • Do independent desk research, reading lots of books and papers. 
  • Do technical work.
  • Conduct experiments in labs. 
  • Do archival research.
  • Do field work.
 

While PhDs typically involve doing deep research in a narrow area, some PhD programs take a more interdisciplinary approach or focus on the bigger picture, for example:

 

UK and EU PhDs typically take 3-4 years. In the UK, PhD programs charge tuition fees. You may be able to get funding from the Research Councils to cover both the tuition fees and your living costs, and there are many other funding options out there – take a look at our funding database for some of them.

In the US, PhDs take longer – 6 years on average – but you don’t need to do a Masters degree first. This is because US PhDs begin with a taught component: before starting work on your thesis, you’ll take classes, do exams, and complete other coursework; if you’re a STEM student, you’ll also do lab rotations. US PhD students are typically expected to teach. In contrast to the UK, most US universities give their PhD students funding to cover their living costs by default, though this funding may be tied to teaching duties.

Take a look at the guides here to learn more about how PhD funding works in different countries.

What are the advantages of doing a PhD? A PhD can give you a number of years focused on developing your research skills, allowing you to build deep expertise, and can also help you make connections with other talented researchers. It’s necessary for a career in academia, and some non-academic research roles require one as well. 

At the same time, PhDs are typically highly demanding and take at least several years to complete, so they are often not the best choice unless you plan to stay in academia. Doing research in an environment that tends to have less structure than at undergraduate and Masters level, and with less pre-existing research to refer to when thinking through problems, can also be a challenge.

After your PhD, you might choose to move into industry or another non-academic field, or you can pursue an academic career. Some benefits of an academic career include:

  • Freedom: as an academic, you’ll be able to choose your research topics based on what’s most interesting to you and follow your curiosity (which is not the case for other research roles).
  • Flexibility: you’ll likely have some control over your working hours.
  • Interest: you’ll be doing interesting, intellectually stimulating work.
 

Some downsides are:

  • Competitiveness: there are fewer academic jobs than there are PhD students, so if you want to remain in academia post-PhD, there is fierce competition.
  • Bureaucracy: most academic positions involve ‘admin’ responsibilities such as sitting on committees and (for scientists) applying for grants.
  • Uncertainty: a potential downside of doing explorative, curiosity-driven research is that it can also come with greater uncertainty and slower feedback.
 

See here for a description of some of the benefits of remaining in academia and here for a longer exploration of the pros and cons.

Exploring this path further

Try talking to others in academia and reflecting on your experiences of research so far. Reading about the experiences of PhD students might also help you get a better feel for what a PhD is like – here’s an example from a PhD student studying machine learning.

Working as a research assistant in an academic environment is another way to learn more about whether this path is for you. Working as a research assistant may also be a good way of making useful connections and increasing your chances of getting into a PhD programme by giving a potential supervisor more information about your abilities. 

The quality of your experience will likely be heavily influenced by the skill of the senior researcher and your relationship with them, so only choose this option if you can find a researcher you are excited to work with. Try talking to others with relevant experience (e.g. people who have worked in the same lab) to find out more about their day-to-day experience.

Working in industry

If your degree was in a STEM field such as engineering, computer science, or medicine, you can become a researcher in industry. Industry research is typically more applied than academic research: your aim will be to achieve a practical goal, such as developing medicines or working on new technologies.

This means there are often easier paths to tangible impact, although industry roles tend to offer fewer opportunities for curiosity-driven and highly explorative research. Industry roles also tend to involve more teamwork, less personal ownership of projects and more regular working patterns – see here for a more detailed overview.

Although many research roles in industry don’t require a PhD, a PhD may help you get hired or progress to senior positions, so it’s wise to speak to people working in the area you’re interested in to find out more.

If you pursue a career in industry and later decide you want a PhD, you may be able to do this while remaining in your industry role via a collaboration between your employer and a university; programs of this type include the Doctor of Engineering program at John Hopkins and the collaborative PhD between GSK and Strathclyde University.

Exploring this path further

If you’re unsure whether you want a career in industry or academia, you could take a year out after your undergraduate studies to try working in industry. It’s worth exploring non-academic careers before a PhD rather than after, as academia is competitive and it’s advantageous to avoid a break after a PhD.

Another way of exploring this option is finding a PhD program with an industry component. These programs usually involve having both an academic and industry supervisor, working on projects that fulfil the goals of the industry partner, and spending some months doing an internship in an industry workplace. This is a good way of experiencing first-hand what industrial research is like, while ensuring you remain well-placed to pursue an academic career.

Compared to academic PhDs, PhDs with an industry component usually involve:

  • Faster deadlines.
  • More specific aims (rather than open-ended research).
  • More structure.
  • More communication with people other than your academic supervisor.
 

If you do an industrial PhD, your papers are less likely to be published, and you may need to be aware of logistical questions (such as the cost of your product) while doing research. 

Doing research at a think tank

A think tank is an organisation that produces research on political and social questions, usually with the aim of influencing government policy. Some think tanks require their researchers to have a PhD for career progression, but you generally don’t need one for entry-level roles. If you want to work in policy and want to earn a PhD, you might consider applying to a policy-oriented PhD program, like the one at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

As a research analyst at a think tank, most of the research you do will be desk-based, ‘secondary’ research. Think tank work typically involves:

  • Reading, synthesising and interpreting existing research.
  • Writing research reports for decision-makers.
  • Fundraising. 
  • Administrative tasks.
  • Forming and maintaining relationships with governments and foundations.
 

To work at a think tank, you’ll need strong skills in quantitative analysis, writing, or both. You’ll also need to be able to communicate policy recommendations in a clear, accessible way. See here to read more about the pros and cons of working at a think tank. 

Exploring this path further

If you’re interested in exploring and demonstrating your fit for this path, consider doing a project that involves writing about complicated topics in a way that’s accessible to non-specialists, since this skill is in demand at think tanks. 

You could also apply for an internship, which will help you get valuable experience and connections. Remember it can be challenging to return to academia if you leave after a PhD, so if you want to test your fit, it’s best to do so before you complete your PhD.

You can find out what think tank internships are available by checking On Think Tanks and EA Internships or signing up to our newsletter.

To learn more about specific think tanks, see:

Other research roles

Most policy research jobs are at think tanks, but there are a few policy research roles with institutes, governments and charities. For example, the World Bank does policy research that influences the funding decisions of many countries, and Open Philanthropy does research to inform their own private grantmaking.

There are a few organisations that do academic-style research, but without the typical constraints of academia. Here is a list of research institutes that are neither universities nor think tanks.

There are also some non-traditional academic positions where researchers don’t have to teach or regularly apply for funding, such as at the Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Priorities Institute, but these are comparatively rare.

Other career paths

You could also consider whether there are careers outside research that you would be interested in. You may find it useful to apply for a call with 80,000 Hours, a careers advice organisation, for help considering other options.

Next steps

Take a look at our post here for some suggestions on testing your fit for a research career that apply regardless of what roles you’re interested in.

If you want more personalised advice, consider applying for our free coaching. One of our coaches can help you think through your plans and may be able to connect you with experienced researchers who can offer you advice.

If you decide to apply for a PhD, we can help you find a PhD supervisor and reach out to them, as well as find PhD funding.

Sign up for our newsletter if you want to hear about early-career research opportunities. If you’re interested in other ways of testing your fit for research, you could also explore these opportunities.