Professor Rick Rylance: What starts in the tea room can end in the boardroom'

Research councils UK Champion for research careers

In the late 1990s, when Professor Shankar Balasubramanian and his colleague Professor David Klenerman bumped into each other in the University of Cambridge tea room, little did they know that years later their research partnership would develop the world's leading DNA sequencing product, and that their spin-out company, Solexa, would be sold for $600m (£380m), making it the most successful the university had ever seen. That's the power of working in partnership – not only between researchers but between academia and the wider world. It shows the importance of supporting the brightest minds and the best research.

We live in a knowledge economy, and if research is the application of knowledge and skills then nothing is more important than the people who hold that knowledge and communicate it to others. We at Research Councils UK (RCUK) believe it is crucial to develop a seamless way for people to move from being talented undergraduates to postgraduates, where they develop and specialise their skills, and to continue their development as post-doctoral researchers and beyond. But the story does not end there. Research fans out across the economy into diverse destinations and opportunities. What starts in the tea room can end in the boardroom.

A rewarding and challenging research career does not only mean the academic sector. Researchers are highly sought after by business and industry. Recent data show that 94 per cent of doctoral graduates use research skills in their job, whether in academia or other occupations. In fact, RCUK-funded researchers currently work with more than 2,500 businesses from across the UK, and these partnerships can lead to direct employment, spin-out companies or financial support for a PhD studentship.

The point is, research is valuable. It is a national asset that helps the UK grow and prosper. You, who are among the most talented, are crucial to all our futures.

RCUK currently funds more than 19,000 PhD students, and there are a variety of ways in which you can receive support. Typically, the majority of funding is awarded through research grants, which are highly competitive and selected through rigorous peer review. Research project proposals are judged according to the excellence of the research, and only the best are funded. Project proposals can be submitted by individuals or groups of people, and in partnership with other institutions and universities from across the UK and overseas.

Fellowships are awarded to outstanding individuals often shortly after they complete a doctorate to enable them to continue developing their research. Unlike research grants, which are awarded on the basis of a project, fellowships are awarded to individuals on merit.

Another mode of funding involves a PhD student working in partnership with business, industry, charity or civil society organisations, and can often lead to a partnership going beyond the doctorate. Depending on the level of involvement, the partner organisation can have a direct engagement with the direction of the research, and, over the years, postgraduate researchers have worked in partnership with some of the biggest names in UK business, industry and other sectors, including British Airways, Oxfam, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline, Airbus UK, Rolls-Royce and Procter & Gamble.

The opportunities for furthering your research career are vast and varied, and can open doors beyond the world of academic research. They are certainly worth exploring!

Next month, this column will explain more about the research funding application process, and consider the future of UK research over the next few years.

More information about RCUK can be found at