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Agency and Networking

in Researcher Career Development

ERASMUS + Researcher Identity Development


Navigating Professional Careers

Understanding institutions

I’d like to be attached to an institution … it is nice to have that stability …and you have access to the library … access to on-line journals (and other resources) [Elizabeth, consultant]


Regardless of the sector in which you are seeking a position or working, you will operate in some kind of institution or organization, even if you start your own company. Several participants who entered professional careers spoke of how they had not sufficiently understood the organization’s purpose and its alignment with their own goals. They also realized that they inadequately understood how the organization’s structures, resources and expectations influenced their day-to-day work.  


As a result, we suggest that you investigate the purpose and structure of potential employing organizations as this will help you to consider: a) whether there is a good match with your personal goals and preferences, as well as b) how best to navigate the expectations, resources and practices of an organization.


Purposes: What organizational purposes best match your interests?  

The public sector, which employs many PhD graduates, is principally funded through taxation since the services offered are perceived as government responsibilities to provide. Unsurprisingly, what is considered public varies by country. Generally, in North America and Europe, the public sector includes multiple levels of government, education, healthcare, military, police, and aspects of systems related to transportation, telecommunications, power and water supply. Public sector organizations also operate at the international level.  


The para-public (non-profit) sector represents activities and services that focus on enhancing the public good. This sector includes charities, foundations distributing funds to charities and individuals, social advocacy groups promoting particular beliefs and goals, and professional or trade organizations supporting people to carry out their profession or trade. Such organizations are often funded through donations and membership fees from various sources (e.g., government, individuals, corporations, and foundations. 


The private (for profit) sector engages in private enterprises to generate income for owners and shareholders; often some state regulation shapes the parameters of the business. Such organizations range from one person working locally to large multi-national companies which may be able to pick and choose the regulatory environment that suits them best. 


Structures: Which organizational structures best match your desired working practices? 

The form an organization takes will influence the types of possible interactions as well as the expectations of employees. Common structures include:

  • Functional/ project-based: each functional unit of the organization is structured to achieve its primary purpose. This may enhance task focus, but there may be weak communication between units. This structure is often seen in small to medium-sized organizations  

  • Divisional: arranging divisional units is often used in larger companies with wide geographic reach. This may allow better communication within regional scope, but communication across divisions can suffer

  • Matrix: a combination of functional and divisional structures. This may bring together the strengths of both approaches and overcome the challenges of each, but it can create power struggles given the different focus of the two structures

  • Pyramid/hierarchy: larger organizations often develop hierarchies to ensure that decisions can be made at the highest levels and implemented across a large number of workers. This can lead to unified policies and practices, but it may result in reliance on rigid structures and bureaucratic practices

The aim of each of these different structures is to help achieve the organization’s goals, and in every case employees are central to such achievement. 


Navigating and flourishing in the organization 

Recognizing your ideal work environment
Before you look for a job, it can be helpful to imagine your ideal work environment. Answering these questions may help you to think about your preferences:

  • Type of work: What are the kinds of work that interest you and that you are good at? What type of role might make best use of your abilities and give you a feeling of accomplishment?

  • Security: How important is it to have a job that provides guaranteed continuing employment? 

  • Status: Does a company’s reputation matter to you? Is your job title important?

  • Advancement: Do you want to be able to progress in your job or career?

  • Pay and benefits: How much do you need to earn to meet your needs? Is it important that your job have a benefits package (e.g., health insurance, pension contributions, subsidised child-care)?

  • Work/life balance: How important is it to have working hours that allow you to spend enough time with family and/or to pursue other interests?

  • Working conditions: How much do you value having physical working conditions that are safe, comfortable and not stressful?

  • Location: How important is where you work? Does your chosen career require a certain location? Are you able or prepared to relocate or commute?

  • Values: How important is it to work for an organization that meets your values? (e.g., green organization, product/service meets your moral code)

  • Social interaction: Do you expect that your place of employment will provide your social life? Do you anticipate that your colleagues will also be your friends?


Navigating your new organization

The first 6 months to a year with a new employer is about learning, not just your job but also the ways in which the organization functions. Even if you understand the organization’s purpose and structure, there is often much to learn about how people interact and the implicit rules to be obeyed. In many cases this will not be something that colleagues will think to tell you, so you must devise a strategy to help your learning. One possible approach is to engage with your new workplace in a manner rather akin to how an anthropologist would investigate a new ‘culture’. Like an anthropologist, you need to learn by observing and interacting with people in the setting, gathering information to reflect on and drawing conclusions from your ‘data’ about how the culture functions, the practices, habits and beliefs that guide interaction and decision-making.


Observe how people interact with each other: 

For instance, 

  • Does the organization operate informally on an ‘open-door’ basis or is interaction more formal? 

  • Is there interaction between groups? If not, how might you get to know individuals beyond your local group to get a better sense of the organization as a whole? 

  • In the day-to-day work environment how do people obtain information? Is information open and shared or is it closed with people hoarding information others may require? The first is often a sign that people are comfortable; the second may be a sign that something is wrong. 

  • Remember that in some instances work is sensitive and cannot be shared. As well, some people may be wary to share with newcomers until they have built up trust.


If you need to know more about something, ask questions. People will usually recognize that you are new and understand you are trying to learn how things work:

  • Ask (non-challenging) questions about what you observe; this will help you to check whether your interpretations are correct.

  • Remember to ask questions about things you cannot see. For instance, 

    • Do people move around in the organization to progress their careers? 

    • Who elsewhere in the organization might be useful for you in doing your job that you have not yet come across?

    • What happens if people ‘mess up’? 


Useful resources:

Explore the other themes


Researcher Identity Development (2020).

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