Commercial awareness: what is it, do you have it and why should you care?

While running a workshop with research staff last week I was reminded again of the study on employers views of researchers which I’ve mentioned previously on this blog.  When employers were asked about the type of skills they thought researchers would have only about a quarter of respondents said they thought researchers would have high levels of commercial awareness.  This compared to closer to 100% who thought researchers had a high level of skill in data analysis (phew!).

business awarenessSo why should this matter?  Well, because employers in many sectors of industry, recruiting for a variety of job roles, value commercial awareness and look for evidence of this, both at the application and interview stage.  It’s even important in the academic sector, with the necessity to manage project grants or think about commercialisation of research.  The Researcher Development Framework produced by Vitae which aims to articulate the knowledge, behaviours and attributes of a successful researcher states, for an entry level researcher, the need to:

  • Understands the basic principles of financial management.
  • Have some commercial awareness.
  • Understand the process of commercial exploitation of research results.
  • Learn the value to academia of establishing relationships in business/commercial context.

But what does it really mean to be commercially aware?  There is no one, simple definition but most employers will use it to mean an understanding of the business environment.  How an organisation or economic sector operates, and its context.  How is it influenced by local, national and global politics and economics?

So how can you demonstrate your commercial awareness?  Here are just a few ideas.

  • Think about how you undertake your research.  Do you have to manage a research budget, source materials from the best supplier, make links with business / industry to gather data?  These are all things that employers interested in commercial awareness need to know about on a job application.
  • Have you worked in the past (or do you work alongside your studies)?  What did you learn about the employer, the way the business operated (and that could include a university!), and how they compared to their competitors?  This sort of thing is worth paying attention to, even if you are working in a bar or supermarket and don’t think the work is likely to be relevant to your future employment.
  • Reflect on how businesses are run generally and on what makes a business successful in general terms (e.g. profitability involves managing costs as well as growing sales volume).
  • Keep up to date with current affairs and business news, and have an opinion on what’s going on in the world.
  • Get involved in clubs and societies – this can be a great way to attend relevant events but also to take on responsibilities that develop those commercial skills such as event organising, communication, marketing, and finance (or you could hep organise a conference in your School / research institute)!

Obviously, providing evidence for commercial awareness is only going to be important when you are actively job seeking.  However, gathering the evidence is something that you can be doing alongside pursuing your PhD and will make job applications which require you to demonstrate commercial awareness that little bit easier.   If you’d like to know more there’s a useful section on business awareness on our website.

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