The third space

Careers after a PhD: Why not in the Third Space?

For a long time, careers in academia and industry have been seen as almost the only possible professional paths after a doctoral degree. However, new needs arising in academia and science-related institutions have led to the emergence of new job profiles. Dr. Martina Arioli, who led the CAS Research Management at the University of Bern for several years, explains some of the interesting features of the so-called “Third Space”.

In recent decades, the higher education landscape has changed significantly in Europe and thus also in Switzerland. Structural reforms and new forms of management such as New Public Management [1] have been implemented in universities, universities of applied sciences and in teacher education. This has triggered a change in the field of activity of academic staff, leading to the emergence of new tasks that can no longer be classically assigned to administration or science. In other words, a new professional sphere has developed: the so-called “Third Space” [2].

Initially, the additional management tasks were perceived as rather thankless, as they distracted from the core business of research. But Gautschi showed [3] that already in 2013, many Swiss universities had positions in the Third Space, either centralised in the university administration or decentralised in the faculties that supported scientists in these still unpopular tasks. In the meantime, job profiles of the so-called “new professionals” are becoming the norm. According to a recent study [4], more than one in six full-time equivalent positions at Swiss higher education institutions are in the Third Space. A characteristic feature of these positions from an administrative point of view is that they are often part-time temporary appointments financed by third-party funds. Research managers are a common type of new professionals. They typically cover interface roles, have an academic education, often a doctoral degree, and a background in a scientific area related to that of the institution in which they work. Usually, they have a high degree of freedom in shaping their own field of activity. However, since their decision-making authority is limited, these positions may require a certain frustration tolerance. This can sometimes reduce the appeal of the Third Space as a work field.

While for a long time, Third Space professionals used to learn the necessary skills mostly on the job, there are now a number of continuing education courses in Europe and also in Switzerland, which offer training in important competencies such as project management, communication, marketing and leadership skills. When the University of Bern’s CAS Research Management was launched in 2011, it was unclear how large and diverse the target group would be. Now, looking back over ten years of this programme, some interesting conclusions can be drawn about the community, based on the data collected from 2011 to 2019 about the alumni. Besides universities, research managers are also employed at research funding organisations, foundations, non-academic research institutions, hospitals, federal offices and in industry. Their disciplinary background is very diverse, ranging from natural science, medicine and engineering to humanities and social sciences (Figure 1A). The proportion of women among participants in the CAS Research Management was higher (58%) than men over the nine years, which may be related to the more frequent part-time employment of research managers. The average age of participants was around 40 years (Figure 1B). This, considering also the experience of CAS participants (Fig 1C), indicates that so far, research managers may have felt a stronger need to systematically work on the skills learned on the job only after some years of practice. However, in recent years the number of younger participants has increased, especially the number of doctoral students who are opting for a direct path into the Third Space and need a formal degree to pursue this career.

A few years ago, Third Space professionals were branded as “failed academics”. However, the sharpening of their profile and the clear importance of their role in research-related institutions has led to a change of mindset. Increasingly, academics are deliberately deciding to work in this area, perceiving it as a fulfilling professional perspective at the border between science and administration. An additional career path after scientific degrees has thereby emerged.

Martina Arioli
Center for University Continuing Education, University of Bern


Dr. Martina Arioli was the director of the CAS Research Management program at the University of Bern from 2014 to 2020. Dr. Arioli began her studies in biology in 1995 at the University of Zurich, where she completed a doctoral degree in evolutionary ecology in 2007. She then worked for several years in research management at the University of Zurich. Since 2020, she has been leading the “BEflex” project, which aims at making continuing education more flexible at the University of Bern.

More information about the CAS Research Management at the University of Bern: www.forschungsmanagement.unibe.ch


[1]A new result-oriented management style of public institutions inspired by the private sector, emerged in the ‘80s. See for example https://www.managementstudyguide.com/new-public-management.htm

[2] Whitchurch C, Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education, Higher Education Quarterly 2008, 62:4, 377-396

[3] Gautschi P, Professionalisierung an Schweizer Hochschulen? Bestandsaufnahme und Perspektiven. In: Arbeitsplatz Hochschule im Wandel, Zoom 2013, 3

[4] Schmidlin S, Bühlmann E and Muharremi F, Next Generation und Third Space: neue Karriereprofile im Wissenschaftssystem. Studie im Auftrag der Schweizerischen Akademie der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften, Swiss Academies Reports 2020, 15:3