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Commercial awareness

Employer insights

Many of the employers we consulted cited commercial awareness as an important skill. You may not have thought of it in this way, but it’s likely that you have developed some commercial awareness during your postdoc career, working with industry partners, or been involved in research commercialisation or the development of a spin-out. All of these experiences are great opportunities to develop your commercial awareness.

Even if you have not had any direct commercial experience, it’s likely you have experience of acting entrepreneurially. Several former postdocs turned business founders have highlighted to us how their postdoc skills gave them a great foundation for their commercial endeavours.

They likened the skills needed for the continuous pursuit of the next role and ability to identify opportunities and generate funding to those required to help grow their businesses.

A useful definition of commercial awareness is:

‘The ability to spot opportunities, understand constraints and uncertainty, and manage risks. Someone who is ‘commercially aware’ stays up-to-date with things that could affect their own profitability and others’ profitability, and understands the importance of financial sustainability and applies that knowledge.

What is commercial awareness

On the one hand, you can think of commercial awareness as an understanding of financial sustainability, the ability to interpret a profit and loss statement or to understand the market for a product.

But commercial awareness can also be considered more broadly as an ability to expand your focus from your role to appreciate its wider purpose and its organisational and economic context, ‘the bigger picture’. This purpose will be different depending on the organisation, field or sector.

Within academia

Within academia, you are likely to be motivated by producing world-leading research and, in support of this you are likely to need to know what your competitors are working on and what is cutting edge in your field or sector.

“We are an audience-focussed institution. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what the audience needs to know, and how they need to know it.

Lindsey Fryer, Head of Learning, Tate Liverpool

As a postdoc, you have a wealth of experience that employers want to hear about. If you are open to developing your commercial awareness this will put you at a huge advantage in your career development.

Within an SME

Within an SME, and especially within a young SME, business growth is likely to be a primary aim, and commercial awareness is often used to mean an ability to identify, develop and act on opportunities to grow and develop the business.

“I need people who can understand the market application of what we are doing. I need someone who can identify opportunities and act on them in a timely way… I want people who want to get our products out there and who are excited by our products being used in a range of new ways.

Andy Chaloner, CEO of Stream Bio, a Life Sciences SME

While the SMEs we spoke to highlighted the importance of developing the market for their products, and the need to be proactive and flexible in order to do so, larger organisations emphasised the importance of keeping the client in mind, or understanding the ultimate application of their product in the market.

In the third sector

“In a company like IBM the clients are the number one priority. So if we need to change priorities to meet a client’s need – and it means putting certain projects on hold – that’s what has to happen.

Dr Martyn Spink, Programme Director, IBM Research

In not-for-profit organisations, such as charities and the public sector, this kind of awareness is about focussing on the needs of the beneficiaries, audiences or users of your activities. Activities are not done for their own sake, but with an audience in mind:

Developing commercial awareness skills

Develop your commercial literacy and commercial awareness in this session with Dr Sabina Strachan. Explore the concepts of:

  • profitability
  • competencies
  • mapping
  • risk management

You can access the full video here, or watch the clips below.


Think about all of the different types of ‘effort’ you make at your work:

  • how you and your team spend your time (which of course has a cost implication)
  • as well as how you spend money.

Now consider the different kinds of rewards. These could be:

  • financial (e.g. being awarded a grant)
  • reputational etc.

A consideration of the balance of the two is essential in a commercial context. One way you might have demonstrated this awareness in an academic context is by:

  1. considering the success rates of different funding calls
  2. prioritising grant writing efforts accordingly
  3. ensure the chances of success are greater in relation to the effort expended.

Consideration of time as a resource and cost is essential to commercial awareness. The videos below consider time and profitability.

Breaking down commercial awareness skills

Dr Sabina Strachan breaks down ‘commercial awareness’ into eight key competencies. Watch the video below to learn what these are, and how you can develop and demonstrate these as a postdoc.

Opportunity mapping

Learn what opportunity mapping is and take 10 minutes to practice doing it.


Risk management is an important part of commercial awareness. Learn about how to identify, rate and manage risks in this short video. You can read more about risk in relation to project management

Further resources

Entrepreneurial Thinking

Prosper has co-created this workbook with Prof Paul Coyle (of the ‘entrepreneurial mindset network’). This workbook provides a resource and tasks for you to consider your own entrepreneurial mindset as a postdoc. You can find out more in the 'Thinking like an entrepreneur' resource.

Download the workbookArrow pointing right

Suggested task

Login or register to add these tasks to your personal development plan.

Working for yourself: starting a business

In this two part series, Denise Chilton takes you through the process of setting up you own business

Considering the private sector

Having worked as a researcher in academia, you may never have considered a role in the private sector. You may have also made assumptions about what it is like to work at a company (that aims to make a profit).

Click here to access a document that is designed to stimulate reflection about what working in the private sector might mean and show that there is a lot of interconnectedness between, and nuances within, different sectors. We use examples from academia, the private sector and the third sector to illustrate some of these points.

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