An academic career

Many people start their PhD thinking that they will continue with a career in academia, whereas in fact only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates end up in long-term academic careers.

Academia is a competitive field, as there are many more doctoral graduates than there are jobs. However, academic positions are available if you are willing to compete for them.

Types of academic jobs

The different names given to academic jobs can be confusing, especially for early-career jobs. In the UK, the academic job titles you will commonly see are:

  • Research Fellow (sometimes also called Postdoctoral Researcher): These posts are usually focused on research, though may still expect you to undertake some teaching or supervision of students. These posts are common entry points into an academic career, especially in the sciences. Positions are usually fixed-term, lasting typically between six months to three years. This is because they are often funded by grants that last for a specific duration. It is common for people to take several temporary postdoc research fellowships to build up their academic profile and experience before applying for a more permanent academic role (i.e. a lectureship). Research Fellows tend to spend most of their time undertaking research and disseminating research through publications and conferences. If you are considering applying for postdoc positions, be sure to find out what opportunities a particular postdoc will give you (e.g. will you be given authorship on grants? Will you gain any first-author publications?) and whether this will help you to develop your profile effectively.

  • Teaching Fellow: This is another common entry-level position in academia, but focuses much more on teaching than research. However, it is common for people who take Teaching Fellowships to continue working on their research in their own time, in order to develop their academic profile to compete for more permanent academic positions like lectureships. Teaching Fellows will often teach on and sometimes lead undergraduate and postgraduate modules and are likely to have some administrative and pastoral duties as well. Teaching Fellowships are usually fixed-term, lasting typically between six months to two years. Teaching experience is key to securing a Teaching Fellowship, and a teaching accrediation like Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) can also help. For more information on gaining this accredition whilst you are at Birmingham, visit the Beacon Scheme website.

  • Lecturer (sometimes called Assistant or Associate Professor): In the UK, lectureship roles are often called 'three-legged' contracts as they often involve three main aspects: teaching responsibilities; undertaking research; and contributing to academic administration (e.g. admissions, recruitment, course leadership etc.). Some lectureships may however have more of a focus on teaching ('Teaching-Focused Lectureship') or on research. It can take many people several years of fixed-term research and/or teaching posts until they are in a position to compete for these longer-term roles. The focus of your work as a lecturer may differ depending on the university you are working at; for example, if you are working at a more teaching-focused institution or a more research-intensive university. It is worth thinking about what type of role, and what type of university, might suit you best. 

You can find more information about academic career progression in the 'Essential Guide to Moving Up the Academic Career Ladder' on the jobs.ac.uk website.

Tips for academic job hunting

  • Check that a career in academia is a good choice for you. Try to talk to people working in your field in a range of different institutions to get a rounded view. Make sure that you base your decisions on an informed picture of what academic careers entail, and not on your perceptions of what an academic career might be like. In addition, think carefully about what you want from a career and what you want to spend most of your time doing, and be honest with yourself about whether continuing in academia will allow you this.
  • Understand the requirements for academic jobs early on in your PhD and use these as a guide to developing your profile accordingly. Important things to think about are: developing a good publications record; gaining teaching experience; administration experience; gathering knowledge of funding opportunities and evidence of successful funding applications; professional networking to raise your profile; evidence of public engagement and ‘impact’; and showing ability to collaborate and make connections with researchers from other groups or departments.
  • Build up knowledge of the universities and departments where you could work. This means researching which universities, institutions or research centres are working on research and teaching that is relevant to your background and interests. Do what you can to network with relevant people in these institutions and centres to raise your profile before jobs are advertised.
  • Sign up to jobs.ac.uk for alerts when relevant jobs are advertised.
  • Follow departments, labs or institutes in your field of interest on social media; sign up to academic mailing lists relevant to your research interests via academic discussion list portal Jiscmail.

The skills required for an academic career

In general, academic institutions will be looking at your ability to produce, manage and publish research, to supervise, and to teach. However, institutions vary in their focus; some are research-led while others concentrate more on teaching. Some have specialisms in particular subject areas. When searching for a position, you should consider what percentage of your time you want to spend on research, teaching and administration. 

It would also be a good idea to discuss your plans with your supervisor or other academics, as they will be able to give you advice and information that you may not find elsewhere. Whatever your chosen career path, you should think about developing relevant skills, gaining experience, and gathering evidence as early as possible in your PhD programme. 

Training courses to help you develop some of the key skills required for an academic career are available from the University Graduate School.

Applying for academic jobs

If you are at the stage where you are making applications for academic jobs, we've put together some advice for you on putting together an academic CV and on writing an academic cover letter.

Academic careers events on campus

'Leading Academics' is a series of events run by the University Graduate School and Careers Network designed to equip you with skills, information and awareness to help you plan an academic career and apply for academic jobs. Take a look at the next Leading Academics events coming up soon.

Further resources about academic careers

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