An academic career offers the opportunity to work at the cutting edge of knowledge, in an area that you are passionately interested in. It's a career that gives a high degree of flexibility and autonomy, working in an intellectually stimulating environment. On the flipside, the start of a career in academia can mean the insecurity of a succession of fixed-term contracts in search of a permanent research post or lectureship. Administration loads can be heavy. The constant drive to get work published and attract funding are commonly cited as downsides of an academic’s workload.
Academics pursue their own area of specialist research in collaboration with their research group and often with external organisations. Most also teach undergraduates, postgraduates and may supervise PhD students and other researchers. There is a clear pathway to climb towards an academic career, and a common route might be as follows: PhD studentship; postdoctoral research post (one or more); lectureship; leader of a research group (particularly in Scientific fields); readership; chair or professorship.
To find out more about specific roles visit
UK Higher Education Sector In the UK most academics work in the 120 or so universities across the country. Universities are usually among the largest employers in their region and are environments that welcome part-time and contract employees. If student numbers increase in the coming years there may be a healthier climate for promotion and career advancement opportunities, particularly for those able to be flexible in their specialism and location.
The history of a university influences the type of teaching and research that they undertake. Broadly speaking the “old” universities (such as St Andrews, Oxford, Durham) and “civic” or “red brick” universities formed in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries (such as Manchester and Birmingham) predominantly offer academic areas of teaching and research. Many new universities were built in the 1960s in response to the Robbins report; these included institutions such as Keele, Warwick, Stirling and Sussex. The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 then gave polytechnics university status. So-called post-1992 or “new” universities such as De Montfort University (formerly Leicester Polytechnic) commonly operate in more vocational subject areas, perhaps with a greater emphasis on teaching than research, but are rapidly climbing the rankings for research and teaching quality in many areas. Many new universities have individual departments with teaching and research standards as high as those in traditional institutions. In 1994, 19 major research-led pre-1992 universities formed the Russell Group, including Leeds, Edinburgh and Birmingham. In 2006/07, Russell Group Universities accounted for 66% of UK Universities' research grant and contract income.
Successful academics require the following skills and characteristics:
For academics to successfully progress in their career they also need:
|Key attributes needed for the role||Where you could develop these skills or attributes|
|Strong capacity for original thought, to keep you ahead of your peers||
Through academic studies.
|Expertise in your subject area|
|The ability to sustain and inspire interest in their area of specialist research||Through networking and publications in peer reviewed journals.|
|Excellent analytical skills||
Through academic studies and relevant work experience.
CAPOD offer maths support for particular problems or even if just you wish to build your confidence in your maths Skills.Practical problem solving skills are particularly valued for example taking on the role of treasurer for a society.
|Excellent communication skills – written, verbal, persuading, negotiating||
Many of these skills you will develop through your academic studies and extra- curricular activities.
Leadership roles in sport and other societies are looked on favourably.
CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum.
Through understanding your strengths, setting short term goals and achieving it, focussing on academic achievements.
CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills (for eg the ‘Get ahead of the game: motivation’ course) regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum.
|Ability to organise workload to meet competing demands||
Many of these skills you will develop through your academic studies and extra- curricular activities.
CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills (for eg the ‘time management’ course) regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum.
|Confident dealing with wide range of people||
Many of these skills you will develop through your time doing group work during your studies and extra- curricular activities.
CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills regularly (for eg the ‘leadership and teamwork’ courses within its Professional Skills Curriculum.
Attending conferences in your area of research, through membership to learned societies.
Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to back up your case for why they should employ you. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (many organisations have their own page) to connect with organisations. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.
Have a look at the Network with Alumni section of our website for more advice and information.
A PhD is an essential prerequisite for an academic career. There are occasional research positions in universities for those with a good undergraduate degree, but to progress to lectureships and beyond such posts usually have to be combined with work towards a PhD. Securing a PhD studentship is usually dependent on achieving a 1st or 2.1, although an outstanding performance on a post-graduate Masters qualification may sufficiently boost a good 2.2. Academic careers are possible with any degree subject, although those studying arts and humanities will find attracting funding for a PhD and subsequent postdoctoral research much more challenging than scientists and engineers.
Have a close look at our Postgraduate Study pages for more information about starting further study.
PhD students contemplating an academic career should aim to take every opportunity to:
If you have not yet embarked on a PhD use the access that you have to postgraduate students and academics to find out as much as you can about the reality of an academic career in your subject. Have a look at our Postgraduate Study and Researcher pages.
Relevant vacation work is possible – perhaps doing fieldwork or laboratory work for an academic, or undertaking literature searches or other projects. St Andrews has a small number of research and leadership internships for undergraduates over the summer which offer a very useful taster of research work. Also around in your department, speak to lecturers and tutors for any useful contacts in other institutions. Few of these posts are advertised, although occasionally you can find some on our website. Employers who have previously contacted us about vacation work in research include: Atlantic Whale Foundation, British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Institute for Public Policy Research, the Scottish Executive and the Universities of Glasgow, Dundee, Paisley, Birmingham, Stirling, Westminster and Wales. Networking, and making speculative applications will help you to find opportunities. Have a look at our work experience page for more information.
After you complete your PhD, you might want to consider a postdoctoral position. Postdocs are typically fixed-term contracts of 1-3 years, although there is increasing pressure on departments to give postdoctoral researchers the same rights as permanent staff and to reduce the number of workers on short-term contracts. Progress is slow on this however and many postdocs still have to move from one short-term contract to another. These are advertised under a myriad of alternative names from Research Assistant, Research Officer or Research Associate to Research Fellow, and all attract similar levels of pay. Postdocs pursue their research, usually closely related to their PhD topic, and build their expertise and reputation through publications and attending conferences.
Many researchers are focussed on their research activities but if you want to succeed in an academic career, you also need to build a portfolio of teaching experience. Teaching loads vary greatly between institutions but will often include tutorials, seminars or lab class demonstrations. Postdocs are likely to become involved in grant applications as their career progresses and may be responsible for one or more PhD students. There is increased pressure on university departments to improve the quality of teaching, and so there is an increasing trend for departments to encourage academics to study towards a recognised teaching qualification such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE (LTHE) early on in their career. Opportunities to pursue such training vary enormously between institutions, with post-1992 institutions leading the way.
Postdoc opportunities are much less common in Arts and Humanities subjects and competition for permanent academic posts is particularly fierce in those areas. Speak to early career academics in your discipline to find out what route they have taken.
The first permanent post for an academic is usually a lectureship. There are many fewer lectureships than postdocs who seek them and competition is fierce. A Readership is usually a research-focussed post, with responsibility for leading a research group, attracting funding and so on. A Reader is likely to have established an international reputation in their area of specialism. The most senior position for an academic is that of Professor – these are leaders in their field and likely to have significant managerial responsibility within their department and possibly the wider university. There has been a clear trend to increase the number of Professorial opportunities, primarily in order to attract and retain star research performers in an era of increasing competition between institutions.
There are many journals and websites that list academic job vacancies, many of them are listed below. The main general ones are the Times Higher Educational Supplement, Jobs.ac.uk and the Higher Education Guardian. Scientists and those in other technical fields should also look at the New Scientist. Many specialist journals also carry academic vacancies and individual universities websites advertise posts. Academic jobs are not usually advertised through recruitment agencies. Informal networking is also hugely important. Develop contacts through conferences and ask your supervisor for introductions to key researchers in your field.
These websites contain vacancies in academia:
International mobility is extremely common in this sector, and therefore much of the advice presented here is relevant to international students interested in pursuing an academic career in the UK. However, note that not all funding opportunities are open to all nationalities, for example UK research council funding for PhD Studentships is available only to UK (fees and maintenance) and EU (fees only) students. Most universities have an international office that provides information for international students at, or considering work at, that institution.
There are frequent changes to the rules affecting international students and recent graduates wishing to work in the UK. It is recommended that, for the most up-to-date information, you check UKCISA: UK Council for International Student Affairs, which offers independent information and advice about immigration, finance and working in the UK, and also the UK Border Agency. You can find further links and resources on our visas and immigration page