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Do I want an academic career?‌‌‌

Lecture TheatreThe PhD process prepares you well for what to expect from a career as an academic, but what it often omits is the intensely competitive and challenging nature of forging such a career. A 2012 Guardian article illustrates this vividly, as does the advice offered below the main text.‌

Bear in mind three things which you will need in order to tackle an academic career:

  • Passion for your subject above all, and the desire to push back its boundaries, particularly in the face of rejected publications and funding proposals.
  • Realism, in the knowledge that not everyone makes it. Always have a Plan B.
  • Creativity in your academic research, in order to beat your competitors to the latest discoveries and publications.

Post-PhD research and lecturing are discussed in more detail elsewhere. The Careers Centre A-Z page on Working in Academia also provides a breakdown of an academic career. It’s still important to understand the typical progression route though, so in brief:

  • Postdoctoral. Your PhD will lay the groundwork within your chosen subject area, and allow you to study intensively in order to start establishing yourself as an expert in your field. PhD graduates typically undertake one or more postdoctoral researcher, junior lecturer or teaching fellow roles. These short-term contracted roles allow you to build up your expertise and level of responsibility, while testing your academic creativity, extending your research interests into related areas and adding to your publication record. These years should also allow you to start building a reputation of your own, away from the spotlight of your supervisor(s).
  • Fellowship. Many postdocs make the move away from academia at this point, but for those that wish to establish themselves as a leader in their academic field, the next stage is application for independent (Fellowship) funding, as a means of setting up a new research group and supervising your own PhDs. Competition for such funds is intense, particularly in the Arts & Humanities.
  • Lectureship. Independent funding gives you the opportunity to apply for Lectureship posts within higher education institutions (research-focussed Reader posts are also a possibility). At this stage you will be expected to take on full administrative and teaching responsibilities, with the aim of being made a permanent member of staff, if you can maintain your research outputs and successful funding applications to a high level.
  • Senior Lecturer positions generally form the next rung of the ladder, before the coveted title of Professor may be offered after sufficient years in the role.

Other aspects to consider:

  • Teaching Fellowship routes are becoming more common as a means for budding academics to establish themselves through their teaching excellence rather than their research. Availability of these roles varies widely between institutions, so it is well worth consulting any teaching fellows within your School to gain an appreciation of their career path.
  • Returning to Academia. Some lecturers take up their posts after several years working outside the academic bubble, building up their knowledge and experience before returning to teach and research their subject again. While this is difficult to plan for in the long run, it’s important to remember that not all career academics take up and stay in post immediately after their PhD.
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