Academic careers can be rewarding. You could make a positive impact on the lives of young people, contribute to groundbreaking research and help people improve their career prospects.
Most people will progress through different routes to their academic careers. These could include
*A research-based route (focusing on research and a minimal amount of teaching)
*A teaching-based route (includes teaching and limited time spent on research)
*Combined research and teaching route (both teaching and research are included)
To step into an academic career, you would need to have completed a doctorate degree. A full-time UK PhD degree takes typically three years to complete and it is considered the highest academic qualification. Doctorate degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities are called a DPhil (e.g. DPhil in Economics). As a doctoral student, you could make a significant contribution to your field and develop a deep understanding of your subject area. Completing a PhD can also help you to gain more prestigious jobs, and to develop your professional network, and it could open doors to more career directions. Some doctorate students would agree that completing independent research can be slightly isolating. Students may face frustration, lack of motivation or communication issues with their selected supervisor.
To work as an academic fellow, you would need a doctorate degree in a relevant subject. It is a diverse and challenging role. You would be engaged in academic research, manage a team of researchers such as postdocs and PhD students, deliver teaching and coordinate some administrative duties. In an interview recorded by the University of Edinburgh, Dr Stuart Gilfillan (Chancellor’s Fellow at the College of Science and Engineering) explains that fellows can be involved in overseas research work and teaching and work on test sites. It is important to take part in conferences to keep up to date with research developments. There is also a range of development activities which can help research professionals further improve their skills such as annual development reviews and training events.
Working as a university lecturer involves not only delivering lectures but also developing academic courses. As a lecturer, you would have the opportunity to get to know some of your students and help them shape their career direction. You could inspire young people to develop an interest in academic research and to deepen their curiosity in a specific subject field. At times, you would need to work long hours to complete markings and you might be asked to write teaching materials at short notice. Dr Joan Simon at the College of Science and Engineering explains in an interview that lecturers may need to handle additional tasks which fall outside the agreements in their contract. As a lecturer, flexibility and resilience are key to helping manage some of the demands of the role.
Lecturers frequently receive an internal promotion to senior lecturer roles. Working as a senior lecturer includes more responsibilities in terms of managing people, budgets and academic projects. Being a senior lecturer may include not only classroom teaching and course design but also being part of strategic planning and departmental decision-making. You would also be expected to produce high-quality research internationally and to publish your work in reputable journals. The next step in terms of career progression would be to professor or reader.
Dr Michael Rovatsos, who works as a Senior Lecturer and Director of a Research Institute at the School of Informatics, explains that increasing organisational demands can lead to more bureaucracy and an increasing amount of administrative duties. Dr Rovatsos explains: ‘Every academic activity (research, teaching, knowledge transfer) is planned, measured, audited, and validated nowadays, and this creates a heavy administrative burden at all levels of academic life.’
A reader is a senior academic who has achieved an international reputation in research or scholarship. Many academics are promoted from senior lecturer to reader before stepping into a professorship. Dr Joan Simon, Reader at the College of Science and Engineering, highlights a number of skills which helped him reach his current academic post. The ability to create high-quality results whilst working independently is a useful skill because it demonstrates evidence of outstanding capabilities. Networking is helpful because you are able to share your research with others and convince them that you are able to solve complex problems, according to Dr Simon.
A professor is an academic who has been promoted to the highest academic grade on the basis of their scholarly achievements. Many professors work as senior lecturers for a number of years before being promoted to professors. Each university has different criteria in terms of appointing professors. To apply for a professorship internally, you would need to submit an application form and indicate how you meet the university’s criteria. Those applying for a professorship from outside the university may apply for a vacancy and go through the standard selection process.
Head of School
This is an academic leadership role in a university’s organisational structure. Working as a Head of School includes overall responsibility for academic staff and students. A Head of School would provide strategic leadership in teaching, research and knowledge exchange. You would need to have a diverse range of skills and experience to work successfully in this role e.g. track record of academic leadership, resource and operations management. You would need to have a deep understanding of the higher education sector and also how to lead complex organisational projects.
Working as a dean includes overseeing a number of university departments. This is a high-level academic leadership role responsible for effective leadership, management and development. A dean will work with members of the senior management team to develop the university’s policy and meet long-term objectives. To work in this role, you would need to have years of experience in university management and academic leadership. Deans have a wide range of management skills such as financial and people management, governance and strategic planning.
Academia could offer a wide range of development opportunities and career progression. It is an exciting and evolving field. You could make a real difference in the world of teaching and research, and inspire the next generations.
Further information on academic careers:
- What are examples of academic jobs?
- Transferable skills from your PhD
- Joy in academic careers: What can I expect?
- Joys in academic careers: Noticing, nurturing and spreading joy in academic careers