Have you ever thought about working in academia? Would you like to be involved in teaching and research in your professional career? If you are exploring career options in higher education, the following article will help you understand the various types of academic jobs, expectations of employers, and skills you would need to develop. Please be aware that job roles and the nature of responsibilities may vary between universities.
What is the nature of the work?
The work of an academic is varied. Being able to collaborate with others and complete research is what draws many people to the world of academia. You could be invited to present papers at national and overseas conferences and engage with researchers in your field. Seeing your own work published could be one of the most rewarding parts of the job. You could deliver classroom and online lectures to young adults and inspire them to follow an academic career. As an established academic, you could mentor and coach less experienced academics and foster their professional development.
However, you could find the environment of a university slightly competitive. You could face competition from other academics who are keen to climb the career ladder and gain promotions. You might struggle to meet ever-increasing demands on your time. A work-life balance survey conducted by Times Higher Education has revealed that academics often struggle to juggle family commitments and workloads.
Some academics find it challenging to work in a hierarchical university and to navigate workplace politics. Decision-making processes could be longer within the organisation, with lots of committees in place. You could find yourself in an environment which is somewhat resistant to change initiatives.
What are the opportunities to develop myself?
As an academic, you will be part of a learning culture. Researching in your field will enable you to expand your knowledge. You could attend conferences and be inspired by the work of leading scholars. Academic events provide fantastic opportunities to exchange views with other researchers, to meet leading academics, and to keep informed about developments in your field. As a lecturer, you could be asked to write new academic courses. You might supervise postgraduate students and guide them through their dissertation journey. Many academics find supervision intellectually stimulating and rewarding. Your employer might offer you some leadership, coaching and other professional courses to take.
What skills do I need?
Based on a statistical analysis of 500,000* (UK) job listings, the three soft skills most often indicated in job listings include ‘organisation’, ‘communication skills’ and ‘motivated’.
In academia, organisation is one of the most important skills to possess. You will be required to meet tight deadlines and work without supervision. If you teach, you might need to complete administrative tasks and coordinate assessments. Without the traditional nine-to-five working pattern, you will be more in charge of your schedule and therefore time management is key. As a researcher, you will be working together with other scholars, presenting your findings in front of other academics, or lecturing to large groups of students. To excel in your field, you will need to be a confident communicator and explain complex concepts in simple language.
You could enjoy flexible working arrangements and deliver your work from home as well as from the campus. However, you will need to be able to motivate yourself and handle the lack of social contact at times. Resilience is important because you could face challenges such as rejections of research grant applications. Being passionate about your subject field and making a positive difference in the life of others could help you to navigate through difficult times.
What are examples of academic jobs?
Teaching Associate: Perhaps the easiest way to get started is to work as an associate lecturer, taking up freelance teaching and marking assignments. For most associate positions, you will need to have a doctorate degree in a relevant field. Some universities prefer taking on freelancers with industry experience as well as a postgraduate degree. Being an associate could help you to get your foot in the door and could contribute to gaining a full-time contract. You can find teaching associate vacancies here
Lecturer: As an established lecturer, you will be supporting students with their academic studies. You would deliver lectures, assess students’ academic work, mentor others, write academic courses and complete research, just to mention a few of the responsibilities. You can find lecturer vacancies here.
Senior Lecturer: As you advance in your career, you could be promoted to a senior level and be involved in strategic decision making. Your work might cover research or teaching, although some employers may ask you to contribute in both areas. Some of the criteria of working at this level may include a track record of publishing internationally and having extensive teaching experience at both under and postgraduate levels. You can find senior lecturer vacancies here.
Professor: As a member of the senior management team, you will take responsibility for strategic development and directly influencing decision making. You would need to show the drive and vision to lead change at an organisational level. You would be bringing innovative changes to teaching practices and aspire to continuously improve the student experience. You would need to possess a doctoral degree in a relevant field, and have experience of academic leadership as well as an outstanding background in research. You can find professor vacancies here.
Research Fellow: There are a range of different research titles which you might come across e.g.: postdoctoral research associate, research assistant, research fellow. To be considered for vacancies, you will need to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of research methods and expertise in analysing data. A doctorate degree in a relevant field is a key application requirement. You can find research fellow vacancies here.
Researcher: Experienced academic researchers may be involved in both teaching and research. You could be collecting large amounts of data, analysing it and drawing in-depth conclusions from it. You would collate and summarise evidence of your work, for both academic and non-academic audiences. You will need to be able to ask searching questions and demonstrate strong critical thinking skills. You can find researcher vacancies here.
Head of Department: You will be providing leadership within the university and manage a number of teams. The ability to collaborate is key because you could be developing links with external organisations. As a member of the senior leadership team, you would influence the university’s strategic plan and contribute to the university maintaining and increasing its reputation. You can find head of department vacancies here.
Dean: At this level, you would oversee the quality of academic teaching and lead a number of academic staff members. You would need to have a unique set of skills and experience to excel at this level: senior leadership, leading complex change projects, track record of innovative teaching, and a commitment to widening participation. You can find dean vacancies here.
How do I get started?
#Take inventory of your skills: Explore some of the advertised teaching and research jobs on jobs.ac.uk. Then, make a detailed list of your strength and improvement areas. Do you excel at academic writing? How confident do you feel when communicating to others? How easily can you cope when working remotely? Have you got the necessary academic background and experience? Note down any improvement areas or gaps, and devise an action plan on how to develop them.
#What is drawing you to work in academia? Take some time out to reflect on what makes you interested in working in this field. Are you passionate about teaching? Would you like to make a genuine difference in the world of research? What positive difference do you want to make through your profession?
#Ask for guidance: You might find it helpful to have a conversation with an experienced academic and learn about their working life. You could ask them questions about how they have become an academic, what challenges they have overcome, and what they appreciate most about their profession. You could approach an academic who has taught or mentored you in the past. People are generally delighted to offer advice and help those who are starting out on their professional journey.
For further advice on academic jobs see:
- Getting your post-PhD job during COVID-19
- Job Search Tips in a Post-COVID World
- 10-Step Checklist Before You Send Your Application
- Succeeding in Academic Interviews