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Careers within academia

  • The reality
  • Types of academic careers
  • How can I support my postdoc

More postdocs aspire to an academic career than will achieve one. Whilst not all postdocs want an academic career, those who do face a highly competitive environment.

As their manager it is your role to provide support, information and encouragement for their next steps. On this page we’ve compiled some suggestions for how you can support your postdoc if they are interested in continuing their career in academia. You can also signpost your postdoc to Prosper’s careers within academia resources.

The Reality

The postdoc role is often described as a temporary period of research and few postdocs are able to remain as postdocs for their whole career (Afonja et al. 2021, Hayter and Parker, 2019).

Whilst 50% to 70% of postdocs aspire to become academics, only 10% to 15% of the overall postdoc population go on to become permanent academic (tenured) staff (CEDARS 2021, Hardy, Carter and Bowden 2016, Grinstein and Treister 2017, McConnell et al. 2018, Sauermann and Roach 2016).

“Most of my postdocs are still active in research… and probably 70 per cent, I would say, are working in industry so the number of those that stay in the academic sector is comparably small.

Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of Department of Physics, University of Liverpool

Whilst some postdocs are aware of the difficulties, their passion for their research often drives them to believing that they can beat the odds (Afonja et al. 2021, Kendal and Waterhouse-Watson 2022). Other postdocs may not be aware of the “costs or chances of landing tenure-track positions, and their decisions may be influenced by their emotions, self-confidence and information asymmetries” (Andalib, Ghaffarzadegan and Larson 2018, p. 679).

“I do always try to be completely open and honest with them about potential careers and academia and what other options might be available.”

Professor Rachel Williams, Professor of Ophthalmic Bioengineering, University of Liverpool

As their manager you are not expected to tell your postdoc what they should or shouldn’t do, but you can make sure they are fully aware of the challenges facing them. This is not to dissuade or dishearten, but to help them focus their career development with intent and allow them to contingency plan for their career should their academic goal not be realised.

Types of academic career

There is no single route through an academic career, with career paths, tenured academic positions and funding sources varying widely between discipline, institution and country. Discover some of the differences below.


Discuss academic careers with your postdoc. Is your postdoc aware of the differences between institutions and roles within higher education? Have they an awareness of what the role of lecturer actually involves? Do they know about the possible pathways they could take to get a tenured academic position? 

How can I support my postdoc?

As their manager there are plenty of ways in which you can help your postdoc if they're dreaming of an academic career. We've laid out some simple steps below.

1. Provide information

The first step is to ensure your postdoc is clear on their own values, skills and goals, that they understand the possible roles and routes within academia, and that they’re aware of the challenges. 

Help your postdoc to recognise the differences between academic institutions, roles and pathways. Support them to understand how their own interests align with the various career roles and pathways available to them within academia. There are no right or wrong responses, regardless of whether your postdoc wants a position like yours or something completely different. 

“Postdocs who have worked with me in the past have gone on to a number of different roles. I think it’s probably about 50-50. Half of them have stayed in academia and pursued research fellowships or they’ve got lectureships actually, but some of them have gone into industry. So they’ve decided that they don’t want to stay in academia any more.” 

Professor Christopher Jackson, Chair in Sustainable Geoscience, University of Manchester

You can signpost them to Prosper’s postdoc resources on staying in academia but they’ll benefit most from discussing careers within academia with someone who is already in a tenured academic position. This could be you as their manager but if you can’t or don’t feel that you’re the most appropriate person then perhaps someone in your network or within your department may be able to act as a mentor to your postdoc. 

2. Identify and rectify gaps

Work with your postdoc to help them identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Whilst specifics vary with discipline, gaining a tenured academic position generally requires some combination of: 

  • A good publication record (based on the stage of career and discipline)
  • Independent research vision and leadership skills
  • Evidence of obtaining research funding, no matter how small
  • Teaching experience
  • The ability to demonstrate impact
  • Recognition of achievements from prizes or awards
  • Project and people management
  • Communication skills to sell their research idea and themselves as a researcher

How does your postdoc measure up? What are the gaps on their CV and what can they do in their current role to build that experience? Perhaps they could apply for a small seed fund, lead a work package, get involved in outreach activities, teach a module, enter a writing or presentation competition, take a role on a committee, get involved with a staff network, help manage your project’s budget, or contribute to the writing of a research grant. 

As a manager you might find the resources on the Developing postdoc skills page helpful for tips and suggestions for how you can help your postdoc identify and develop their skills. 

3. Applications

The specific requirements of tenured academic positions vary by host institution, funding body, funding scheme and academic discipline. As a result, Prosper can’t provide dedicated advice that would be applicable for every postdoc.

We’ve provided some general suggestions below but be aware that you or someone within your network may be best placed to give your postdoc specific advice about succeeding in your discipline. Your institution or faculty may also have dedicated research support who could provide advice on specific funding schemes.

You can also access Prosper's manager resources on supporting your postdoc to make job applications and go through recruitment processes.

Applying for a fellowship

Applying for a fellowship takes planning, time and hard work, so if your postdoc intends to apply for a fellowship the sooner they begin preparing the better. Throughout a strong fellowship application, your postdoc needs to convince the panel of the three ‘P’s: Why fund this Person? Why fund this Project? Why should the project happen at this Place?

Applying for a lectureship

What is required for each lectureship application will be institution, discipline and role specific. In addition to a CV, sometimes with a cover letter, a research vision and teaching statement may also be required. The recruitment process typically includes a sift, and short-list of candidates to be called for interview. The interview stage can be multi-step, sometimes with a first and (if successful) a second interview. Sometimes a presentation to the faculty/department is part of this process. 

Final considerations

As their manager you are likely to have experience of going through academic application processes and of seeing others apply for academic positions. You’re also likely to have conducted interviews yourself and may have been involved in departmental recruitment processes for lecturers or fellows. Discuss these experiences with your postdoc – what impressed you, what didn’t go over well? 

Finally, applying for tenured academic positions is very competitive. Your postdoc may not be successful and may appreciate you helping them to regroup and refocus their efforts on the next opportunity. If they receive feedback from their application is there a way you can build some of what the panel felt they were lacking into their current role? Prosper has postdoc resources dedicated to managing failure, whilst the Staff wellbeing resources cater to managers looking to help their researchers build resilience.


Afonja, S., Salmon, D. G., Quailey, S. I. & Lambert, W. M. 2021. Postdocs’ advice on pursuing a research career in academia: A qualitative analysis of free-text survey responses. PLOS ONE, 16, e0250662. 

Andalib, M. A., Ghaffarzadegan, N. & Larson, R. C. 2018. The Postdoc Queue: A Labour Force in Waiting. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 35, 675-686. 

Denney, F. 2021. A glass classroom? The experiences and identities of third space women leading educational change in research-intensive universities in the UK. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 

Edwards, K. A., Acheson-Field, H., Rennane, S. & Zaber, M. (2021). Pipers, Droppers, Nevers, and Hoppers: Observed Career Pathways Among STEM Ph. D. Scientists. D. Scientists  

Grinstein, A. & Treister, R. 2017. The unhappy postdoc: a survey based study. F1000 Research, 6, 1642-1642. 

Hardy, M. C., Carter, A. & Bowden, N. 2016. What do postdocs need to succeed? A survey of current standing and future directions for Australian researchers. Palgrave Communications, 2. 

Hayter, C. S. & Parker, M. A. 2019. Factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to non-academic scientific careers: An exploratory study. Research Policy, 48, 556-570. 

Kendal, E. & Waterhouse-Watson, D. 2022. I’m a unicorn, ask me how! What the rise of ‘quit lit’ and ‘staypieces’ says about higher education and academia. Studies in Higher Education, 47, 560-571. 

McConnell, S. C., Westerman, E. L., Pierre, J. F., Heckler, E. J. & Schwartz, N. B. 2018. United States National Postdoc Survey results and the interaction of gender, career choice and mentor impact. eLife, 7, e40189. 

Sauermann, H. & Roach, M. 2016. Why pursue the postdoc path? Science, 352, 663-664. 

Vitae, 2021. The Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey (CEDARS) https://www.vitae.ac.uk/impact-and-evaluation/cedars

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