Pursuing an academic career

  • Academic career paths
  • Other HEI roles
  • Is academia right for you?

It's uncommon to be able to postdoc for your whole career. The postdoc role is often described as a temporary period of research or a training position (Afonja et al. 2021; Hayter and Parker, 2019). So if you can’t be a postdoc for your whole career but want to work in academia, how do you do that? 

Here we outline some broad examples of typical routes to securing a tenure-track or faculty academic position. None of these are the recommended or ‘right’ way, they just represent some possible routes. 

Lecturer: not all tenured positions are the same

Lecturers in the UK are typically responsible for both teaching students and pursuing their own research. Some independent fellowships buy you out of teaching, or reduce your teaching load, for a period of time, whilst you get your research off the ground.

There are also academic lectureship roles that are teaching-only, with no research.

Meanwhile, ‘third space’ roles sit between academic and professional service career paths. These roles tend to ‘work on widely encompassing projects such as academic development, widening access and student mental health and wellbeing and student satisfaction’ (Denney, 2021, p.2).

We’ve not differentiated between any of these positions and we use the term ‘lecturer’ to encompass all of these options. 

We also haven’t gone any further than securing the lectureship position, but do bear in mind that this isn’t the ‘end’. Lecturers apply for research grants to pursue their research and hire staff, if relevant.

From lecturer, the next steps in career progression in the UK are typically;

  1. Senior Lecturer
  2. Reader
  3. Professor
  4. Emeritus (depends on rank)

Some UK universities have started to adopt the American terminology, starting as an Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor and ultimately a Full Professor. You may want to look at a comparison of academic ranks with other systems.

To progress through the academic ranks, you have to put yourself forwards for promotion. Promotion rounds usually occur annually. It is worth understanding how this works early on in your academic career. This is important because women, for example, tend to be more reluctant to put themselves forward for promotion than men. There are a range of reasons for this, including confidence and issues around unconscious gender bias (Kamerlin & Wittung-Stafshede, 2020; Francis & Stulz, 2020).

Other roles in academia

There are a number of roles within HEIs that you may consider pursuing. Some may be classed as academic, some research adjacent and some fall under professional services. These roles and under which grouping they sit are by no means fixed and differ across, and even within, institutions.

Academic roles

  • Teaching-only lectureship: if you're happy to not be directly involved in research
  • Research co-ordinator: can be permanent but not always. Typically found in large research groups or overseeing a large project. Could be a type of senior postdoc role underneath a PI but supervising postdocs and PhD students
  • Staff scientist: these are relatively uncommon and we are unaware of equivalent non-science roles

Academic or research-adjacent roles

  • Lab coordinator or lab manager
  • Lab technician or other technical roles

Professional services roles

  • Project manager of a research project. Sometimes these can be academic projects.
  • Institutional strategic research coordinator, developer and manager roles
  • Development roles like research staff development, academic development and organisational development.

Typical routes to securing an academic position

There are several routes to gaining a permanent academic position. Some are more common than others. Here we give some examples of these routes, starting after securing your PhD.

Is academia the right career for you?

Check your assumptions

Some postdocs lose interest in pursuing an academic career path due to ‘unrealistic expectations or lack of knowledge about aspects of academic life such as academic freedom, administrative obligations, funding, and the time commitment’ (Afonja et al.(2021) p.3).  

Do you really know precisely what being a faculty academic entails? Do you know what else the role comprises besides pursuing your own research? Getting a permanent academic position is difficult and demanding, make sure you know what you are actually working towards. If you don’t know, ask. We recommend following the ABC principles of investigation; ‘Assume nothing, Believe nothing, Check everything’ (NCPE, 2005 p.62). Take a look at the case studies of some Principal Investigators for more insight into being an academic. 

Be clear on your values, skills and goals

Whatever career path you choose to embark on, being clear on what’s important to you will really help. See the self-assessment section/tools to help you identify your values and strengths. Former Prosper pilot cohort member James Anderson used these self-assessment exercises to confirm to himself that he wanted a career in academia.

You’ll need to be able to effectively communicate and ‘sell’ your research idea and yourself as a researcher. See the resources on interview questions, communicating your research, skills inventory and STAR(R) stories

Set yourself a trigger point

Pursuing an academic career is extremely competitive. Should you decide this is a career path you wish to follow we suggest it’s wise to set yourself a trigger point.

A ‘trigger point’ is the point at which you decide to pursue a different career path should your ‘trigger point’ be reached. This trigger point needs to be specific and you need to commit to sticking to it. Here, James Anderson talks about setting his trigger point.

Trigger points will be unique to the individual but we've provided a couple of examples below.

  • ‘I’ll submit [number] of fellowship applications and if I’m not successful I’ll start to look for career opportunities beyond academia’ 
  • ‘I’ll try to get a tenure-tracked role for [number] of years, if I’ve not achieved this by [year] I’ll do something else’ 
  • ‘If I haven’t got a permanent academic role by [month/year] I’ll look elsewhere for a job’ 

You don’t need to know what the ‘something else’ is at this point, you just need to know at what point you’ll change to that career trajectory. 

You may find this episode of ‘a slight change of plans’ helpful when considering your ‘trigger point’, episode ‘The Science of Quitting’- A Slight Change of Plans with Dr Maya Shankar.

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Frequently asked questions

Here are some typical questions that are asked by postdocs about careers in academia.

Sources of support and funding

When you're looking to pursue an academic career, there are many sources of support and funding. These include:

  • Websites of typical funders for your research
  • Charities may also fund research, so think broadly
  • Research Professional is an online database of funding opportunities, news items and other relevant resources. Find out if your institution subscribes and can give you access
  • Ask your PI or line manager who they have been funded by in the past (or find out on your institutional webpages)
  • Find out if your institution offers any workshops on grant writing or has internal peer reviewing groups
  • Find out if your institution hosts events with funders. These are a great opportunity to ask questions directly to the funder
  • Join your local research staff association, or start one up if it does not exist. They can usually signpost you to relevant sources of support

References

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. 

Baker, S. 2021. UKRI success rates fall as grant applications ramp up. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/ukri-success-rates-fall-grant-applications-ramp [Accessed 26 April 2022]. 

Chakraverty,D. 2020. The impostor phenomenon among postdoctoral trainees in STEM: A US-based mixed-methods study. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15. 

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  

Francis, L. & Stulz, V. 2020. Barriers and facilitators for women academics seeking promotion: Perspectives from the Inside. Australian Universities' Review, The, 62, 47-60. 

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. 

Herbert, D.L., Coveney, J., Clarke, P., Graves, N. & Barnett, A.G. (2014), The impact of funding deadlines on personal workloads, stress and family relationships: a qualitative study of Australian researchers, BMJ Open, 4(3), e004462.

Kamerlin, S. C. L. & Wittung-Stafshede, P. 2020. Female Faculty: Why So Few and Why Care? Chemistry – A European Journal, 26, 8319-8323. 

Limas, J. C., Corcoran, L. C., Baker, A. N., Cartaya, A. E. & Ayres, Z. J. 2022. The Impact of Research Culture on Mental Health & Diversity in STEM. Chemistry – A European Journal, 28, e202102957. 

Menard, C.B. and Shinton, S. 2022. The career paths of researchers in long-term employment on short-term contracts: Case study from a UK university. PLoS one, 17, e0274486-e0274486. 

National Centre for Policing Excellence. 2005. Practice Advice on Core Investigative Doctrine. Centrex, Association of Chief Police Officers (no place of publication provided). 

UKRI, Strategic Plan 2022-2027: Transforming tomorrow together, 2022 https://www.ukri.org/publications/ukri-strategy-2022-to-2027/ (accessed 23 November 2022).

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