What can I do with my PhD? Academic jobs

What can I do with my PhD?

The work of an academic typically combines research, teaching, administrative and leadership responsibilities. The balance of time spent on each of these roles will depend on the type of institution and the nature of the post, and will change at different stages of your career, particularly if you take on a leadership role.

Most academic posts also include duties such as making applications for funding, attending conferences, building collaborations with other institutions and taking part in knowledge transfer activities with business and industry. Administrative tasks typically range from the preparation and design of courses, setting examinations and marking, through to attending meetings and involvement in policy decisions. Supervision and management of fellow researchers and teams is also a key element of an academic's work, particularly as you progress to more senior posts.

Skills and characteristics needed for an academic job

Passion for your research

You will need to be enthusiastic about what you do, have a desire to contribute original knowledge to your field and instil this passion in everyone that you teach, supervise and communicate with.

Organisational and time management skills

The academic workload is heavy and varied, requiring you to manage your time and priorities effectively. You'll need to be willing to work long and flexible hours to get through it all at times.

People and networking skills

A key part of your role is to build relationships within your department and research groups, including supervising students and researchers. You will also need to build your network of academic peers nationally and globally.

Communication skills

As an academic you will be continually writing reports and grant applications, and delivering lectures and presentations.

Administrative skills

With the large amount of paperwork, meetings to organise, students' work to mark and grants to write, you will need excellent administrative skills.

Self-motivation

Academics are required to manage their own workload and to take responsibility for their own self-management and motivation.

Teamwork

You will be frequently asked to contribute to activities that are beyond your own research, but are for the greater good of the department or the university.

Career progression

For early career researchers, progression to a first post after completion of your PhD varies depending on the discipline area you are working in. A PhD may be followed by a postdoctoral research associate position, and then a lectureship, although in some disciplines it may be possible to obtain a lectureship after completing a PhD. Roles such as teaching fellow, research fellow, senior research fellow, senior lecturer, reader and professor may follow, depending on your aspirations and the opportunities available.

In the sciences, the typical career path requires the completion of two or three postdoctoral research positions, usually followed by an independent research fellowship. Then, subject to a good publications record, you may apply for a lectureship, where promotion to senior lecturer, reader and professor may follow.

Promotion is predominantly based on research performance, with some account taken of teaching and administrative responsibilities. However, the emphasis will differ depending on if your role is primarily teaching, research or knowledge transfer based. Institutions will typically have set criteria for academic promotion.

Average salaries

  • Postdoctoral researcher: £30,000–£38,000
  • Independent research fellow: £32,000–£46,000
  • Lecturer: £32,000–£46,000
  • Senior lecturer: £38,000–£56,000
  • Reader: £48,000–£60,000
  • Professor: £57,000 plus

Improving your chances

  • Publish: you will be judged on your publications record so make sure you publish as much as you can, in the highest quality journals.
  • Gain teaching experience: get involved with tutorials and lecturing.
  • Network: make sure that you know, and have met, the big names and potential collaborators in your field.
  • Be passionate about your research: make sure you can say why your research is original, important and fundable.
  • Develop administrative and management skills: take on responsibilities such as managing project students, holding a budget or sitting on university committees.

Finding an academic job

There are many dedicated job websites that advertise opportunities, including:

  • Jobs.ac.uk: comprehensive website for academic jobs in the UK
  • Times Higher Education jobs: jobs in the higher education sector.
  • Research Councils UK: for details of available fellowships. Includes links to the seven research councils that have details of funding opportunities. Your supervisor may also be a good source of fellowship information.

You should also consult journals relevant to your research area as well as individual university websites. If you have identified a certain research group at a university, check their own job page regularly and try to arrange a visit to the group.

Networking

Networking and using professional, work or educational contacts is a common way to find a job in academia. Being known in your field and letting contacts know that you are looking for a job can put you in a strong position to find out about hidden vacancies and job opportunities before they are advertised. You will find useful contacts through:

  • Your department: many academics circulate information about postdoctoral research positions, fellowships or lectureships to their colleagues at other universities.
  • Your supervisor: who is likely to put you in touch with their network of contacts and will be aware of grant proposals. Your supervisor may also have contacts outside of academia.
  • Your connections in other universities: keep in touch with contacts you make when attending conferences and collaborating on research projects.

Written by Fiona McNamara, University of Liverpool, August 2016