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Academic Career Paths
– Considering an academic career?

ImageThis section is for anyone who is considering an academic career, but it draws on the findings of a recent project which examined the career paths and experiences of recent social science PhD graduates working in academia in the UK and USA.

There is often a great deal of uncertainty in the early stages of an academic career, before a permanent position is achieved (which may take five years or more). With this in mind, those interested in pursuing an academic career will benefit from the following: a dedication to their subject; resilience in the face of a tough job market; confidence to deal with criticism; and stamina in the face of heavy demands especially in the early stages of a career.

The career stories linked to on the left are loosely based on interviews with current academics. They are not exemplary paths to an academic career, but rather demonstrate how people with different personalities, priorities and attitudes have negotiated the academic job market with varying degrees of success.

The sections below aim to help you think about what is involved in working towards an academic career and whether or not this is the path you want to take after your PhD.

Why do you want to be an academic?

Be clear about what you want and explore your motivations

Think seriously about what it is you are hoping for from an academic career, and talk it over with your peers, mentors or a careers adviser. Most of the academics we interviewed talked about their work with a sense of deep commitment, if not dedication. Some enjoy their teaching very much and almost everyone engaged with their research on a very personal level, stressing that this is precisely the type of work they wanted to do and for which some had left previous careers.

Susan said at the end of our interview:

‘I read books and talk to my students about books and get paid for it! Isn't that wonderful?’

Read Susan’s career story

The realities of academia aren’t always what we imagine them to be.

If you are clear that academia is where you want to be, consider the following frustrations and pressures

Most of our interviewees cherish the freedom they have in choosing and developing their own areas of research. But embarking on an academic career also means: finding one’s way through a competitive and inflexible job market; living with the uncertainty of temporary contracts or part-time employment; balancing teaching and research; living up to the pressures resulting from the RAE/REF; facing meagre financial rewards for relatively long periods; and having to reconcile commitments to partners and families with a certain obligation to be mobile. Against this back-drop, it is not surprising that the idea of being lucky or unlucky and of needing to be at the right place at the right time comes up again and again in both our survey and interview data.

The ambivalence that often surrounds careers in academia are demonstrated by one interviewee’s contrasting statements about what characterises his academic career.


‘The good thing about academia is if you get bored with what you’re teaching, there is leeway to come up with new things. Right now, I’m becoming less interested in one of my courses and am developing more of an interest in a new thing. And so that’s something I would develop a course on. So I don't think I’m ever going to be bored with my job.’

But Dominic also says of academia:

‘‘The old days of academia when there was a lot more freedom to do everything have gone. Now everything seems a lot more regulated and everything has to go through various panels and committees. You have to have minimum student numbers in order to run courses, so the market always seems to be involved which certainly didn’t appear to be the way in the past. Some of it is good. For example the fact that students are now required to do a lot more compulsory courses in a PhD than before. But again, that sort of restricts creativity and freedom a little bit.’

Read Dominic’s career story

If you don’t want to be an academic, then what?

If you are unsure about pursuing an academic career, consider the alternatives

An academic career is no longer the default career path of those with a PhD, yet doctoral researchers can feel very guilty about wanting to consider other options. The fact is that a PhD can be highly valued by non-academic employers, and non-academic employment can be as stimulating and rewarding for PhD graduates as an academic career.

To explore the possibilities and to learn more about how to frame your academic career and translate your skills and experience for employment outside of academia, make an appointment with a postgraduate careers advisor.

Sophie was in her first academic job and realised:

‘The benefits in academia are not enough to attract me to it, and the things that I love doing in my work are not central to academia, and that‘s the realisation I have come to, so I am pretty clear that I am leaving. The job that I had post the PhD, which has been research in my field, with lovely people, has really helped me clarify what are the components of my work that I love and that’s been what I look for now.’

To listen to people talking about their decision to move into non-academic careers after their PhD, visit in new window

Don’t head for an academic career on auto pilot

Be proactive and ready to seize opportunities

When asked about their decision to pursue an academic career, most of our interviewees refer to a gradual process rather than an active decision. At the same time, most of our interviewees seemed to have an implicit plan to ‘stay on’ after the PhD.

Few people talked about having a plan of action, and while it’s true that it didn’t prevent them from working in academia, most agreed that with hindsight there are things they wished they had done. In a survey of 43 people, 11 wished they had published more; seven would have engaged in more skills training and six would have sought out more careers advice. The other areas that people regret not investing more time in include: networking, work experience outside academia, attracting better funding, organising better supervision and striking a better work-life balance.

In particular, teaching experience emerges as a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success in the job market; everyone has it, so it’s needed to get a job, but on the other hand it is very rarely the key or determining factor in a successful profile.

The skills and aspects influential in gaining their current position were rated in the following order: research; publication record; teaching experience; networking and personal contacts.
Increasing competition for academic jobs underlines the importance of developing your competency in these areas during your PhD.

George says

‘When I started each of my degrees, I never really had a sense of what I was going to do straight afterwards, so there was actually never really an ambition to go into academia until very late on in the PhD process. I am sort of quite surprised I ended up here, because it was never my intention to do this at all.’

He also says

‘When I went through the PhD I had very minimal information and training on how to get an academic job, and very limited explanation of what it involves and what the processes are and what’s expected of you, for a whole variety of issues, whether that’s going to conferences, how to get things published, what kind of CV you should be developing, in terms of development, but also the sort of style of the CV, how to begin developing professional networks. All the things which I feel I am only learning now actually, having started this fellowship. And I feel that I did lack a lot of those skills, which I am still struggling with, because I feel very much behind the game, whereas a lot of people who are much younger than me and at the early stage of their research have got better sets of skills, so that’s a competitive disadvantage in many ways.’
Become savvy about the academic job market.

There are a number of steps you can take to enhance your chance of success within the competitive market

Consult a careers advisor, ideally one specialising in working with PhD researchers

Talk to your supervisor / mentor about their experiences (especially of recruiting new staff, since their own experience if getting an academic job might well be out of date)

Organise a job talk at your department by inviting people to come and share first-hand experience of the application and interview process

Research the implications of the RAE/REF if you wish to work in the UK

Find out what the job market is like in other countries and how a British PhD is viewed elsewhere; in the US and Australia, for example.

Think about ways to enhance your CV with publications and teaching, but also with responsibilities such as committee membership and administration experience – all of which will demonstrate your academic credentials and versatility.

Find ways of networking that suit you

Many people resist the idea of networking, find it very daunting and imagine it to be the preserve of outgoing and extrovert personalities. In fact, it is simply about taking an interest in others and developing your contacts with those who share your interests. Therefore, it should start with asking other people questions about their work or careers, taking the focus off you! Or by keeping in touch with those you have met at conferences and other events. It may be that such encounters are the beginning of a mutually beneficial two-way process – but be prepared for these connections to take a while to bear fruit.

Consider the experiences of Dominic, who, in all likelihood, wouldn’t call himself a great networker. Yet he had someone to discuss his plans and moves with at all stages of his career: his supervisor; the teacher who ran the PhD seminars and gave him his first teaching job; a very encouraging friend from his Masters who also did a PhD and acted as referee later on; one of the senior academics he met when he went abroad; his boss during the post-doc; and two colleagues with whom he collaborates on student exchanges and on essay marking.

Read Dominic’s career story

As you prepare for the job search, decide what your priorities are. What compromises are you willing and able to make?

How mobile can you be? Is it feasible for you to relocate, go abroad, move away from friends and established networks of support? How will this affect your personal life?

How flexible are you about the type of job you will accept? Think through the issues related to the following areas: temporary contracts; a short term research positions; teaching/research balance; subject area; academic-related work; institution type.

The job search process is potentially a long one – there may be a long gap between finishing the PhD and getting the first job. There is an element of rhythm inherent in the process, which needs to be borne in mind when planning applications and a timetable for thesis completion.

The process is one that incorporates an element of luck (‘being in the right place at the right time’) so patience and/or a contingency plan can be helpful.

Even once a job has been secured, an element of uncertainty often remains, due to the prevalence of fixed-term or annually-renewed contracts. This can make long-term forward-planning challenging.

Be prepared for a ‘shock to the system’ if you are fortunate enough to go straight from a PhD to a lecturing job; the teaching load will be high, but there will also be intense pressure to publish and establish yourself at the same time.

And finally: Develop patience, resilience and confidence

Developing these attributes is necessarily a very personal journey, but they are essential in the pursuit of an academic career. Tenacity is required to get through the PhD, and it is also key to developing an academic career beyond the completion of a thesis. The attitude adopted by Margaret during her PhD is one which should inspire others: ‘I knew, also, that I was going to finish. It might take time, but I was going to get there.’

Read Margaret’s Career Story


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