Academic researchers carry out original, high-level research that generates new knowledge and progresses current understanding

As an academic researcher you'll apply your expertise and skills developed through study and research. You'll aim to publish papers on your work in peer-reviewed, well-respected journals and will write reports, books or chapters of books on your specialist area of knowledge.

You're also likely to be involved in the teaching and supervision of university students and speaking at conferences.

A significant amount of your time will be spent on planning research, attending meetings with colleagues and contributing to the strategic direction of your department or group.

Types of academic researcher

Academic researchers may be employed in the following roles:

  • PhD student/researcher
  • postdoctoral research associate/assistant
  • research associate/fellow
  • higher education lecturer/senior lecturer/professor/reader.

As academic researchers are mainly based in universities, a lot are employed as higher education teaching staff who also carry out research. Some highly sought after roles are purely research based, but even posts such as postdoctoral researcher often have some teaching element.

Staff employed by research institutes may deliver teaching in the associated universities and supervise PhD, Masters and undergraduate projects as part of their role. This is often a strong factor in helping universities to attract the best students to their academic programmes.

Responsibilities

As an academic researcher, you'll need to:

  • carry out original, high-level individual and collaborative research with other team members
  • organise your own time and budget effectively, including for off-site and overseas visits
  • analyse large sets of data and information, drawing relevant conclusions
  • work to deadlines as required by fund or grant holder
  • prepare and deliver presentations at national and international conferences to large audiences
  • prepare and write high quality papers for submission to peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings
  • participate in group meetings with other researchers and support staff
  • apply for sources of external funding in addition to that provided by your employer
  • undertake thorough and comprehensive literature reviews
  • teach undergraduate and postgraduate students
  • develop knowledge and skills relating to the latest techniques and applications relevant to your area of interest and deliver training in research techniques and methods to colleagues and students
  • develop positive working relationships with internal and external contacts fostering effective work and future collaboration
  • comply with all health and safety and ethics requirements for research activities
  • plan and develop future research objectives and proposals
  • respond positively to unexpected difficulties and events that could adversely affect research outcomes
  • supervise students undertaking masters and PhD level projects.

Salary

  • Funded PhD students usually receive a tax-free stipend in the form of a scholarship, bursary or Research Council Grant, but funding is also often sourced from industrial partners with an interest in the research outcomes - particularly in the STEM disciplines. The amount usually ranges from £15,000 to £20,000. Extra money may be paid for teaching and tutorial activities and laboratory demonstrating.
  • Postdoctoral researchers' salaries range from £27,000 to £39,000.
  • Senior lecturers salaries usually range from £43,000 to £58,000. This continues to rise significantly in higher level positions such as professor, reader and dean, where salaries can be in excess of £100,000.

Income data from roles advertised at jobs.ac.uk. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are usually advertised as being 35 hours per week. In reality you'll work longer hours as required, in order to complete projects and reach publication deadlines and targets. This will include evenings and weekends. Time away from home may be common, depending on the nature of your specialism - for example, to complete scientific fieldwork overseas.

Employers will consider requests for flexible working arrangements, including part-time employment and job sharing.

Highly experienced and knowledgeable academic researchers may work freelance, completing numerous short-term contracts. Some employers allow staff to request a period of sabbatical leave, normally lasting three to 12 months. This is typically unpaid, but working freelance or writing a book can develop long-term career prospects.

What to expect

  • High-quality research output is a key factor in the assessment of higher education institutions, in terms of attracting and being awarded future funding. This role is almost unique in that it allows you to develop your knowledge in an area that you're genuinely interested in and passionate about, while progressing public understanding and benefit. However, you'll be under intense pressure to publish, to demonstrate your worth to the department and contribute to its ongoing success. When applying for new roles or promotions your research output will be scrutinised carefully.
  • Working environment will vary depending on your specialist area, especially while completing fieldwork. It could involve working in noisy, dirty and potentially dangerous environments, and will involve some travel around the UK and potentially overseas. This is in contrast to other aspects of the role, which involve a lot of time sitting in front of a computer in an office or at home, analysing data and results, and writing reports and papers. Being unable to obtain meaningful results can be frustrating, so resilience and a positive outlook are crucial.
  • Juggling research with other responsibilities will create more pressure. Teaching, tutorials and supervising laboratory sessions all require extensive preparation, which is often done on an evening at home.
  • It's not unusual to complete numerous temporary postdoctoral researcher roles at different institutions around the UK and beyond before a permanent post is secured, if it ever is. This can be stressful, and disruptive to your family life and relationships.

Qualifications

To have a successful, long-term career as an academic researcher, you'll need to gain a degree relevant to your area of interest, followed by further qualifications and experience. It's a highly competitive field to enter, so strong evidence of the necessary skills and experience is crucial.

This usually involves completing a Masters course followed by a PhD. It's relatively common for graduates with a four year undergraduate Masters qualification, such as MMath or MSci, to progress straight onto a PhD. The fourth year usually comprises a substantial research project, accounting for 60% to 100% of the course, which can evidence research, analytical and other relevant skills.

Some academic researchers enter the role following a successful career in industry, after gaining significant experience and completing relevant professional qualifications. This is likely to occur in more vocational areas, and so the lack of a PhD need not be a barrier to success. However research intensive universities may still prefer to recruit applicants offering higher level research qualifications.

Skills

You'll need:

  • a high level of intellectual ability, to plan and carry out research
  • technical aptitude, to learn how to use new equipment and emerging technology
  • organisation skills, to plan your workload and support team members
  • interpersonal skills, to develop strong working relationships and trust with a broad range of people to foster productive collaborations and future partnerships
  • excellent teamwork skills, to work synergistically on individual and group projects
  • concise and meaningful high level written communication skills for publishing work, conference proceedings and funding bids
  • a strong passion for your discipline and motivation to continue learning, reach deadlines and targets
  • strong IT skills including the use of Microsoft Office, and for some areas excellent data analysis and statistical knowledge
  • excellent verbal communication skills, to present ideas and conclusions in lectures and presentations
  • flexibility and resilience, to keep going when research doesn't generate results in the expected timescale.

Work experience

As the usual route into a successful career as an academic researcher is via a relevant PhD, you need to focus on gaining research experience that will help you to achieve this as a next step. Funded summer research internships for undergraduates are available at universities around the UK, and involve working alongside PhD students and experienced researchers.

Research internships are often open to students from any institution, with successful applicants often having achieved exceptional results in their pre-university qualifications and first year undergraduate assessments. These opportunities may be based in research institutes, universities or a combination of the two, and are an ideal opportunity to demonstrate your potential to a future supervisor and develop your network.

Similarly, industry-based summer internships in a research and development environment can also provide excellent experience and insights. Some academic researchers enter the role with significant industry experience, rather than a PhD, so you should explore all relevant options and apply accordingly.

Employers

Universities are the main employers of academic researchers. Research institutes also employ staff carrying out high-level academic research. They're often associated with one or more universities, and other relevant organisations such as a charity or other research institute. They may be housed within a university or elsewhere, and university employees often work within a research institute as part of their role. 

Opportunities exist to work in both types of institution in the UK and overseas. 

Look for job vacancies at:

Universities and research institutes usually advertise vacancies on their own websites. Relevant publications and specialist journals are also useful, as are social media channels such as Twitter and LinkedIn. 

You can also 'lay the groundwork' for future possibilities at academic events and conferences by networking with relevant contacts to discuss collaborative work and potential future funding opportunities.

Long and short-term opportunities also exist in charities, NGOs, think tanks, consultancies and government departments. Short-term work is usually carried out on a freelance basis, where you'll research a topic for a client of the organisation. These opportunities are open to those with significant experience in a specialist area and may be carried out while working in another role or as a main source of income. Some academic researchers appear as experts on news programmes and documentaries, and may be involved in writing articles for national and international news outlets.

Professional development

As an academic researcher in a university, you'll have access to a wide range of training courses to enhance your effectiveness in the role such as IT, report writing, using data/statistics, media training, effective leadership, research techniques, administration and funding application training. These may be delivered as stand-alone courses or part of a coordinated training programme aimed at PhD students or early career researchers.

If your role involves teaching, you'll need to complete a relevant qualification such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE). This may be delivered regionally or in-house, by an external organisation or suitably qualified university staff.

Advance HE accredits these qualifications and other continuing professional development (CPD) programmes, and upon successful completion you can apply for the relevant membership category, which may provide an advantage for future job applications. Even if the teaching aspect of the role is not your priority, you should always be conscious of what your next employer will value - in order to maximise your chances of success as you climb the career ladder.

Career prospects

Delivering positive outcomes in early roles in this career area will give you the best chance of long-term success. This requires strong performance while you:

  • write and publish research papers in high-quality, peer-reviewed journals in line with departmental targets
  • present at conferences, lectures and other teaching responsibilities
  • contribute to writing bids and applications for research funding
  • develop collaborative relationships with staff at other institutions.

Taking on additional responsibility, along with being a supportive and enthusiastic colleague, will also help. As you progress you'll gain more leadership and strategic responsibilities, so take any opportunities that allow you to demonstrate and develop these skills.

As your knowledge and reputation develop, you may be able to access increasingly senior opportunities outside academia in freelance and consulting roles. For example, experienced academic researchers often appear on documentaries, and occasionally play a role in the planning and design of TV programmes and series.

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