Academic researchers carry out original, high-level research that generates 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 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.
Working as an academic researcher is the result of a significant amount of education, with a dedication to a subject area that you have studied intensively.
Types of academic researcher
Academic researchers may be employed in the following roles:
- PhD student or researcher
- postdoctoral research associate or assistant
- research associate or fellow
- higher education lecturer, senior lecturer, professor or reader.
As academic researchers are mainly based in universities, you will likely be employed as higher education teaching staff and will 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.
You may also work outside of academia, employed by a private company, a government department, a research institute, or an NGO. If you are employed by a research institute you may deliver teaching in the associated university and supervise PhD, Masters and undergraduate projects as part of your role. This is often a strong factor in helping universities to attract the best students to their academic programmes.
As an academic researcher, you'll need to:
- carry out original, high-level individual and collaborative research
- 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
- work on feasibility studies or pilot projects prior to gaining funding for research
- 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
- comply with all health and safety and ethics requirements for research activities
- plan and develop future research objectives and proposals
- supervise students undertaking masters and PhD level projects
- manage academic staff if working at a more senior level.
- 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.
- The UKRI have recently increased the minimum stipend they offer PhD students to £18,622.
- Extra money may be paid for teaching and tutorial activities and laboratory demonstrating.
- Postdoctoral researchers' salaries range from £27,000 to £44,000.
- Senior researchers and senior lecturers can earn salaries ranging from £32,000 to £50,000.
- Salaries continue to rise significantly in higher level positions such as professor, reader and dean, where salaries can be in excess of £100,000.
Figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are usually advertised as being 35 to 40 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. Options for remote work are also becoming more commonplace.
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.
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What to expect
- High-quality research is crucial to higher education institutions, as it ensures funding. You will be under pressure to publish research and show you are an integral part of the department's success.
- The 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.
- Teaching, tutorials and supervising laboratory sessions all require extensive preparation, which is often done on an evening at home.
- Although work can be intense, you can manage your own time and usually work on a flexible schedule.
- You may need to take on several postdoctoral researcher roles at different institutions, both in the UK and sometimes internationally, before you secure a permanent post.
- Positions within the private sector can offer more job security as they are less dependent on funding.
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. As part of your PhD you'll be expected to write a thesis of between 60,000 and 90,000 words, outlining your research plan.
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.
- 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, support team members and manage large sets of data
- interpersonal skills, to develop strong working relationships
- critical thinking to solve high level problems
- excellent teamwork skills
- concise and meaningful 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 and excellent data analysis and statistical knowledge
- excellent verbal communication skills, to present ideas and conclusions in lectures and presentations
- budgeting skills to ensure funding covers all aspects of the project
- flexibility and resilience, to keep going when research doesn't generate results in the expected timescale.
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.
Other routes in include starting in positions working on research projects for other people in positions such as research assistant or research fellow. This allows you to gain relevant experience in the field and get paid while you do.
Universities are the main employers of academic researchers. Research institutes also employ staff carrying out 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 X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.
You can also discover 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, as well as in private companies. 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.
As an academic researcher in a university, you'll have access to a range of training courses to enhance your effectiveness in the role such as IT, report writing, using data and statistics, media training, effective leadership, research techniques, administration and funding application training. These may be delivered as stand-alone courses or as part of a coordinated training programme aimed at PhD students or early career researchers. You may also have access to mentoring schemes and shadowing opportunities.
As an academic researcher, you are responsible for your own professional development and are expected to identify areas of need to focus on.
Some universities will require you to undertake a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE). You can undertake a PGCHE through part-time study on your own campus, or you may need to attend elsewhere. Some UK universities offer a blended-learning option. The cost of the course is almost always covered by your own university if taught by your institution. If your university doesn’t offer their own PGCHE, there are usually agreements that cover the cost of doing the course elsewhere.
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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