A PhD is often used as a stepping-stone into the world of academia - here's how you can get started with landing your first academic job at a UK or overseas university

What academic employment opportunities are available?

According to HESA's Graduate Outcomes data and statistics 2020/21, a fifth (21.3%) of PhD graduates were employed as either higher or secondary education teaching professionals 15 months after completing their Doctorates.

While the majority pursue careers outside of academia, a range of roles are available to work in universities, including:

  • Academic researcher - May also be referred to as a research fellow, research associate, postdoctoral researcher or postdoc, this fixed-term research position often acts as a stepping stone from studying your PhD into a research career. While you may just be able to continue your research, more experienced academic researchers may split their time between research activities and teaching at the university. You'll need to be adept at research methodology, analysing data and critical thinking. A PhD in a relevant area is usually an essential requirement for this post.
  • Teaching associate - To kickstart your academic career you could take up a position leading on lectures and seminars for undergraduate or postgraduate programmes. You'd be supporting module leaders in preparing teaching and assessment materials and may be asked to mark assignments. Some teaching associates work on a freelance basis before landing a full-time position.
  • Higher education lecturer/Senior lecturer - Your main responsibility lies with supporting students along their academic journeys. Your duties will focus on delivering lectures, assessing the academic work of students and acting as a mentor to others. Depending on the department, you may also be involved with creating courses and carrying out research. As you progress to a senior role, you may get involved in the strategic decision-making of the department, while using your extensive research and teaching experience to publish high-level academic papers and journals.
  • Professor - At senior management level you'll lead on innovation and change in teaching practices for the department and university, primarily involved in strategic development and enhancing the student experience. You'll require a Doctoral degree in a relevant area and a strong background in research, as well as previous experience of academic leadership.
  • Head of department - This senior leadership role involves managing teams within the department and developing relationships with external stakeholders. At this level you'll have a say on the university's overall strategy and its reputation, but you'll still oversee the department's day-to-day research and teaching operations.
  • Dean - This high-ranking academic leadership position involves being head of all other university departments, with responsibility for recruiting key members of staff. As the dean is looked upon to maintain and improve the quality of academic teaching at the institution, it requires a unique set of skills and experience. With a strong track record for teaching and innovation, you'll give the go-ahead to complex projects and lead on the future direction of the university.

What does an academic job involve?

Tasks vary according to job title, but may include:

  • administrative work
  • analysing data and preparing reports
  • applying for Research Council funding
  • marking and assessing work
  • presenting work at conferences and seminars
  • teaching in lectures and seminars
  • writing up research and publishing the findings.

As detailed in comparing UK universities, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. Universities therefore work in a competitive environment and are under pressure to recruit the best possible staff. In turn, this increases the burden on academic staff, with many expected to hit performance targets.

How much do academics earn?

Typical salaries for academic positions include:

  • academic researcher - £27,000 to £44,000
  • research assistant - £30,800
  • higher education lecturer - £35,000 to £50,000
  • senior higher education lecturer - £40,000 to £60,000
  • professor - £78,500.

More than half (57%) of full-time academics had an annual salary greater than £46,718 in 2020/21, while just over a fifth (21%) were in the highest salary band of £62,727 or over (HESA).

How do I get an academic job in the UK?

It's difficult to gain a permanent academic job immediately after graduation. The traditional entry point for PhD graduates is as a research assistant or research fellow. However, these roles aren't renowned for their job security.

Short-term contracts are usually offered, lasting from three months to three years. It's not uncommon for a research assistant or fellow to spend years working on a temporary contract before being offered a permanent role.

Universities typically advertise academic positions on their websites. If you have a clear idea about where you want to work, try contacting the institution directly. You'll also find academic jobs online at Jobs.ac.uk - Research assistant jobs.

Having previous teaching experience will help your application, and universities often make teaching opportunities available to PhD students. Getting your work and name well-known is an excellent means of kickstarting your academic career. So, try to get articles published in high-quality journals and actively engage with other academics through collaborations and attending conferences.

The University of Manchester notes that successful academics must possess skills in:

  • leadership
  • management
  • networking
  • presentation
  • resilience
  • time management.

If you're interested in academic jobs abroad, see our work abroad and study abroad pages to discover what it's like to get a job in a specific country and its higher education provision.

How do I apply for an academic job?

When applying for jobs in academia, it's important that your CV showcases your academic experience.

You must also provide clear evidence of your research and a plan of how you wish to develop this in future. As with most jobs, it's important to get your application in as early as possible.

An academic CV is essential when looking to apply for roles such as a higher education lecturer or anything that's research based.

You'll therefore need to ensure that your academic achievements plus research interests and any specialist skills are featured on the first page.

While there may be no page limit, keep your CV concise and targeted to the specific requirements of the role. Each section should be in reverse chronological order.

In terms of your writing style, it should be scholarly but still easily comprehensible for those unfamiliar with your field of interest.

Be sure to include information about the outcomes of your research, potential future developments, and any funding you've received, events you've attended, professional memberships you hold and publications you've been in.

Please note, if you're a postgraduate but not looking for an academic career, your CV should follow an alternative layout - see our CVs and cover letters section.

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