Jobs in academia: Becoming an academic

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A stack of old books symbolising jobs in academia

If you have a strong interest in a particular academic discipline and want to use your career to carry out research into that field, a job in academia could be for you.

In this guide to the different jobs in academia, we explore the kind of work you can expect to do as an academic, what qualifications you need, what career progression is like and what you can expect to earn.

'Jobs in academia - are they for me and how do I get there?'

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First of all, check out this video from University of Southampton about the nature and purpose of academic research:

What is an academic?

An academic is a specialist in a particular academic discipline, who works for an education institution. Academics usually carry out their own research or study and teach students in supervisions, seminars and lectures.

You may not know whether you want a job in academia until you are well into your undergraduate degree – or potentially even a postgraduate qualification such as a master’s or PhD.

What does the work involve?

Student in lecture hall looking towards lecturer
As well as teaching, jobs in academia involve admin
work and research

When we think of academics, many of us tend to think of scholars surrounded by books in the library. In reality, academics carry out a wide variety of work, much of it not directly connected to research.

Jobs in academia include the following duties:

  • Administrative work including institutional paperwork.
  • Attending and presenting at conferences.
  • Attending departmental or faculty meetings.
  • Carrying out primary research.
  • Completing funding applications.
  • Conducting lectures.
  • Setting, marking and assessing work.
  • Teaching students directly.
  • Writing up findings.

Academics in senior roles such as course leader or director of studies may take on additional administrative, managerial or student-facing work.

Academia varies across the different kinds of disciplines. For example, academics working in the sciences are likely to do a lot of field- or lab work, while social scientists are also likely to undertake primary research, such as interviews, surveys and workshops. Those in the arts are more likely to carry out research using texts in an office environment.

Academics spend much of their time working alone although they also often work in and lead research teams as well, particularly in the sciences.

What qualifications do I need?

Jobs in academia require a university degree and postgraduate qualifications. Some academics have a master’s only, but most have a PhD or another kind of doctor. So the route from school/college to academia typically looks like this:

  • Bachelor’s degree (3 years)
  • Master’s degree (1 year)
  • PhD (3-5 years)

You do not need a master’s to begin a PhD but students often complete a master’s to explore their research interests first.

What skills do I need?

Academia is a highly skilled profession which requires advanced cognitive skills. You will learn many of these skills while undertaking your university education.

Some of the most important skills for jobs in academia include:

How do I qualify for jobs in academia?

A researcher in a lab
Research skills and experience are vital for all jobs in
academia

Many doctoral students undertake research assistant roles alongside their studies. This provides good experience in a lab, in the field or in another research environment. This may be built into your PhD programme or you could undertake it on top of your studies.

Once you have completed your doctorate, you will likely apply for a research fellowship, working on another academic’s project or one of your own.

Permanent lectureships are also available and you could get one relatively soon after receiving your PhD.

What school subjects should I take?

That depends on the discipline you’d like to specialise in! You should make sure that your A-levels directly relate to your chosen discipline. For example, if you would like to be a social scientist, choose sociology.

You should also select subjects that will support you in your academic career – for example, essay-writing subjects such as English and history would support a career as a social scientist, as well as providing useful cultural and historical background. However, a subject such as geography or chemistry would also provide a practical research background.

You could also pick one academic subject which is quite different to your main subject.

How could my career progress?

Jobs in academia tend to follow a fairly clear pattern. On average, UK PhD students complete their study aged 26-27. You can then expect to begin a postdoc – such as a junior research fellowship (JRF) – or research assistant role.

After this you could move into a teaching or research fellowship before becoming a permanent lecturer.

Some academics enter a more senior role as a senior lecturer, and other go on to a full professorship, which is the most senior academic position. This is usually reserved for those with a strong record of publishing academic research and to some extent a good teaching record.

How much will I earn?

According to the University of Essex, these are the average monthly salaries for the different levels within academia:

  • Postdoc / research assistant: £2,600 per month.
  • Lecturer (permanent): £3,200 per month.
  • Professor: £4,300 per month.

Find out more about jobs in education – from early years to secondary level and beyond – in our Education & Teaching Career Zone.

Images: Lecture hall by Brunel University via Flickr, lab technician via UC San Diego

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