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Academia & Higher Education | The Careers Service Academia & Higher Education – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

There are over 100 universities in the UK.  Universities are usually among the largest employers in their region, and are environments that offer flexible and part-time working as well as other benefits. As student numbers increase in the coming years, there may be a healthier climate for promotion and career advancement opportunities, particularly for those able to be flexible in their specialism and location. Universities are independent, self-governing bodies, largely financed by the Government through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), although increasingly by students themselves through fee rises in 2012. Government initiatives however are having a greater impact on the way in which universities spend the money they receive, and increasingly university departments are looking elsewhere for funding – for example, research councils and other funders of research, as well as industrial and commercial collaborators.

The history of a university influences the type of teaching, the research and the other activities that it undertakes. Broadly speaking, the ’old’ universities (such as Oxford, Durham and St Andrews) and the ’civic’ or ’red-brick’ universities (such as Manchester and Birmingham) formed in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries and it is predominantly these which offer academic areas of teaching and research. A burst of university building occurred in the 1960s in response to expanding student numbers; these included technological institutions (such as Aston and Warwick). The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 gave polytechnics university status.

So-called post-1992 or ’new’ universities (such as De Montfort University, formerly Leicester Polytechnic), commonly operate in more vocational subject areas, perhaps with a greater emphasis on teaching than research, but are rapidly climbing the rankings for research and teaching quality in many areas. Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort rank highest in a  of University ratings using the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework.

In 1994, 19 major, research-led, pre-1992 universities formed the Russell Group. Together, these universities attract over 60% of UK universities’ research grant and contract income. At the same time, many new universities have individual departments with teaching and research standards as high as those in traditional institutions, and are increasingly successful in winning research grants. Their growth creates opportunities for academic employment as well as a wide range of support roles across the HE institution.

Types of job

Academia

More of Oxford University’s postgraduate research students and research staff go on to academic careers than those from any other UK university. An academic career can offer the opportunity to work at the cutting edge of knowledge in an area in which you are passionately interested. It can be a career that gives you a high degree of flexibility and autonomy, whilst working in an intellectually stimulating environment. On the flipside, a career in academia can mean the insecurity of a succession of fixed-term contracts in search of a permanent research post or lectureship. In addition to this, a heavy administration load and the constant drive to get work published and attract funding are commonly cited as downsides of an academic’s workload.

Many academics choose to spend at least part of their academic career overseas.  Depending on the field of research, moving to a university in a different country from where one previously worked or studied can strengthen an academic CV and provide more opportunities.  It may also offer routes into work in different types of roles and institutions, e.g. the teaching focus in liberal arts schools and community colleges in the US.

Academics pursue their own area of specialist research in collaboration with their research group, and often with external collaborators (who can be other academics or other organisations). Most also teach undergraduates and postgraduates and may supervise PhD students and other researchers. There is not necessarily a set of clear pathways or ladders to climb towards an academic career. In more scientific subjects one route might be from DPhil/PhD to postdoctoral research post/s (typically 4-6 years), then to lectureship (combining leading a research group with teaching).

Postdocs can be rare in Arts and Humanities, and some Social Science subjects (at Oxford, for example, only 5% of research posts are in Arts and Humanities subjects), and competition for permanent academic posts is particularly fierce in those areas. In these subjects, researchers may take on teaching roles or other paid work alongside their research while trying to secure a permanent lectureship position.

It is also worth bearing in mind that many successful researchers and writers have not followed a linear academic career path. Instead, they have combined academia with other roles, or worked in other sectors for periods of time.

Postdoc

Typically fixed-term contracts of 1-3 years, although there is increasing pressure on departments to give postdoctoral researchers the same rights as permanent staff and to reduce the number of workers on short-term contracts. Progress is slow on this however, and many postdocs still have to move from one short-term contract to another. These are advertised under a myriad of alternative names, from Research Assistant, Research Officer or Research Associate to Research Fellow, and all attract similar levels of pay.

Postdocs pursue their research, usually closely related to their PhD topic and build their expertise and reputation through publications and attending conferences. Many researchers are focused on their research activities, but if you want to succeed in an academic career, you also need to build a portfolio of teaching experience. Teaching loads vary greatly between institutions, but will often include tutorials (at Oxford and Cambridge), seminars and lab class demonstrations.

Postdocs are likely to become involved in grant applications as their career progresses and may be responsible for one or more PhD students. There is mounting pressure on university departments to improve the quality of teaching and so there is an increasing trend for departments to encourage academics to study towards a recognised teaching qualification, such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE (LTHE), early on in their career. Opportunities to pursue such training vary enormously between institutions, with post-1992 institutions leading the way. Another postdoctoral opportunity is college junior research fellowships (JRFs) offered by Oxford and Cambridge colleges in all subject areas to those early in their academic career, usually comprising three years’ funding to pursue your own research project.

Fellowships

Once you have spent some time as a postdoc, it is possible to apply for fellowship grants which will fund you to complete research in your field of expertise.  These are very competitive, but if successful, can allow you to spend 3-5 years pursuing your own research and can significantly enhance your chances of obtaining a lectureship.

Principle Investigator (PI)

Some researchers continue to apply for and secure their own funding, eventually recruiting other researchers themselves and leading their own research group.  This role is often attractive as it may not include teaching responsibilities, but many PIs can have the same instability as post docs, constantly seeking funding to secure their own, and others’, salaries.

Lectureship

Traditionally this was the first permanent post for an academic in the UK. However short-term lectureships (1-3 years) are increasingly offered by departments, especially where student numbers are growing fast. There are many fewer lectureships than there are postdocs who seek them, so competition is intense. A lectureship can be a teaching-focused job with responsibilities for running existing courses, developing new ones and/or supervising students. They can also be research-focused, with responsibility for leading a research group and attracting funding, combined with teaching responsibilities. A senior lecturer and reader are likely to have established an international reputation in their area of specialism in order to achieve this promotion. The top title for an academic is that of professor – professors are leaders in their field, and likely to have significant managerial responsibility within their department and possibly the wider university. Only a tiny percentage of PhDs make it to the professor stage in an academic career.

Higher Education Administration & Support

The primary objective of a university may be the advancement of knowledge, but in order to do this effectively universities need teams and individuals taking responsibility for aspects such as academic planning, media and communications, student support and guidance, corporate relationships, commercialisation of research output, and learning support and IT, as well as functions typical of any large organisation such as personnel, finance, and much more.

Due to the continued expansion of the higher education sector, and the increasing diversity and complexity of working within the sector, the types of roles available continue to expand.  Academic roles are probably the most public positions within universities but there is also a huge range of other roles which do not involve teaching or research as their main functions.

The term ‘administration’ used to describe the work of academic departments outside research and teaching, as well as the work of non-academic departments within universities, does not do justice to the variety of the work and level of responsibility involved.  For instance, senior roles include contributions to high-level strategic planning that involve understanding the university’s stakeholders (such as students, parents, research funders, employers, and commercial partners), the ways in which it is funded, and how its resources are managed.

Roles can vary considerably between one HE institution and another because the administration structures differ.  A typical selection of areas includes:

  • Academic and Research support: advises on applications to research councils and other funding bodies, supports researchers with these applications, as well as being responsible for much of the financial management of research accounts.
  • Academic Services: involves committee work, planning, developing and interpreting course regulations, developing the curriculum, quality assurance and dealing with complex issues related to both undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Admissions: includes student recruitment and planning admissions procedures, outreach and liaison with schools and colleges, international marketing, production of prospectuses and other publications, widening participation.
  • Careers Service: providing resources, guidance and work experience (e.g. internships) to students and staff towards their career development, as well as facilitating student and post-doc interaction with employers.
  • Conferences and Events: responsible for planning and organising academic, and external, events.
  • Development and Alumni Relations: develops relationships with the university’s external partners, including alumni, and encourages financial giving.
  • Estates and Facilities: responsibility for developing, maintaining and adapting the university’s physical environment.
  • Human Resources, Professional and Educational Development, IT, Finance: as in any large complex organisation there will be many professional and non-professional roles within departments, ranging from technical to strategic or facilitatory.
  • International Office: supports recruitment, induction and support of international students.
  • Knowledge Exchange and Public Engagement: Facilitating interaction and mutual learning between academic researchers and the wider world, including business, government, the voluntary sector and the general public.
  • Library Services: libraries manage the many collections and information services, including electronic databases. They provide support to students, academics and other researchers and assistance with training in information-retrieval skills.
  • Communications, Public Relations and Marketing: deals with the university’s profile in the outside world, involves working with academics and the media.
  • Student Services: may co-ordinate aspects of welfare provision, including the various support services such as health services, counselling service, disability service, learning support.  Many professional student-facing roles will exist in this area.

In order to begin identifying possible roles or departments, it can be useful to consider the sorts of  subjects, roles, clients or resources you wish to use or work with.

You could also gain ideas by browsing local and national job advertisements for insights into the types of roles potentially available. For example, by putting the term ‘support’ or ‘communication’ into the search box within the vacancy listings from jobs.ac.uk, you can quickly see the range of roles currently being advertise that involve these skill sets.

Skills, experience & preparing yourself

Academia

Research shows that academics are expected to have a much wider set of skills and aptitudes now, than in the past.

Successful academics are able to prove that they have:

  • Capacity for original research.
  • Expertise and passion for their subject area.
  • Vision for their future contribution to knowledge.
  • Ability to inspire interest in their area of specialist research.
  • Excellent analytical skills.
  • Excellent communication skills – written, verbal, persuading, negotiating, networking.
  • Ability to organise their workload to meet competing demands.
  • Excellent management and leadership skills

They are also:

  • Proactive and self-motivated;
  • Strategic with regards to their career and research choices;
  • Able to straddle boundaries between academia, industry and the wider public;
  • Confident dealing with a wide range of people.

For academics to progress in their career they also need:

  • Evidence of published research and participation at conferences and seminars.
  • A successful track record of attracting funding via grant-proposals and external collaboration.
  • Proven teaching experience.
  • Proven engagement in knowledge exchange, and impact planning, facilitation and delivery.

Undergraduate students should:

  • Use the access that you have to postgraduate students and academics to find out as much as you can about the reality of a PhD and academic career in your subject.
  • Relevant vacation work is possible – perhaps doing fieldwork or laboratory work for an academic or undertaking literature searches or other projects. Few of these posts are advertised so ask around in your department/college for any useful contacts in other institutions, and write to those recommended asking if you can assist or gain experiences with them.

If you are a DPhil student or Research Staff contemplating an academic career you should take every opportunity to:

  • Attend conferences and seminars; interact with early career researchers.
  • Publish your doctoral work.
  • Become an independent researcher; including by avoiding misplaced loyalty to your supervisor or Principal Investigator (PI).
  • Talk regularly with your supervisor or PI about your career plans.
  • Visit/collaborate with other research groups.
  • Get involved in teaching, e.g. by contacting Directors of Graduate Studies in your department and Senior Tutor in college and offer to take undergraduate tutorials (at Oxford and Cambridge) or do some undergraduate teaching within the department in the form of seminars or lab class demonstrations.
  • Supervise an undergraduate project or informally supervise a postgraduate student in your area. Assist in the design of their project and help them towards their goals.
  • Get involved in funding proposals or reviewing journal articles. If your supervisor is putting together bids for funding or reviewing journal articles, offer to assist or to write parts of the grant application. This is a rare piece of experience for a PhD student but will look great on your CV.
  • Look for funding to start your own project(s). Start small – try to win travel grants or seed-funds from colleges or the University.
  • Talk to academics, especially leaders in your field! In many subject areas the key academics are a fairly small group of people. Make contacts wherever you can and get your name known. Think carefully about the language you use, and where appropriate convey that you are on a par with fellow researchers rather than a junior person asking for inclusion. Have a look at our page on Networking for inspiration.
  • Choose a mentor to offer you informal advice and guidance. Find someone you are comfortable with and with whom you can talk honestly and openly. Mentors can help by hearing you articulate your priorities, and asking the less comfortable questions about your reasons for a particular decision.

Administration

The skills required will very much depend on the role but typically include:

  • An ability to work flexibly and responsively on the basis of new evidence
  • Teamwork
  • IT skills
  • Creativity
  • Interpersonal/communication skills

You can normally get relevant work experience in any sector, and experience within universities is not normally a prerequisite. Job adverts may often say that knowledge of the Higher Education sector may be advantageous, so check the job requirements carefully. There may be opportunities to do temporary work, internships or summer positions within universities, or research and build a network of contacts and make speculative approaches to the departments you are interested in.

Entry points

Academia

A PhD is a virtually essential prerequisite for an academic career. There are occasional research positions in universities for those with a good undergraduate degree, possibly combined with relevant professional experience, but to progress to lectureships and beyond, such posts usually have to be combined with work towards a PhD. Securing a PhD studentship is usually dependent on achieving a 1st or 2:1, although a postgraduate Master’s qualification may sufficiently boost a good 2:2.

Those taking undergraduate subjects which give the option of a fourth-year research project, such as Physics and Chemistry, will certainly find progression on to a PhD easier having completed the full four-year course.

Academic careers are possible with any degree subject, although those studying Arts and Humanities will find attracting funding for a PhD and subsequent postdoctoral research much more challenging than scientists and engineers.

Consult the Postgraduate Study page more information.

Administration

There are many entry-level positions for those with at least a good undergraduate degree, normally advertised on Jobs.ac.uk.

Some universities (e.g., Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham) have developed their own one year graduate training schemes offering opportunities to rotate through different roles to gain experience of key areas of university operations.

The Graduate Programme for University Leadership, Ambitious Futures, initiated and developed by the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA) in 2012, is aimed at graduates of participating universities who are interested in developing a career in university management and leadership, through a rotation of placements in different areas of their home institution and at another universities in their region. The scheme is within its three year pilot phase and the aim is to provide a graduate scheme for the sector. The University of Oxford has joined the scheme, with its second intake in September 2016.

Getting a job

Academia

There are many journals and websites that list academic job vacancies (see the External Resources section below). Many specialist journals also carry academic vacancies and individual university websites advertise posts. Academic jobs are not usually advertised through recruitment agencies.

Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) in Oxbridge colleges are advertised in the Oxford University Gazette and the Cambridge University Reporter.

Informal networking is also hugely important and making speculative applications to research groups you are interested in is the norm in many subjects. Develop contacts through conferences, and ask your supervisor for introductions to key researchers in your field.

Administration

Many jobs within universities will be advertised on their own websites and Jobs.ac.uk, as well as in the appointments pages of the Guardian, Independent and Times Higher Education. Increasingly, however, these publications are only used for more senior posts. Some roles are also advertised through the AUA (Association of University Administrators).

As with most sectors, talking to people working in the roles that interest you can help you to better understand which roles you may be best suited to, as well as tap into potential part or full time job opportunities in the short or longer term.

There are not always obvious progression routes within university administration and so you may need to be proactive in identifying where it is you want to be and talk to people doing those roles to work out a strategy which may increase your chances of success.

Equality & positive action

There are a number of national, and local, initiatives in place promoting equality and valuing diversity through supporting prospective applicants and current staff.  The Athena SWAN Charter is one such initiative, which supports good employment practices for women, beginning in the fields of Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) but now extending into all disciplines and departments.

Going through the Athena SWAN application process gives universities and departments the opportunity to reflect on current practices promoting gender equality. Athena SWAN also offers a framework to assist introducing cultural changes that create a better working environment and career progression opportunities for men and women of all backgrounds.  For more information see Athena SWAN website.

Many universities, including Oxford, have signed up to the Race Equality Charter aimed at improving the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education. As they prepare applications for a Race Equality award, universities are analysing their staff and student data, consulting widely and planning activities. These processes and their results may open up new roles in Higher Education, so keep an eye out for any vacancies.

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender identity, race, religion or beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy or being on maternity leave. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, as well as what you need to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

Our resources

Practical Guides

Embarking on an academic career path can be challenging for many reasons.  You will find guidance and tools for managing the practicalities and personal dimensions of early career academia in the following two workbooks developed with Oxford research students and staff:

  • Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure: Many people struggle with the feeling that they are not ‘good enough’ to succeed in an academic environment, yet this is seldom discussed openly. This resource helps us recognise how such feelings can affect our sense of future prospects, and suggests practical ways to address this.
  • Portfolio Careers: How to optimise and manage them:  Workbook with information, planning exercises and tips for a career stage that combines academic work with other roles and sources of income.

Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Brilliant Academic Writing, Bill Kirton
  • So you Want to Be a Professor?,  P. Aarne Vesilind
  • The Essential College Professor, Jeffrey L. Buller

Other useful books:

  • How to Succeed as a Scientist: From Postdoc to Professor, Barbara J. Gabrys & Jane A. Langdale

Journals and Practical Resources

  • Times Higher Education
  • Coping with Academic ‘Failure’ 
  • Portfolio Careers:How to optimise and manage them

This workbook is designed to help you to think through the practicalities of establishing a portfolio of professional activities (including academia) and strategies to maintain and grow your preferred portfolio

Hard copies available in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road

External resources

Vacancies & occupation information

Organisations

Data & statistics

This information was last updated on 20 November 2017.
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Recent blogs about Academia & Higher Education

Researcher and DPhil Workshops in 7th Week

Posted on behalf of Rachel Bray. Blogged by Lili Pickett-Palmer on November 14, 2017.

Career Options for Mathematicians

  • When: Tuesday 21 November, 15.15 – 16.00 – before the Jobs for Mathematicians fair
  • Where: Mathematical Institute
  • Booking: To reserve a place, please go to CareerConnect

Erica Tyson from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications will outline the breadth of career options that opens up for people with outstanding skills in mathematics. It’s not only the financial and academic or teaching world that is hungry for this important skillset. Increasingly, commercial, government and not-for-profit sector players of all kinds are keen to employ highly numerate, analytical and creative thinkers to understand and predict trends, plan and develop strategy and deliver smarter and more efficient solutions.

You do not need to book a place at this event but please bear in mind that spaces will be allocated on a first-come, first served basis and popular events may fill early so arrive in good time.

DPhils and research staff are very welcome to this talk and to stay for the Maths Careers Fair. Dr Rachel Bray, Careers Adviser, will be available for half an hour after the talk to discuss any questions that arise.

Further information on the fair can be found on our Fairs page. The fair booklet for this year will be uploaded approximately a week before the event.

Interview & Presentation Skills for Research Staff and DPhils

  • When: Thursday 23 November, 13.30 – 16.00
  • Where: Careers Service
  • Booking: To reserve a place, please go to CareerConnect

New job or direction in mind?  Do you want to brush up on the practicalities of preparing for interviews and presentations? This workshop, designed for University Research Staff and final year DPhils, is for you.

A highly interactive session, it will equip you with the skills to play the ‘recruitment game’ to best effect. We will discuss and practice the skills required for effective performance at interview; preparation, self-presentation and how to deal with typical interview questions.

The workshop will cover the skills required for both academic and non-academic interviews, with particular focus on the latter.  Follow up one-to-one career discussions can then be used to review intended applications and to prepare for particular interviews.

Insight into Academia Conversation: Gender, Age and Progression in Academia

  • When: Tuesday 21 November, 13.00 – 14.00
  • Where: Careers Service
  • Booking: To reserve a place, please go to CareerConnect

This ‘conversation’ around gender, age and progression in academia will be an informal group discussion (facilitated by a careers adviser), with two guest contributors (two early- to mid – career academics) who will share their experiences with you.

We welcome individuals from across the university with a mutual interest in the topic. The careers adviser present is an experienced group facilitator, who’ll support the discussion with advice, strategies and resources, as well as offering suggestions for topics of discussion.

Meeting people is a really useful way to learn more about your mutual goals: it’s the equivalent of attending a tutorial or class discussion, and often attendees choose to keep in touch with fellow participants for further mutual support.

Researchers and DPhils: Upcoming Workshops and Opportunities

Blogged by Lili Pickett-Palmer on November 8, 2017.

Masterclass in Stress Management

  • When: Saturday 11 November, 15:00-16:00
  • Where: Careers Service
  • Booking: To reserve a place, please go to CareerConnect

Alumna, Dr Penny Moyle (Experimental Psychology, 1991, Nuffield), CEO of OPP Ltd (the Myers Briggs company) will give a masterclass in stress management. The masterclass will explore how understanding your MBTI personality type could give insight into your stress triggers, into what happens when you’re stressed, and how to get back in balance.

For this workshop it would be useful to know your MBTI personality type but not essential.

Academic Application and Interview Skills for Research Staff and DPhils

  • When: Tuesday 14 November, 9.00 – 12.30
  • Where: Careers Service
  • Booking: To reserve a place, please go to CareerConnect

Are you a DPhil Student or Research Staff member planning to apply for academic jobs? Do you want advice on how to prepare academic applications and to improve your interview skills? This workshop is for designed specifically for University of Oxford researchers pursuing academic applications.

This interactive course will equip you with the skills to maximise your chances of getting academic employment. Emphasis will be given to understanding the processes which universities use to select staff, and the importance of tailoring CVs, applications, research and teaching statements accordingly. We will discuss and practice the skills required for effective performance at interview, including preparation, self-presentation and how to deal with typical academic interview questions.

Follow up one-to-one career discussions can additionally be used to review intended applications, and to prepare for particular interviews.

This page displays current related blog posts. If none display, you can still stay up-to-date with our newsletter sent regularly to all Oxford students.

Older posts can be found in our archive of past blogs.