Academia and Higher Education

Universities and Higher Education institutions are found across the world. Similarities in the way they operate mean that people can, and often do, move within and between countries to gain experience. At the same time, there are regional differences in the size of the academic job market, breadth of roles available at each career stage and the formal (and informal) systems for progression. Do your research on countries you may be interested in working in, starting with the external resources listed below.

For example, there are over 100 universities in the UK, Many are the largest employers in their city or region and offer flexible or part-time work, plus other benefits. 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 and 2016. This means a drop in their income if student numbers dip (as is predicted following the corona virus epidemic) which may mean fewer job vacancies in the next few years. That said, the effects of economic shocks vary considerably between institutions and subject areas, with some retaining momentum or even growth. Many university departments now draw a major part of their income from independent or state funding bodies, industrial and commercial partners or cross-sectoral collaborations.

The history of a university influences the type of teaching, research and the other activities that it undertakes, and therefore the range and number of jobs available. The ’old’ universities (such as Oxford, Durham and St Andrews), and the ’civic’ or ’red-brick’ universities (such as Manchester and Birmingham), are often considered to offer most opportunity in the academic areas of teaching and research. However newer universities (including former technological institutions such as Aston and Warwick) which began with a greater emphasis on teaching than research, are now rapidly climbing the rankings for both research and teaching quality in many areas. Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort are among several dozen universities to have received or retained gold ratings in the government's recent Teaching Excellence Framework.

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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 also give you a high degree of flexibility and autonomy, whilst working in an intellectually stimulating environment. On the flip-side, a career in academia can mean the insecurity of a succession of fixed-term contracts in search of a permanent research post or lectureship, often accompanied by constant pressure to get work published and attract research funding.

Worth noting up front is that for you, like many others who study or work at Oxford, the education and academic work environment is the only work setting you know, or the one that feels most familiar work. There are two risks here, first that you assume academia is the natural path for you, and second that you know enough about how things work in academia to forge a career without too much trouble.

It is important to point out that many people begin a PhD with an academic career in mind, yet under ten percent of PhD graduates become senior permanent academic staff (professors); the vast majority take their research and teaching training into other fields to make significant contributions. And they decide to do this at different points in their academic career, as outlined below.

For more insight and questions to ask yourself, see 'Pursuing Academia' on our page for early career academics. Manchester University also has some excellent pages on the pros and cons of pursuing academia.

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 can strengthen an academic CV and provide more opportunities.  It may also offer routes into work in different types of roles and institutions which you wouldn't otherwise encounter, e.g. the teaching focus in liberal arts schools and community colleges in the US. Get further tips on early career mobility so you're better placed to decide whether this route is for you.

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. Careers in academia progress by applying to more senior roles and for larger research grants rather than through promotion. There is no clear ladder to climb; instead a number of different pathways depending on subject area and your preferred emphasis on research and/or teaching. In the natural and social sciences, typical routes are from DPhil/PhD to one or more postdoctoral research post/s (typically 4-6 years), then to either a research fellowship (through a competitive application) or a lectureship (that combines 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.

Postdoc

Postdoctoral researcher positions are typically fixed-term contracts of 1-3 years, although there is increasing pressure on departments to give postdocs the same rights as permanent staff and to reduce the number of workers on short-term contracts. Slow progress here means that postdocs tend to move from one short-term contract to another. These positions are advertised under a myriad of alternative names, from Research Assistant, Research Officer or Research Associate, through 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, conference participation, knowledge exchange and public engagement. 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, 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. In Oxford, training in teaching is coordinated by the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and many departments also make teaching opportunities available to post-grad students.

Another postdoctoral opportunity in Oxford and Cambridge is the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) offered by colleges in all subject areas. While highly competitive, these fellowships provide an excellent foundation for an academic career through three years’ funding to pursue your own research project and, in some cases, responsibilities for outreach, welfare or career development within the college.

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 postdocs, constantly seeking funding to secure salaries for themselves and their team.

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 far 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 is 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 PhD graduates become professors; the vast majority take their research and teaching training to make significant contributions in other fields.

Higher Education Administration and 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 this, universities also require 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 are also a huge range of other roles which do not include teaching or research in 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, and 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, and 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 postdoc 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: Responsible 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 the 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, as well as 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, and 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. If you're interested in the range of research-related roles in Oxford, subscribe to the free Research Support News.

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.

Academia

Research shows that academics are expected to have a much wider set of skills and aptitudes now, than in previous years. Successful academics are able to prove that they have:

  • Expertise and passion for their subject area
  • Capacity for original research
  • Vision for their future contribution to knowledge
  • Autonomy and self-respect
  • Ability to inspire interest in their area of specialist research
  • Excellent analytical skills
  • Professionalism and affable collegiality
  • Excellent communication skills – written, verbal, persuading, negotiating, networking
  • Ability to be intensely productive and 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;
  • Aware of appropriate self-promotion and effective in this;
  • 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.

Many students and researchers at Oxford assume that academia is the best or only path for them. We strongly recommend pausing to consider whether you are suited to academia by:

Undergraduate students are advised to:

  • 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 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 we advise taking every opportunity to:

  • Attend conferences and seminars; interact with early career researchers.
  • Publish your doctoral work and be strategic in how you do so
    • aim for at least one peer-reviewed journal article (in most disciplines) or other high value publications,
    • evaluate critically any invitations to publish in edited collections, graduate student conference proceedings or 'third tier' (which are rarely good substitutes)
  • 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, or do some undergraduate teaching within the department in the form of seminars or lab class demonstrations.
  • Check out the courses and support to improve your teaching and mentoring skills provided by Oxford's Centre for Teaching and Learning and People and Organisational Development
  • 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
  • Initiative and leadership
  • 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.

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 or masters 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 onto 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 in 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 providing placements in different areas of their home institution and at other universities alongside management training. The University of Oxford scheme has been participating in the current three year pilot phase and will feed into any plans to provide a graduate scheme for the sector. So far, outcomes are very promising for  individual career progression and for the institution.

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. 

These early career roles, as well as many more academic and HE vacancies at Oxford, are advertised on searchable University web-pages. If you are an existing staff member at Oxford, you can apply for jobs advertised on the internal jobs board via the University's HR Self Service page; see the FAQs page for more information.

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.

In periods when it is difficult to travel, opportunities to work from home become more appealing. Hire Academics is a free digital listing of remote work opportunities ranging from full time work, to part-time work to consulting jobs and paid board positions. Many are in the US (and may require some travel) but others are in Europe, including the UK.

Many Oxford graduates aspire to a career in academia and progression can be tough. To boost your chances, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the reasons an academic should choose me over the other aspiring academics?
  • What can I do to make those reasons clear to them, before they recruit?
  • What do candidates currently succeeding in the job market have that I don’t have? And how can I fill those gaps?
  • Am I constraining myself in terms of research or teaching topic, funding or location - could I be more flexible?
  • What could I take on right now to demonstrate my leadership potential?

Remember - Alongside being a great researcher and teacher, being an academic means taking the lead in an academic field (possibly with fellow staff and students), and with running aspects of a university department.

You will need to write a specific CV and supporting statement (or cover letter) for each academic job you apply to. For guidance see our pages on Academic Applications.

Administration

Many jobs within universities will be advertised on their own websites (e.g. Oxford's page), on 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. Talk to people doing those roles to work out a strategy which may increase your chances of success.

Equality and 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 is now extending to 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.

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.

Practical audio and written 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 resources 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, but it is rarely a topic of open discussion. This workbook and series of five 30-minute podcasts help us recognise how such feelings can affect our sense of future prospects, and suggest practical ways forward.
  • 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. It 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.

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
  • What every Post-Doc needs to know, Liz Elvidge

Other useful books:

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

Journals, planning tools and research reports

Vacancies and occupation information

Organisations

Data and statistics

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