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.
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.
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.
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.