The early stages of an academic career can be exciting, uncertain and daunting, all at the same time. Our top tip is to find out what is needed to progress in your subject area as soon as possible, then decide how to use your time in Oxford to boost your chances of getting more senior, independent roles.
Remember, careers in academia are no longer as linear or predictable as they once were, making it all the more important to think creatively and investigate the diverse opportunities available in universities around the world.
We suggest you ask yourself some questions to check whether you are working on the basis of assumptions, or evidence:
Will I thrive in academia?
For all its celebration of freedom, creativity and innovation, academia has a strong work culture in the sense of traditions, expectations and systems for how things are done. Some of this can feel restrictive or repressive, particularly in the early to mid career stage - a fact that is increasingly recognised by initiatives to improve academic research culture (e.g. by Vitae, and the Royal Society). But such change takes time, probably longer than you are prepared to wait to decide your next steps...
So, try to gauge how happy you think you could be in academic roles in the near future (likely these will be short-term contracts) and if you manage to secure a more permanent position. It can help to separate what it is you love about research from the things you enjoy or struggle with in academia.
Do I know enough about the range of jobs I could do?
Do I understand the pathways available in my discipline and in the region where I aim to work?
- The routes to academic progression vary widely between subject areas. Check you have a full picture by talking to others in your department beyond your immediate colleagues, and to researchers in your field at other universities.
- Some countries have highly structured systems for academic progression (e.g. Germany, the US), along with an annual hiring process made up of specific steps beginning up to a year before the role is expected to begin. Check your facts via sites listed in the external resources list in our page on Academia and Higher Education.
- The League of European Research Universities (LERU) has produced a set of Maps of academic career paths in nine European countries, including the UK. These outline the typical trajectory for researchers, the kinds of posts available at each career stage, how posts link to funding structures and points of transfer between routes and stages.
Am I fully aware of what people hiring for these roles look for in a candidate?
- Check your sense of what it takes to be competitive and strategic
- Get practical tips on thriving in academia from our Early Career Researchers blog - from a top-class application to deciphering the 'subtext' of interview questions...
- Read research on the contexts in which some progress while others struggle, for example:
- Scaling the Ivory Tower: Merit and its limits in academic careers (in USA) (2018)
- Mid-career academic women’s reluctance to overtly pursue prestige (2018)
- The value given to competencies not made explicit in job descriptions (2014) such as
- Vision: knowing what your contribution to knowledge will be in 20 years
- Management and Leadership in research teams, funding bids etc.
- Strategy: pro-active scanning and managing both personal horizons and those of your research group or department.
- Boundary-Spanning: being able to interact across sectors, including through public engagement and impact work.
Do I know how to prepare myself to move forward?
Am I prepared for the likely emotional challenges ahead?
Career development experts often witness the high emotional costs of competing in the academic job market or even anticipating next steps. These can include anxiety, fear, loss of confidence or joy in their work, imposter syndrome, strain on relationships and depression. It is very important to gather a support team around you and practice self-care. See our tips in our page for researchers titled Responding to Change or Setbacks.
Gaining independence as a researcher
A framework can help you assess and plan your professional development. We suggest printing out the full version of Vitae's Researcher Development Framework (RDF). Because it shows the wide-ranging skills valued in academia, the RDF can look overwhelming. We recommend that you:
- identify key skills in your academic area on the circle diagram (consult your peers if in doubt);
- look at the table below to see what level of each skill is expected for your next step between completing a PhD and becoming independent;
- work out which skills you are already developing (and have evidence for), and identify any gaps;
- plan how to fill gaps in your study/working role or via training; discuss these with your supervisor, PI and/or a Careers Adviser, and plan your time accordingly.
Remember: postdocs and all research staff are encouraged to take dedicated time for professional development of their choosing within their contracted time according to University policy.
You don’t have to use your annual leave, and we advise planning development time into your year.
Now that the University has signed the Concordat for the Career Development of Researchers, it is anticipated that all fixed term research staff will be entitled to up to 10 days professional development leave per year doing activities of their choosing. This 10 day entitlement already applies to all research staff within the MPLS division, and similar policies are expected in Humanities, Social Sciences and Medical Sciences (the latter currently states up to 5 days). If you are unsure how to approach taking professional development leave with your PI, seek advice from your departmental administrator or HR manager.
It’s up to you to choose how best to use this time – conferences (where these are going ahead) can be great for networking, but there’s much more out there. See our Boosting Your Employability page for ideas.
Preparing to teach
A track record of teaching experience is required for lectureships and other teaching roles.
Finding opportunities to gain experience at Oxford is easier in some departments than others. Wherever you are, take the initiative: let senior colleagues know your availability and what you can offer.
It can be frustrating that Oxford’s tutorial approach offers relatively few openings to get involved in teaching undergraduates. Remember that the Oxford system is highly unusual, and that the vast majority of universities look for experience in delivering lectures to large numbers of students and running weekly seminars. You can get gain relevant experience by giving talks, facilitating or contributing to seminars in your department, local schools, youth groups or adult education settings. If you are a postdoc with some experience, consider taking the PGCert qualification, as outlined below.
Oxford-trained researchers have secured lectureships having done some part-time teaching in another nearby university. Keep an eye out for short-term or part-time positions, and reach out to your equivalent departments in Warwick, Oxford Brookes, Reading, Bath, one of the London group or even the Open University, to offer a module related to your specialisms.
Teaching qualifications also help. The Oxford Centre for Teaching and Learning offers a range of courses and other forms of support to all DPhils and staff involved in, or keen to start, teaching. Postdocs looking to consolidate existing teaching experience are welcome to apply for a place on the one-year, part-time course to gain a Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The programme is designed to fit around work commitments, and actively encourages trainees to look outside Oxford to how teaching is designed and delivered elsewhere, plus ways of teaching inclusively and using technology.
Be aware that senior academics appointing new teaching staff in many UK universities will be thinking about how candidates will help them score well in the next TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). Read up to make sure you understand what is being measured, and talk to people in departments advertising roles to identify their priorities for retaining or improving teaching quality.