An Academic Career

Humanities disciplines

Pathways to an academic career

Although every academic career is unique, there are some well trodden humanities pathways. This section describes two common routes starting from an undergraduate degree, staying in academia, all the way through to becoming a lecturer.

There are three main types of permanent academic role. The vast majority of academics have combined research and teaching roles. A much smaller number of academics focus mainly on research, or mainly on teaching. Before deciding which type of academic role you want, you should review the following:

Depending on your ultimate aim, you may follow slightly different pathways:

If you are currently working outside academia or are considering taking time away from academic work or study, the following sections discuss the implications for your academic career.

Academic careers outside the UK

Many academics spend time outside their home country, often during the early part of their career, to gain wider experience and to help establish an international reputation. Academic career pathways can vary by country. If you are considering spending part of your academic career outside the UK, these external resources may help explain alternative pathways and career considerations.


Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami describes her career path.

Pathways to 'research and teaching' academic roles

There are two common routes to getting a permanent 'research and teaching' lecturer post in humanities (whilst staying within academia). These routes are the same as far as getting a PhD:

Pathway to a PhD

Undergraduate degree - Masters degree - PhD

For most humanities subjects in the UK now, you would normally be expected to gain a Masters degree before embarking on a PhD. This has become a requirement of many major funders of PhDs. It is more difficult to find funding for humanities postgraduate qualifications than for science subjects, so you may need to consider studying part-time. 

As a graduate or Masters postgraduate, you may be able to find work in a university as a research assistant, which might allow you to register for a PhD alongside your normal work. This will generally take significantly longer that completing a PhD full-time, but has the advantage of allowing you to gain paid employment within a university.

Search for jobs as a research assistant on university vacancy pages and jobs.ac.uk.

After a PhD

The most challenging part of this pathway is often the period after gaining a PhD. There are two common pathways to a permanent job as a Lecturer:

A. Part-time teaching roles - Research or teaching fellowship - Lecturer

B. Post-doctoral research post (one or more fixed term contracts) - Research or teaching fellowship - Lecturer

Path A

It is common to take on one or more part-time fixed-term paid university teaching positions, whilst carrying out your own research and writing for publication in your own time. This can last for a number of years and may involve moving institutions.

You may be able to find a permanent Lecturer post straight after this, or alternatively, you may need to look for a research or teaching fellowship first.

Path B

In some subjects, you may alternatively complete one or more fixed term research contracts, usually of two to four years duration, sometimes moving between institutions.

This involves working on a research project for which another academic (known as the 'Principal Investigator' - the PI) has gained funding. Occasionally, you may have some input into the definition of the project, particularly if it is a continuation of work related to your PhD. However, it is more common for a post-doctoral research job to be advertised once the project has already been defined by a PI.

This is the common route for science, engineering and technology academics. However it has also become increasingly common in social sciences and even in some arts subjects.  This might alternate with, or run alongside, some part-time teaching responsibilities.

You may be able to find a permanent Lecturer post straight after this, or alternatively, you may need to look for a research or teaching fellowship first.


What are fellowships?

Research fellowships

Research fellowships are highly sought after, often prestigious, and demonstrate your ability to convince an external body to fund your own research ideas. They may be granted by a specific university, or by an independent source, such as a research council or charity, where you have scope to negotiate where you take up the fellowship.

Some fellowships come with guarantees of a permanent academic job (given successful completion); others buy you research time during which you would either apply for further research funding, or a permanent academic job.

To give yourself the best chance of succeeding when you apply for a fellowship, you should have built up a track record of successful grant applications. This could be small grants for items such as travel or equipment, and internal funding opportunities at your current university.

You could also attend any training for fellowship applications, and solicit the support and help of mentors or other academics in your department - your success will reflect well on your department so they should be willing to offer advice and feedback on your application.

Teaching fellowships

'Teaching fellow' is a commonly used but rather vague, confusing term.

  • You may find it used both for junior fixed term posts and for more senior permanent academic jobs - read the job descriptions carefully!
  • A Teaching Fellow post (at whatever level) is generally a job funded by a specific university. There is no teaching equivalent of the independently funded Research Fellow path.

Pathways to 'research-focused' academic roles

You may find that Path B (above) is more appropriate as a foundation for a primarily research-focused academic career.

Permanent research-focused positions are very much less common than traditional 'research and teaching' lectureships. You may find that getting teaching experience widens the range of posts you could consider. Even if you don’t teach as a core part of your role, you are likely to have to take on some administrative responsibilities to contribute to the research group or department as a whole.

Long term 'research only' posts generally rely on you continuing to bring in sufficient research funding from external sources to cover

  • your costs
  • the costs of any research group for which you are responsible
  • the costs of paying someone else to teach any courses you would normally be expected to teach as an academic.
You will have to consider whether you have the ability to compete effectively for funding to cover these costs throughout your academic career - and to convince a university that you could do so.

Pathways to 'teaching-focused' academic roles

You may find that Path A is more appropriate as a foundation for a primarily teaching-focused academic career, although Path B may not exclude you, providing you gain some good teaching experience alongside your research.