An Academic Career

Science, engineering and technology disciplines

Pathways to an academic career

Although every academic career is unique, there are some well trodden science, engineering and technology (SET) pathways. This section describes a common route starting from an undergraduate degree, staying in academia, all the way through to becoming a lecturer.

There are three main types of permanent academic roles. 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 Caroline Bowsher explains how her early awareness of her research interests helped her forge her career.

Pathways to 'research and teaching' academic roles

In SET subjects, a common route to getting a permanent 'research and teaching' lecturing job (whilst staying within academia) is:

Undergraduate degree - Masters degree - PhD - post-doctoral research post (one or more fixed term contracts) - research fellowship - Lecturer

(Note: This differs significantly from Humanities pathways.)

Pathway to a PhD

It is still possible in the UK to go straight from an undergraduate degree to a PhD in SET subjects, though it is becoming more common to do a Masters qualification first.

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 than completing a PhD full time, but has the advantage of allowing you to gaining paid employment within a university.

Search for jobs as a research assistant on university vacancy pages, New Scientist Jobs and

After a PhD

The most challenging part of this pathway is often the period after gaining a PhD, when you may need to take one or more fixed term research contracts, usually of two to four years duration, sometimes moving between institutions.

This involves working on a pre-defined research project for which another academic (known as the 'Principal Investigator' - the PI) has been given 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.

Research fellowships

You may be able to find a job as a Lecturer straight after completing a post-doctoral research post, but it is common to apply for a research fellowship first.

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.

Dr Kathryn Else describes the stress of bringing in funding to cover the costs of her research group.

Pathways to 'research-focused' academic roles

If you wish to focus mainly or exclusively on research as an academic, you would generally follow a similar pathway to 'research and teaching' posts described above, at least until you find your first permanent post.

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-focused' posts generally rely on you continuing to bring in sufficient research funding from external sources to cover:

  • your costs
  • the costs of your research group
  • 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

Permanent teaching-focused positions are much less common than traditional 'research and teaching' lectureships. You would often be expected to undertake some form of educational research and to publish in educational journals, to underpin your teaching expertise. You would also expect to take on some administrative responsibilities to contribute to the department as a whole.

Depending on when you decide you want to focus on teaching, you could either:

  • Follow a similar pathway to the 'research and teaching' academic role described above, including completing one or more post-doctoral research posts, then look for teaching fellow posts.
  • Look for fixed-term teaching fellow posts after your PhD instead of research posts, before finding a permanent teaching fellow or 'teaching-focused' lecturer post.

While you are completing your PhD, you would normally look out for part-time fixed-term teaching posts, such as 'lab demonstrator' or tutorial support roles to help build your experience.

Note: '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.