An Academic Career

Academic jobs and roles

Overview of academic roles and grades

Most academics have a role which combines research, teaching and administrative responsibilities. In these cases, you would normally be appointed at Lecturer grade. (One exception is where an experienced eminent professional from outside academia is appointed at a senior grade, such as Professor.)

Research-only and teaching-only posts are common in academia, but the vast majority are only appointed on a fixed-term basis. However, some permanent academic research- or teaching-only posts do exist, but in much smaller numbers than traditional combined research, teaching and administration roles.

Your first permanent post - Lecturer

If you are successful in becoming an academic, your first permanent academic post is likely to be at the grade of Lecturer, although some alternative titles are starting to gain ground in some UK universities. This is likely to follow several years of fixed-term research and/or teaching posts.

Initial appointment as a lecturer is subject to successful completion of a probationary period. Unlike most non-academic jobs, it is common for this probation period to last for three or four years, or even longer if there are any shortfalls in expected performance.

Each university has its own requirements for appointment as a Lecturer, including the performance expected as a probationary lecturer and the support offered to help you reach the required level of performance. You are also likely to have to undertake training to introduce you to the role of a new academic.

Professor Adrian Armstrong offers his advice about how to balance the demands of research and other responsibilities.

Balancing research, teaching and administration

The balance of time spent on each of these roles can vary widely according to the time in the academic year, your experience and any administrative responsibilities you take on.

If you have a number of lecture courses for which you are responsible, preparation, delivery, setting assessments, examinations and marking are likely to take up a significant amount of your time when students are on campus. If you have administrative responsibilities, such as being a Programme Director, or Head of Undergraduate Admissions for your department, you will also find a lot of your working life taken up with meetings, policies, implementing new ideas and solving problems.

Research can be pushed to the margins of your working life, which may extend to evenings, weekends and holiday periods. However, as an academic, you are generally measured on your research success, so it is critical to retain a focus on advancing your research, even in small chunks.

Promotion beyond lecturer

Although job titles can vary between institutions and disciplines, a common grade progression for those with permanent academic jobs is:

  • Lecturer
  • Senior lecturer
  • Reader
  • Professor/Chair

Once you have completed probation and been confirmed as a new lecturer, you generally gain further promotion based on your personal academic performance. For most academics, this is primarily based on research performance, with some account taken of teaching and administrative responsibilities. However, if you have a role which is predominantly teaching, or research, or knowledge transfer, the emphasis will differ.

You would normally put forward a case to be considered for promotion by a panel of academics in your university who assess whether you have reached the required standard. In most cases, promotion is based on personal merit rather than waiting for a post at the next level to become vacant.

Two exceptions are:

  • Professor / Chair - some Professors are appointed to this grade on their own personal performance. However others are appointed to a specific named Chair, such as that associated with being a Head of School, or a named post which recognises research excellence in a specific field.
  • Taking on an administrative or managerial role is often not associated with promotion. Many roles, such as Programme Director or Director of Postgraduate Studies, are responsibilities taken on for a limited period. It is often important to carry out these roles to bolster your case for future promotion (along with your research and teaching), but you don’t generally get re-graded simply for taking on such roles.

Video interviews with academics

Every academic career path is different, but it is often helpful, and inspirational, to hear the real life stories of those who have been successful in gaining a permanent academic post.

These are the video career stories of lecturers in a range of disciplines:

A number of senior academics have also shared their experience:

Could I focus on research-only posts?

Although research is part of the role of most academics, there are a number of research-only roles.

The majority of these are associated with fixed-term projects or funding. However, some institutions have developed parallel career routes, allowing academics (in permanent roles) to remain focused on research and still progress through grades similar to the conventional 'Lecturer to Professor' route.

Job titles may differ to reflect the research focus of the job, with the term Research Fellow sometimes used to reflect a permanent research-focused academic role (as opposed to those Research Fellow posts which are fixed-term, often externally funded, research posts - check the job descriptions carefully).

This is not an easy option - research-only academics tend to be 'research stars' who are consistently able to bring in external funding for their research. This may be a route for very successful academic researchers who are often internationally mobile, or for an eminent researcher from outside academia who may be appointed to a research-focused professorial post.

Tough questions to ask yourself:

  • How successful am I at winning research funding compared to my peers?
  • How could I convince a university that the benefit I will bring in terms of research success and reputation will outweigh the cost of another academic taking on the teaching load I would normally be expected to cover
  • Am I prepared to move, potentially to another country, to advance my research career?

Alternatively, there are some roles in universities which focus on research which are not seen as academic roles:

  • Experimental Officers - these are not very commonly advertised, and may be associated with fixed-term project funding, rather than permanent posts. If these posts are of interest, talk to the Experimental Officers in your university to see how, and when, they found their post.
  • Research Technicians - may be permanent or fixed-term posts, but if you have gained a PhD, you may find these posts do not offer you the challenge (or salary) you would like.
  • Research Officer - this may be used to describe a role outside the technical disciplines, either at a level similar to an Experimental Officer, or to a Research Technician. Check the job descriptions carefully to make sure it offers what you want.

Could I focus on teaching-only posts?

Although teaching is part of the role of most academics, there are a number of teaching-only roles.
The majority of these are associated with fixed-term positions, often part-time. However, some institutions have developed parallel career routes, allowing academics (in permanent roles) to remain focused on teaching and still progress through grades similar to the conventional 'Lecturer to Professor' route. This has traditionally been the case in the post-92 universities, but more recently has also been recognised within some Russell Group universities.

Job titles may differ to reflect the teaching focus of the job, with the term Teaching Fellow sometimes used to reflect a permanent teaching-focused academic role (as opposed to those Teaching Fellow posts which are fixed-term, teaching posts aimed at those aspiring to an academic career - check the job descriptions carefully). 

As a teaching-focused academic, in addition to your discipline knowledge, you may be expected to conduct research and publish, but in the fields of teaching and education, either generally or specifically within your discipline. At senior levels, you would generally also be expected to take a lead in the development of educational methods and/or technologies based on relevant educational research.