An Academic Career

What are my chances?

A challenging goal

In spite of the very demanding qualifications and achievements needed to become an academic, it is still a very popular role. It is a much more competitive occupation than many other business, industry or other public sector roles.

Before embarking on the path to an academic career, you should review the evidence: 

You should also consider how well you stand out compared to your competitors and what you could do to enhance your chances:

The academic job market - overview

It is hard to establish how many aspiring academics finally make it into a permanent academic job. It takes many years to establish an academic career and very long term career destination surveys are not routinely carried out.

However, those short and longer term reviews which are available for the UK are discussed below.

What does emerge is that the academic job market varies significantly by discipline. In some disciplines, there may be a shortage of suitable candidates. This is more likely in

  • fields where other fulfilling - or lucrative - careers are keen to target doctoral researchers, such as academic medicine or some areas of business and finance
  • emerging fields, where funding is strongly supported by government or industry/commerce and qualified academics are in short supply

However, for most disciplines, it is clear that having a PhD is not enough to get you into an academic career. To assess the challenge ahead of you, look at the number new PhDs graduating in your department each year - and the number of vacancies for new lecturers.

Destinations of UK graduates and postgraduates

What data is collected?

Each year, all graduates (including postgraduates) who graduate in the UK and whose home base is in the UK are surveyed within a year of completing their degree to find out where they go next.

This data is published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

HESA have also started to collect longitudinal destination data of a sample of these graduates and postgraduates, three and a half years on from graduating.

Various analyses of the data relating to doctoral researchers have been published by Vitae in their 'What Do Researchers Do?' series.

What does it show?

For those graduates in UK employment in November 2008, three and a half years after graduating (all disciplines):

  • First degree graduates with a 1st or 2:1
    0.3% were working in HE research occupations, 0.2% were teaching or lecturing in HE
  • Masters graduates
    1.7% were working in HE research occupations, 1.7% were teaching or lecturing in HE
  • Doctoral graduates
    19.2% were working in HE research occupations, 21.6% were teaching or lecturing in HE

It is unsurprising that few first degree or Masters graduates were in HE roles, three and a half years after graduating. Even those who ultimately become academics would be more likely to be undertaking doctoral research at that stage in their careers.

For doctoral graduates, however, there is wide variation by discipline.

  • Arts and Humanities
    Only 7.5% were in HE research roles (the lowest of any group of disciplines), but 50% were teaching and lecturing in HE (the highest of any group of disciplines)
  • Biological Sciences
    27.3% were in HE research roles (the highest of any group of disciplines), but only 7% were teaching or lecturing in HE (the lowest of any group of disciplines)
  • Biomedical Sciences (which includes clinical disciplines)
    23.3% were in HE research roles, 14.8% were teaching or lecturing in HE
  • Physical Sciences and Engineering
    18.8% were in HE research roles, 14.0% were teaching or lecturing in HE
  • Social Sciences
    13.7% were in HE research roles, but 46.5% were teaching or lecturing in HE

Care should be taken in interpreting this data as 'teaching or lecturing in HE' also includes 'university tutorial and teaching assistants' and does not indicate that those in this category have achieved permanent lectureships.

However, it does indicate the proportion of doctoral graduates who were still working in HE, three and a half years after graduating. It also gives an indication of the significant proportion of doctoral graduates no longer working in HE research or teaching at that stage in their career.

For further details, see the Vitae series of "What do researcher do?" publications (see link in box in this section). In particular

Longer term career destinations

The UK Research Councils, who fund a good deal of research in UK universities, have an interest in understanding the impact of that investment. They have commissioned the "Doctoral Career Pathways Study", one of whose outputs has resulted in the "What do researchers do? Doctoral graduate destinations and impact three years on" publication (for discussion, see previous section above).

Individual subject Research Councils have also periodically undertaken destination surveys of their sponsored PhDs.

Two recent surveys include:

In 2006, 413 people who had undertaken AHRC-sponsored PhDs were surveyed (most of the respondents were between 3 and 6 years on from graduation). Of these, 38% were in permanent academic positions, with another 21% in fixed-term academic posts.

In 2009, 658 people who had undertaken STFC or PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) sponsored PhDs were surveyed (most of these respondents were between 6 and 9 years on from graduation). Of these, 15% were in permanent Lecturer or Senior Lecturer positions, with another 27% in fixed-term teaching or research posts or research fellowships.

The biosciences career pyramid

Dr Ian Lyne, Head of Skills and Careers at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, gave a presentation in June 2010 at the Concordat Workshop, London and East of England Regional Hubs.

In this he presented the following data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for biosciences employment in UK universities:

  • Professors - 1,190
  • Senior Lecturers - 1,710
  • Lecturers - 1,720
  • Post-doctoral researchers - 5,515

It is unlikely that large numbers of these Lecturers would be ready to retire or be promoted within the next 1-5 years. However, most post-doctoral researchers would generally be looking for their next move within that time frame.

On top of this, new PhDs join the ranks of post-doctoral researchers every year.

Undergraduates, graduates and masters

As an undergraduate, you would normally expect to gain at least a 2:1 or a 1st class honours degree if you aspire to becoming an academic.

Some undergraduates only shine once they move into postgraduate study or research, or later in their careers, but you are starting out with a potential disadvantage if you get a 2:2 or lower.

  • What could you do to convince academics to take you on to Masters or doctoral research programmes?
  • Have you made a positive impression with the right academics, so they might be prepare to take a chance on you for a studentship or research assistantship? 
  • Are you aiming to work in a very competitive discipline or could you look at an alternative emerging field where the competition may be less fierce?
  • Have you talked to a number of  academics to do a reality check?

Masters degrees can be awarded as a Pass, or with Merit or Distinction. Some disciplines at some universities expect at least a Merit or Distinction at Masters level for entry into their doctoral programmes. However, a Pass is sufficient for many other programmes.

Doctoral researchers and post-doctoral research / staff

Once you are undertaking doctoral-level research, you are on the first rungs of the academic ladder, vying with many other doctoral-level researchers. This is the time for some serious reflection and to assess the competition:
  • Ask yourself some tough questions - or even better, get an academic to ask you similar questions and try to convince them with your answers.

Interestingly, even though my PhD was in Political Theory, and ideally I wanted to teach in Political Theory, the teaching posts that were available were in the area of Political Policy. I had to be willing to say 'yes, I can teach generally across the subject' and be able to take the jobs that were out there and say, 'I can teach first and second years in policy, no problem'.
Dr Angelia Wilson, Senior Lecturer

Tough questions to ask yourself as a researcher

  • How realistic am I being and what can I do to improve my chances?
  • What are the reasons an academic should choose me over the other aspiring academics I meet at conferences?
  • What can I do to make those reasons clear to them, before they recruit?
  • What do the candidates who are currently being successful in the job market have which I don’t have?
  • How can I fill those gaps?
  • Am I being too constrained, for example in terms of research or teaching topic, funding or location - could I be more flexible?

Becoming a successful academic isn't just about being excellent at research. Don't underestimate the importance of other facets of being a good academic.

  • Being an academic means taking the lead - in an academic field, with students and other staff, with running aspects of a university department. What could I take on right now to demonstrate my leadership potential?