An Academic Career

The lifestyle of an aspiring academic

How well would I cope?

If you move quickly from a PhD to a research fellowship to a permanent lecturer post, your success should easily sustain you.

However, most academics go through a protracted period of uncertainty as they head towards an established academic career. The highs of research success may be offset by the lows of the challenges and setbacks you face.

Tough questions to ask yourself

How well do I cope with uncertainty?

If you can’t predict what or where your next contract will be, will this worry you? Are others relying on you for support (partner, family etc) and if so, how could you minimise pressure on them? Could you start planning the next move well before the end of your PhD or current contract, and involve your partner or any dependents in defining an acceptable next move?

How mobile am I prepared to be?

You don’t always have to move university to get your next career move, but you may severely restrict your options if you pin your hopes on staying in your current department. Could you commute, either daily, or for more distant jobs, live away from your home base for a few days a week? How well could you and your partner or family adapt to living apart for periods of time?

How well do I cope under pressure?

You are likely to experience pressure, either from colleagues, supervisor or PI, or, very often, yourself to work long hours and to worry about producing results. What mechanisms do you have to avoid this getting out of proportion? Do you have ways of letting off steam safely or getting absorbed in activities outside research (eg exercise, creative, artistic, spiritual or social activities)?

How do I cope with competition?

As an academic high achiever, you will be used to being one of the most successful of your peers, at least academically. Now you are part of a very rarefied group of similar high academic achievers. How easy is it for you to forgive yourself for not always being the best? Can you put it into perspective, learn from not always winning, and find yourself spurred to new heights – or do you find yourself crushed? Can you draw on support from mentors, either formal or informal, to ensure a healthy competitive urge doesn’t turn to aggression or depression?

Is salary and standard of living a key driver for me?

Although an average academic isn’t poorly paid, you will find that many of your graduate contemporaries who have moved into non-academic professions will earn considerably more than you, particularly as you try to establish your academic career, while they are climbing their professional career ladder. Perks for academics come in the form of freedom of intellectual debate and flexibility in working hours (though normally considerably longer than non-academics), rather than company cars, bonuses and private health care.