An Academic Career

From PhD to permanent academic

Overview of post-doctoral roles and pathways

The transition period between completing a PhD and finding a permanent academic job can be one of the most challenging periods of any academic career.

Find out more:

Routes to becoming an academic

Different disciplines have different pathways to becoming an academic, particularly after a PhD. Find out more:

Video interviews with university research staff

Every research career path is different, but it is often helpful to hear the real life stories of those embarking on the path to an academic career. At the time of filming, all of these researchers were either post-doctoral research staff or research fellows. Encouragingly, some have now progressed on to the next stage in their academic career.

Video career stories of post-doctoral research staff:

Video career stories of Research Fellows:

In my case, I had temporary contracts for seven years before obtaining my first permanent job as a lecturer, which is not unusual in my field.
Dr Chris Westrup from the Manchester Business School

A PhD is just the start

In addition to doctoral level qualifications, you will normally need to spend some years gaining post-doctoral experience, often in a series of fixed-terms posts, before finding a permanent academic role.

If you have already embarked on a PhD, you will know that there are far more new PhD researchers than there are academic posts vacant each year. In reality

  • Most PhDs do not become academics, though it does vary considerably by discipline.
  • Of those PhDs who do embark on the path towards an academic career, many never gain a permanent academic job.

However, for all the challenges associated with this period of an academic career, most research and teaching staff persevere because they are passionate about their work and for them, the rewards of a permanent academic job outweigh the costs of getting there.

How do I maximise my chances of making it as an academic

Many researchers (and academics) would quote the answer 'more publications'. This is critical, but it’s not the whole story. The following can all influence your chances:

Your research reputation:

How widely known and respected is your work? This includes peer-reviewed publications and books, plus presentations, academic collaborations, grants and awards. How widely cited is your work? Is it on an upward trajectory, or is it starting to falter?

Your personal and professional reputation:

If you are a widely published, brilliant researcher, universities will probably make allowances if you are seen as 'difficult to work with' by others.

However, if you are at the stage of trying to establish yourself in your academic field, you can improve your professional reputation by actively engaging with other academics in collaborations and at conferences.

Offering help and support to others (at all levels) can pay dividends, not just now but in the future - the new PhD researcher you help today may become the rising star with their own research group in a few years.

If you do find it a little difficult to engage with other academics, seek feedback from colleagues or mentors, to find out if your approach is appropriate, and to get suggestions for development.

What if I don't find a permanent academic job?

If you do not ultimately find a permanent academic role, you should at least be proud of having contributed to extending academic knowledge, hopefully with your own publications.

However, you may have to deal with disappointment and regret at the time spent chasing an elusive goal. You also have the challenge of having to look for a new line of work at a time when many of your contemporaries outside academia are already well established in their careers.

If you have not reached this stage, in addition to focusing on advancing your academic career, try to keep links with the professions in the world outside academia. These may be useful for academic collaborations or funding, but may also be the foundation of a 'back-up career plan' in the future.

If you have reached the point where you may need to look at alternatives:

  • Find someone to act as a sounding board, who is outside academic research - talking to others who understand academia, but who are not (or are no longer) academic researchers, will help you put a potential career change into perspective.
  • Look at our suggested resources to help you explore alternative careers for PhDs and post-doctoral researchers.