An Academic Career

Could I return to academia if I leave?

It all depends...

There are no hard and fast rules about how difficult or easy it is to return to academia. It depends on where you are in your educational, professional and personal life, your discipline and what you are prepared to do to overcome any negative aspects of taking time away from academia.

If you are currently outside academia, but are interested in returning, you may have gained professional experience which could help you enter an academic career. For more information, see:

If you want to return to academia in a completely different discipline to your previous education or professional experience, you may need to start again, possibly with a minimum of a Masters conversion course, if not a new undergraduate degree.

For the different career pathways to academia in different disciplines, see:


Could I take time away from academia before a doctoral level qualification

If you have not yet gained a doctoral level qualification, you may be considering getting experience outside academia, for personal or professional interest. Here are some of the pros and cons with respect to developing an academic career:

Pros

  • The experience you gain may be useful if it directly relates to any doctoral research you plan to undertake.
  • If there is limited funding for postgraduate study or doctoral research in your subject, this may be the only way to build up funds to support yourself.
  • You get the chance to satisfy other ambitions or interests, meaning you are more ready to dedicate yourself to doctoral research in future.
  • There are many mature students undertaking doctoral research. You won’t be the only 'older research student' (whatever your age!) and your maturity and professional approach may be a considerable asset.
  • If you are aiming for an academic career, it may be easier to take a break from academia before a PhD, rather than after.

Cons

  • You may lose touch with your subject or find it more difficult to apply yourself to academic work once you change environment.
  • Academics look for evidence of commitment to your subject. How could you convince an academic that your time away from university would benefit them and your ability to study at postgraduate level?
  • If you intend to get paid employment, it can be very hard to go back to being a student. Even well-funded PhDs are not as lucrative as many graduate jobs.

Could I take time away from academia after a doctoral level qualification

If you have completed a doctoral qualification or are currently a member or research staff at a university, you may be considering taking time away from academia, especially if you have gone directly from undergraduate to postgraduate study.

Pros

  • The experience you gain may be useful if it directly relates to any future academic research you hope to undertake, particularly if you can lay the foundations for possible external collaborations.
  • In certain disciplines, gaining professional experience outside university may be an advantage if you intend to return to teach students working towards professional qualifications in your field.
  • You will have already started to establish your academic networks and may be able to extend this to other professional networks.

Cons

  • When considering your applications in future, academics may question your commitment to academia. How could you convince them otherwise?
  • Your recent academic publication record is a critical part of applications to most academic posts. Could you continue to publish in respected academic journals if you leave academia for a time? If not, how could you convince academics to consider you over other research applicants with more recent publications?
  • Your academic network of contacts may dissipate without regular maintenance. How could you maintain your academic links to help you on your return?
  • If you intend to get paid employment, it may be hard to go back to being a university researcher. You may need to consider taking a drop in salary to return to a university post, and to leave a permanent job outside academia for a fixed-term research or teaching post as a re-entry point to university life.

Would taking maternity leave affect my chances of having an academic career?

Our academic career stories from the University of Manchester demonstrate that it is possible to be a woman with a family and have a successful academic career. For example:

For further inspiration, Professor Ottoline Leyser, funded by the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, has written about career paths of 64 senior academic scientists who are all mothers:

There is never an easy time to take a break from your professional life and some of the pros and cons raised above may apply, whatever your reasons for taking time away from academia.

However, there are some specific resources and initiatives aimed at supporting women returning to academia after a career break. Although some of these initiatives are mainly driven by encouraging women in science and engineering to return to work, the university plans and policies on women returning to work (see Athena SWAN Charter) generally cover all disciplines, and many of the case studies and profiles are relevant, whatever your discipline.

Organisations and training supporting women returning to science and engineering/academic careers:

  • Athena SWAN Charter - "recognises and celebrates good employment practice for women working in science, engineering and technology (SET) in higher education and research". Includes case studies of university departments and their plans to support women in academia.
  • The UKRC - provides advice, services and policy consultation regarding the under-representation of women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment (SET). Includes case studies of women returning to a range of careers, including academia.
  • The Open University "Return to science, engineering and technology" course (T161) - a ten week course aimed at those who have already studied or worked in SET and wish to return.

In addition, there are some fellowships and bursaries specifically aimed at encouraging those who have had career breaks to return to work: