An Academic Career

Do you want to stay in academia?

Dr Caroline Bowsher looks back on life as a postdoc.

Review your career ambitions

As a member of post-doctoral research or teaching staff, most people around you will assume that you want to be an academic. It may be your cherished ambition, or it may be something you've gone along with, given the view of many successful academics that any other career is second best, or even 'failure'.

If it's early in your university career, it's worth investigating what it takes to become an academic and realistically assessing your chances. This will allow you to make informed career decisions which can give you a firm foundation for an academic career and avoid drifting into years of short-term research or teaching contracts which ultimately don't deliver a permanent academic post.

If you have already completed several years of post-doctoral work in a university, you should periodically take a hard headed look at your career. What is important to you now may be different to how you felt a few years ago. It is sensible to review whether the realities of an academic career are still as attractive, and if so, consider what should you do to keep your career on track?

What do you want out of a career?

Researchers often quote the flexible hours, the chance to contribute to your specialist field, the chance to help others develop, as some of the attractions of an academic career. However, everyone has their own priorities and clarifying what you want from your working life will help ensure you are aiming for a career which will give you job satisfaction.

Draw up your own list, or download our self assessment checklist.

Alternatively, try the online career options tool, Prospects Planner, which will try to match your responses to a range of graduate level careers.

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami describes what she does in her job.

What do academics really do?

Do you want to be an academic, or do you want to do what academics do, day to day?

This is not such a fine distinction, as the primary purpose of being an academic (pursuing research or teaching, depending on your focus) is sometimes at odds with the work which academics regularly find themselves doing.

The life of an academic is very different to that of a post-doctoral researcher. Academics sometimes talk wistfully about their early career as the last time they were able to focus on their research without all the other responsibilities of academic life which distract them from their research.

  • What do academics do? - find out more about the day to day work, lifestyle and skills needed by academics, including hearing directly from successful academics in a range of disciplines.

You probably already know about the insecurity and uncertainty of life as an aspiring academic, with short-term research projects and part-time teaching work being common.

There is considerable variation between disciplines, between institutions and between different academic roles. Talk to academics and to others trying to secure academic posts in your field about their career stories so far, and assess how closely their experiences match your own situation.

Is academia the right option for you?

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What's on your checklist of what is important to you in a career? How does it compare with the realities of academic life? It may not be a perfect match, but careers rarely are.
  • Are there areas where you are prepared to compromise to achieve your ultimate aim of becoming an academic? What will the cost be to you, or to those close to you, of these compromises? How do you plan to get the support of others (eg partners, family) who might be impacted by your career decision?
  • How long will you give yourself to make progress in establishing an academic career, before considering the alternatives? What targets will you set yourself to ensure you are making progress rather than marking time?

As well as exploring whether you are attracted to the realities of an academic career, you also need to consider how you compare with all the others who will also be competing for academic jobs.

And if you aren't sure, are having second thoughts, or want a back up plan, have a look at some alternatives to a career as an academic: