An Academic Career

Skills and knowledge

Dr Andrea Simpson explains why resilience is important in academia.

How confident are you about defending your work effectively?

You already know about the traumas of subjecting your work to the scrutiny of others in your field, whether in writing or orally. As this is an essential part of an academic's life, do you have the confidence and resilience to cope with this? Many successful academics continue to find this challenging throughout their professional life, but develop coping strategies and a veneer of confidence to present to the outside world. Presentation skills training for researchers should include help with how to deal with challenging questions.

Watch academics or other researchers presenting their work and note which strategies are most successful for dealing with challenges. Talk to academics to find out how they cope with rejected funding bids - even the most successful academics have been through this.

How appropriate are your research skills & subject knowledge to the field which interests you?

If you are using cutting edge research techniques in a field which is growing, your skills are likely to be relevant to fellowships or academic jobs.

Issues do arise though where you wish to change fields, or where funding or limited job opportunities in your specialist area mean you have to alter your research interests. If this is the case, in what ways can you apply your current skills and knowledge in your proposed field? What similarities are there, and what new insights could you bring from your current research? If your preferred research interests are significantly different to your current research, is there a half-way house option, maybe applying some of your specialist skills and knowledge in an area related to both your current research and where you would ideally like to be?

Talking to academics in the field you would like to enter and looking for connections with your current work may uncover some unexpected links or opportunities - and may give you some good contacts.

How effectively can you communicate your work to a range of audiences?

There is increasing pressure on academics, including from potential funders, to communicate about their work to non-specialists. What have you done to show that you could engage researchers outside your discipline, a group of applicants to undergraduate degrees, a class of primary school pupils, lay members of a funding panel?

There are often opportunities for post-doctoral research and teaching staff to do this inside and outside your institution. Take whatever chance you can to practice, as these skills will also come in useful explaining your research to an interview panel.

Dr Kevin Lane talks about how he has spent his fellowship developing his teaching skills as well as researching and publishing to improve his future job prospects.
Professor Adrian Armstrong describes how he improved his teaching skills early in his career.

How strong is your teaching record, and what could you do to improve it?

If you are aiming at a predominantly teaching focused academic career, what innovations have you introduced recently into your teaching practice? Which new types of courses or formats have you added in the last academic year? Have you undertaken any research into teaching and learning, preferably publishing your results?

If your scope for innovation is limited within your current department, where else could you look to add experience, whether collaborations with other departments in your own institution, part-time work in other local institutions, or on distance learning programmes?

Even if your main focus is research, being able to offer good teaching experience could add to the attractiveness of your application for a job as a lecturer.

Take whatever teaching assistant training is offered by your institution, ask your department (or related departments) for the chance to teach, try out different teaching methods (eg use of audio-visual materials, problem-based learning, on-line modules or tutorial support), learn from tutors, demonstrators and lecturers who are highly rated by students, collate your student feedback (learn from the negative feedback, use positive feedback to support your applications), offer to cover the occasional lecture (however, you may not get chance to teach a whole lecture course, unless you have previous relevant experience).

If you have exhausted the opportunities at your own institution, explore possibilities at other local universities, or look out for tutor positions with the Open University.

"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 jobs that were out there and say 'I can teach first and second years in policy, no problem." Dr. Angelia Wilson, Senior Lecturer, The University of Manchester

Are you developing your ability to compete for funding?

Writing successful research bids is critical for most academics. Learn from your PI when they are applying for funding - what could you do to offer support? Is there any possibility of being named on the application (this may depend on institution or funder policies)? Additionally, you could be developing your own track record by applying for smaller amounts of funding to support conference attendance or visits to other institutions to advance your research. This helps you develop the skill of writing persuasively to a tight brief - and probably starts you on the road to developing the thick skin you will need to cope with rejection.

Look out for awards and prizes from professional or scholarly societies, or in funding databases for instance on the Research Professional website.