An Academic Career

How to uncover your ideal job

Finding jobs before they are advertised

The number of academic jobs currently advertised in the UK can run into thousands. How can you improve your chances of finding the one or two very specific jobs which would be ideal for you?


Adverts, contacts or speculative approaches?

"Networking is the most effective way of finding jobs" is a common claim in advice on how to find jobs, though often there is little data presented to support such claims. However, when it comes to finding jobs for aspiring academics, we do have some evidence.

A survey in 2010, published by Vitae, considered over 1500 PhD graduates employed in the UK, three or four years on from graduation, and asked how they found out about their current jobs (multiple responses were allowed).

For those employed in Higher Education research:

  • 39.7% had found out about their job through professional, work or educational contacts
  • 27.0% had found out about their job because they currently or had previously worked for the organisation
  • 20.4% had found out about their job through the university’s website
  • 12.1% had found out about their job through a newspaper or magazine advert or website

For those employed in teaching in Higher Education:

  • 36.4% had found out about their job through professional, work or educational contacts
  • 29.7% had found out about their job because they currently or had previously worked for the organisation
  • 18.7% had found out about their job through the university’s website
  • 27.3% had found out about their job through a newspaper or magazine advert or website

Although adverts remain important, knowing the right people or being in the right place was more commonly mentioned as a method for finding out about jobs inside academia than for jobs outside academia.

Making speculative approaches was much less commonly mentioned (9.2% for research posts and 4.4% for teaching posts). Although this shows that speculative approaches can sometimes work, it is probably more helpful to make those contacts before you are ready to apply for a job.


Don't all jobs have to be advertised legally?

In a word, no.

In the UK, many university and other public sector policies state that all their jobs should be advertised, but there is no legal requirement. (Outside the public sector, there is even less pressure to openly advertise all jobs.)

Once the job is advertised, you may be too late

In academia, the reputation you have for your work assumes far greater importance than in most other professions. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many academics have 'the ideal candidate' in mind, even before any job advert is drafted. Anyone who works in a university will know of jobs which have been advertised - but everyone knew who was likely to get the job.

Being known in your field and letting contacts know that you are looking can be as important as spotting the right job advert once it is made public.


Professor Chris Griffiths talks about how a contact alerted him about a job before it was advertised.
Dr Sam Cartwright-Hatton explains how networking has helped her career.

Making effective use of your support network

  • Your contacts can act as an early warning system, letting you know when jobs are coming up - who's moving on or moving up, who's looking for a collaborator in your field or is looking for your particular specialist skills for a new research project.
  • Some graduate teaching assistant or part-time / fixed-term lecturer or teaching fellow posts may only be advertised locally or by word of mouth. It pays to keep in touch with academics, other postgraduates or research/teaching staff and administrators in any department where your skills may be of use, including in other universities within commuting distance.
  • If there is a major conference attended by most researchers in your discipline, make sure you take part. If you turn up to some of the informal and social sessions as well as the research sessions, you improve your chances of hearing about jobs coming up, or even finding yourself being discreetly assessed as a possible future candidate. Don’t dismiss contacts with others at the same level as you – they may have been briefed by their supervisor or principal investigator to report back on possible candidates.
  • For some disciplines, mailing lists may be used to send alerts of upcoming jobs. These may be general academic mailing lists, such as those on the JISCMail service or may be associated with specific annual conferences. Make sure you sign up to any appropriate lists otherwise specialist jobs in your field may be passing you by, without you ever seeing the advert.
  • Just as your reputation will influence potential academic employers, your contacts could give you an insight into the workings of the university departments in which you are interested. This includes alerting you to any good - or not so good - potential principal investigators or heads of research groups. Your contacts may even be able to make introductions for you - it has been know for really supportive supervisors to attend conferences with their PhD researchers, specifically to introduce them to academics in the institutions where they would like to work next.
  • During the application process, you could approach any academics who act as your informal mentors to advise you on your applications or listen to the presentation you plan to give on your research. Some academic departments will offer to put you through mock interviews for important fellowships. Even if this is not available as standard procedure, if you have built up a good relationship with senior academics, they may be prepared to put you through your paces before the real thing.
  • Because of the importance of academic reputation, academic referees are far more important at an early stage in the application process than for non-academic jobs. Your referees are likely to have been approached well before you are invited for interview. Make sure they are fully briefed on the jobs for which you are applying, before you use their names.

Research support within universities

Many universities have staff dedicated to supporting academics to bring in funding for research. They may be located within faculties or schools, or be a central service.

Find out if your institution operates such a service, and ask them about resources you can access or help with finding funding for doctoral research, post-doctoral fellowships or other research funding opportunities.