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Academia as an career sector is a global enterprise employing talented people doing important and interesting work. But gaining a foothold on a faculty ladder and developing an academic career has relentless demands.  It requires focus and resilience to pursue.

The good news is that many Cambridge postdocs succeed as academics, and up to two thirds move into academic positions – lectureships, fellowships or other postdocs - after Cambridge.

Junior faculty often say they feel unprepared for the demands of a new academic position – forging an independent research identity, building a research group, teaching, writing grants and fundraising, contributing to departmental activities.  Look ahead to consider whether you’ll be able to juggle these sometimes conflicting demands.

When you apply for academic positions, your research is key, but you will also be evaluated on the other activities that make up academic life.

Applications for academic positions

Faculty applications - not just an application, but a package

Academic job applications are made up of a number of components, including the CV, cover letter, research statements, teaching statements and diversity statements.

  • Get started by watching our bite size intro videos on creating effective academic applications.

 

 

  • Get reading: if you prefer to learn by reading we have a dedicated section on lectureship and faculty applications in our CV book for PhDs and Postdocs.
  • Get feedback: Use Handshake to book a session with a postdoc careers adviser for feedback on your draft application, or come to a workshop for peer feedback and the experience of evaluating others.

Have a look at all our resources for academic applications.

Improving your chances

To increase your chances of success, there are activities you can do now that will help.

  • Plan ahead - See our guide on Planning an Academic Career to think about developing a research strategy, getting your own funding, building your academic network, getting teaching and research supervision experience, planning your publication strategy.

  • Understand the landscape - Academia is a global enterprise, but there are differences between countries and regions.  The sector has been under serious funding pressure for some time, and COVID-19 has added to the complexity.  Inform yourself about the academic context of your target countries - the institutions and their strengths, the balance of teaching and research, how funding works, and how research and teaching are evaluated.

See our YouTube channel for more resources on Academic careers

  • Gain experience now to increase your skills - The more you understand how candidates are evaluated for faculty positions, the better prepared you'll be.  The focus will be on your research track record, but you will also be judged on your potential for teaching, attracting funding, developing a strong academic reputation and network, initiating research collaborations, and contributing to academic service.  If you can start gaining experience in these areas, you will be a stronger candidate.

Read our guide on building your academic skills during your postdoc, and see our advice on: Developing Teaching and Other Academic Experience

Funding and fellowships

Getting independent funding is important because it sustains your research, and it also provides evidence that you can attract funding - essential when applying for a faculty position.  Don't wait for someone to tell you when you should apply for funding, or put it off until you feel ready. Go for it as soon as you have a good idea.

The Research Professional database is the best place to search for funding opportunities: it covers all disciplines, and all types of funding, from large grants to small pots.   This is a subscription service you can access while you're at Cambridge.  Look ahead at opportunties to plan your funding applications.

Further funding and fellowships resources for:

Listen to advice from our recent Fellowship Sessions podcast series:

See our YouTube channel for more Fellowship Sessions podcasts.

Interviews for academic positions

Preparing for an academic interview requires a similar approach to any interview:

  • Read the job description thoroughly, think about what they are looking for, and review your application material
  • Anticipate questions and prepare your answers
  • Practice with colleagues acting as the interviewers - this should include interview questions and your presentation
  • Book an interview practice session with the Postdoc Careers Service

What to expect at an academic interview - for faculty positions or fellowships:

  • Most will be panel interviews, sometimes involving a significant number of interviers, some non-specialists
  • There will usually be a short presentation of your work for 5-10 minutes
  • For fellowships and lectureships, expect significant exploration of your research - track record, impact, future vision and plans
  • In fellowship interviews, your project idea will be assessed in detail - is it exciting, achievable, timely, and well planned out? Are you the right person for the project? Do you have the potential to become a leader in your field?
  • For lectureship interviews, your teaching experience may be probed, and sometimes tested through a mock teaching presentation

We have collected actual questions from lectureship and fellowship interviews undertaken by previous Cambridge postdocs. See our Interview Skills for Academia guide for lists of sample questions.

 

See our YouTube channel for more resources on academic interviews

Career alternatives

Consider alternative careers in parallel with your interest in academia

Even if you're solely focused on an academic career, it's prudent to think about alternatives.

It makes sense that a majority of postdocs to want to stay in academia. You have invested a huge amount of time and energy on the academic research track, you know how academia functions, and you find your work interesting. At the same time, you're realistic. Few other careers require so many years of training and effort with no guarantee of a job at the end. Our advice to postdocs targetting academia is to develop resilience, honest self-awareness, and a plan B just in case.

Exploring alternatives alongside your busy research activities isn't easy. However, starting early in your postdoc will help. Even if your next step is another academic role, the process of researching new areas and mapping these to your skills, values and interests can bear fruit at a later stage. The Careers Service can help you get started exploring alternatives - through resources, one-to-one careers advice sessions and workshops accessible via Handshake.

These are some of the paths that postdocs follow:

Research in industry - Roles vary from hands-on scientific research similar to academia to more applied and science-related roles. The key is to learn what area of industry is most relevant and interesting to you, how it's structured, what are the roles, and how can you make the case that you have the skills. See our page on Research in industry for more info, and the Science - research page of our Careers Sectors A-Z.

Using your skills beyond research - Postdoc have a huge range of skills of interest to employers . The challenge is to develop your job research skills so that you can seek out and evaluate opportunities and match them to your strengths. See our page on Careers beyond research (particularly the employment areas for science postdocs) and the Science - hands-off page of our Career Sectors A-Z.

Other roles in higher education (non-faculty) - A proportion of postdocs in thier first contracts move on to second postdocs or fellowships. For many, particularly in the life sciences, this a necessary step to build your research track record for faculty positions. Even for postdocs considering leaving academia, a second postdoc can build new technical and soft skills that can be used outside. Some postdocs move to roles that support research, such as staff scientist or facility manager, within a university context. Finally, there are research-related professional roles, such as grant or research management, and student support roles that come up occassionally within higher education institutions.