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Where to start

To work as a scientist in academia, you need to have a PhD. If you are an undergraduate or Master’s student, more information about postgraduate study is available via the Further Study pages.

As you work on your PhD in the Cambridge environment, you'll have the opportunity to absorb and understand what an academic pathway looks like in a research-intensive institution and you will be surrounded by academics who will all have individual stories of their routes into academia which can inform your thinking, particularly on aspects relevant to your discipline.

Most often, looking toward an academic position in the longer term means looking toward a role that combines research, teaching and administrative responsibilities in a university lectureship position. The balance of the focus in these areas can vary according to institution and role. Leading up to a permanent position, you would typically move through fixed-term roles which can be research, teaching or a combination of both.

The UK academic sector is quite large with 165 higher education institutions. Most of these are in England, and located in cities.

How to know if you’re suited to this sector

Pay attention to which specific aspects of your PhD work that you enjoy. Take notes on this and think about the elements that energise you. Is it research and analysis, writing and communicating your research results, developing collaborations and engaging with other researchers, or teaching students? Depending on your field, you may experience a disconnect from the research you are doing and its impact. Can you identify what drives your passion for your subject?

Academia is a competitive field. Think about how much you enjoy pressure and competition. As you are already academically successful, and do you have techniques for dealing with the pressure you experience?

Being open to a greater breadth of academic opportunities might require you to move university or even country. Would this possible for you?

Does the flexibility, autonomy, and work satisfaction of working in academia outweigh the possibility of earning more money in another, more corporate profession?

How to get the experience to be credible

Your goal is to demonstrate the trajectory of your academic profile post-PhD through excellence in your research, as well as in your teaching and administrative contributions. Practice articulating this, as you’ll be doing it through job documents and interviews.

After the PhD, a postdoc or fellowship (JRF, Leverhulme, Royal Society) is the usual next step on academic pathway in order to develop research into next project, advance your publication profile, develop some teaching experience, and gain administrative and outreach experience.

Excellence in research activity

You will ultimately need to show in-depth knowledge of your specialism, and an ability to contribute to knowledge and understanding in your field through original research. Start to identify a strategy for your next project. Does it connect or add a new dimension to your PhD? Get disciplinary-specific intel from supervisors and mentors, such as where you should be publishing and what’s expected within your discipline. This will help you be strategic about how you spend your time and help you to develop a publication strategy.

Articulate how you are starting to fit and make contributions through your work (methodological, thematic etc) so that you can look forward to a postdoc/fellowship and carve out a space for yourself.

Teaching experience or potential

In the longer term in academia, as teaching will be a core part of the job, you will need to think about getting some experience and ways to shows your aptitude and enthusiasm for teaching. The extent of experience needed will differ between institutions and roles. If possible, try to gain experience of different types of teaching (supervisions, guest lecturing, seminars) as opposed to too many hours doing the same thing, which may not bring value to you and take your time and energy away from research.

Collect student evaluations and think about successes in your teaching as demonstrating effectiveness which will be important in a lectureship application. Universities increasingly think about how their new lecturers can contribute to the university teaching profile, as well as TEF results. You can ask your supervisor about getting involved in teaching or supervising students.

If you are interdisciplinary, plan how to position yourself disciplinarily in terms of both publishing and teaching. Think about how your interdisciplinary research fits in terms of degree programmes, and ensure that you can teach the core subjects of a particular discipline.

Administrative potential

You will also be evaluated on showing your ability to engage in service to your institution and the academic community more broadly. Develop an academic service profile (both ‘to the profession’ and ‘to the institution’) through running seminars/workshop organising, committee involvement, admissions interviewing, peer reviewing for journals, and public engagement/outreach.

Network

Start to build relationships in order to develop your other activities (research, teaching and impact). As your work develops, networking becomes a way of ensuring your academic profile is known outside of your immediate department. Attend conferences if possible, and speak to other academics.

Funding

Looking forward to a lectureship application, you will most likely be asked about your funding plans and will need to demonstrate your ability to secure funding and your ‘grant capture’. If you’ve already been able to gain even small amounts of funding, showcase your ability to do this. Gaining a fellowship after your PhD (a JRF or other post-PhD fellowship) gives you valuable protected time to focus on research and develop your academic profile.

Find jobs and funding

Jobs.ac.uk advertises postdocs, fixed-term teaching positions, and lectureships

Search the Cambridge University Recorder, Oxford Gazette, and Oxbridge college websites for JRFs.

For academic posts in Europe, search Academic Jobs EU, The European Job Mobility Portal, and EURAXESS. The latter also offers general advice and information.

For US positions, search Higher Ed Jobs and the US Chronicle of Higher Education 

Research Gate Jobs and All-acad.com advertise international academic vacancies

Academic Careers Observatory gives country-by-country advice about academic jobs and careers pathways

Tips for success

Be strategic about how you spend your time during the PhD, prioritising activities that will help your career in the long term. Keep up with developments in your field, and be willing and able to explain the significance of your research.

Be actively engaged in what is going on in your field so you know who the players are, and who is working on similar things. Think about how you present your academic identity online.

Cultivate mentors who can help you to develop your research ideas and navigate your career in academia. Find people that you can speak to openly about your plans and concerns. Curating your online academic presence is also important.

Finally, keep an eye on lectureship job descriptions in your discipline, and track the experience that is being asked for.

Other things you should know

Understand REF and TEF as drivers in the sector. Look at various departments and their outputs to research where they are having an impact, and what their priorities are.

Understanding the marketisation of the sector, and how seeing students as consumers has an effect on academia.