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Making sense of the academic labour market

Taking a look at the different jobs available at the post-PhD career stage.

 Searching for jobs in the academic labour market can be a bewildering experience for all researchers but even more so for those progressing on from the PhD stage. We see a lot of baffled researchers (many PhDs) struggling to make sense of the different job titles advertised on Jobs.ac.uk. In the UK alone there are a wide range of job titles with a range of responsibilities and with varying criteria that applicants need to meet. In addition to differing job titles, institutions use diverse language to describe job requirements which can cause further confusion as to whether you are qualified to apply. 

Even if you can grasp what the different jobs entail and require from you, you might be uncertain about which is the best option for the specific academic career path you want to follow. 

So let us breakdown the different advertised roles to help you work out which ones are suitable for you at the end of your PhD (or as you move on from a post-PhD research role).

Research focused roles

Moving on from your PhD there will be research only roles that you may want to apply for. Research roles tend to be funded by external sources and therefore will be fixed term for up to a few years. 

Research only roles are available in all disciplines but are more prevalent in the Sciences where this is commonly the first academic role for PhD graduates. 

  • Research Associate/Research Fellow

Traditionally known as post-doctoral researchers, these are positions that are advertised by a Principal Investigator (PI) after they have successfully secured a funding grant. So, you would be employed to work on a particular aspect of their research project. You might be the only researcher alongside the PI or you could be one of a team of researchers if this is a large grant. 

Confusion can arise with posts advertised as ‘Research Fellow’ as it may be interpreted to be independent Fellowships but a quick look at the wording of the advert should make this clear. 

Eligibility: For these posts you must have either completed your PhD or be close to finishing. Check out the Person Specification to assess if you meet all Essential Criteria. If you do then you are eligible to apply. 

  • Research Assistant

Research Assistant roles would normally include less responsibilities than Research Associate roles so will typically be on a salary grade below Research Associate. Historically, these have not required PhDs but with increasing competition for academic research roles, many Research Assistant roles are staffed by PhD graduates as a stepping stone on to Research Associate level. After a period of time, it may be possible to get promoted from Research Assistant to Research Associate so check out your institution’s promotions criteria. 

Eligibility: PhD tends to be Desirable Criteria. If you meet all Essential Criteria then you are eligible to apply.

  • Fellowship

Independent Research Fellowships are an excellent route to progress your academic career, especially as it offers you the opportunity to decide on your own research project. In some disciplines, particularly in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, this may be possible soon after a PhD. In the Sciences this option tends to be more feasible a few years into your post-doctoral research stage, when you have built up your research profile. 

In the first instance speak to your supervisors to find out about fellowship opportunities within your discipline. Do extensive research into the options. In addition to developing a robust research proposal, you need to think carefully about which senior academic you would like to support your application and which institution is the best fit. 

Eligibility: Look at the criteria listed by the funder. Research support teams at your target institution may be available to give in depth advice on the most appropriate option for your proposed project.

Applications for Fellowships can be time consuming with numerous documents required including research proposals. Increasingly, funders are asking for narrative CVs (also known as résumé for researchers) which many of you may be unfamiliar with. At the University of Glasgow in 2021, we undertook a three-month project to review the effectiveness of the current narrative CV format from the point of view of the CV writer and the review panel. You can find this and other useful resources at the bottom.

Teaching focused roles

There are lots of teaching only roles available. On Jobs.ac.uk you will see a variety of job titles such as:

  • Teaching Fellow/University Teacher/Teaching Associate

Different institutions use different titles but these roles are likely to comprise of similar teaching responsibilities including design, delivery and assessment of undergraduate programmes and/or postgraduate taught programmes. 

These are increasingly available in all disciplines but historically have tended to be more widely available in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. It is far more common in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to successfully progress your academic career after your PhD in a teaching only role – with progression into a research and teaching role further on in your career. 

These roles are ideal for the many people in all disciplines who love teaching and would prefer a long-term career in academia without any research responsibilities.

Eligibility: You would usually already have gained sufficient HE teaching experience. Other teaching experience in FE and Schools and as a tutor would also be counted as might coaching, mentoring and public engagement activities. You should also meet all of the Essential Criteria. 

Teaching accreditation is likely to be only a Desirable Criteria but could strongly enhance your application. All UK universities offer the opportunity to gain teaching accreditation, for example through Advance HE (link provided below). 

  • Lecturer (Learning, Teaching and Scholarship)

It is possible to gain entry into a Lectureship straight after a PhD. This tends to be more likely for those that are teaching only posts. This might not be immediately obvious from the job advert so read the Job Description and Person Specification and it should become clear. This role may be very similar to the other teaching posts described above. 

Eligibility: As with the above teaching posts your eligibility is based on having sufficient HE teaching experience and also meeting all of the Essential Criteria. In addition, teaching accreditation could help your chances of getting shortlisted.

Roles with research and teaching responsibilities

  • Lecturer (Research and Teaching)

It is possible to gain entry straight from a PhD into some lectureships comprising of both research and teaching responsibilities. However, many of these posts will be aimed at academics with a bit more experience who have had the time to build up their research profile. This can vary between different institutions and sometimes different departments. Often the posts that are suitable for those immediately after a PhD are those weighted much more towards teaching than research.

Eligibility: If you read carefully through the Job Description and Person Specification and are still unsure whether you are eligible then it can be helpful to contact the recruiter direct to seek clarification. 

Which role(s) should you choose to pursue?

It might help to consider the following questions:

  • Do I want to focus on research, teaching or a mix of both?
  • If I have a preferred option, would I consider other academic roles as a Plan B option (long-term or short term?)?
  • Looking at job adverts, what roles are a strong fit to my current skills profile?
  • If I have any skills gaps in my preferred role(s), am I able to address these?
  • What is my long-term career goal – how well would the different roles lead onto this?
  • If I am considering academia in different countries, do I understand the different job titles and career paths available?
  • Am I willing to consider roles on fixed-term contracts?
  • Can I only consider certain geographical areas?
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Career Management for Early Career Academic Researchers

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