Academic Careers Demystified


Dear CareerDoctor,

I’m currently doing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in the U.K., even though I’m originally from Canada. My long-term career goal is to stay in academia, either in Canada or in Europe. However, since coming to the U.K. I’ve become quite confused about the various research positions within university and the academic career structure as a whole. For example, in Canada most academic staff are associate professors, but in my department here in the U.K. only the most senior staff are professors. Is this generally the case or is it just a peculiarity?

Also, I have been told that a “postdoc” should be the next step in my career, but I’m not sure what this position is exactly. I’m more familiar with the idea of a research fellowship, so I am not sure what the right choice for me is.

As well as clearing up these points for me, I’d also be grateful for any tips you may have to boost my chances of success in an academic career. From your previous columns I can see that the number of publications I will produce is going to be a deciding factor, but what else do you think will help me to get ahead in academia?



Dear Ruth,

You surely aren’t the only one who finds the different job titles and career structure within academia confusing. I was caught out myself a few years ago when a former colleague of mine applied for a post in the U.S. as an associate professor. He was still at an early stage in his career, and I remember thinking, “Well, he’s good, but not THAT good!” Once I started looking into the career structure in the States I soon realised that an associate professor there is more or less equivalent to a lecturer in the U.K. But if the terminology related to academic positions can vary greatly between countries, there are actually few differences in terms of career progression and pressures.

So first let’s clear up any confusion. In the U.K., you should expect to complete a period of postdoctoral research after your Ph.D., which will last from 2 to 5 years typically, although there are variations between disciplines. People at this stage of their career are known as postdocs, research associates, research fellows (more on these later), contract researchers, or various acronyms including JRA (Junior Research Associate or Assistant), SRA (Senior Research Associate), and CRS (Contract Research Staff).

For academic fast-trackers, this first research position is also the time when applications for a personal fellowship start. These are prestigious awards which are given to the best researchers to give them the freedom to pursue their own project in their chosen location for as long as 5 years. (Extensions are also available.) Awarding bodies include the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and charities such as the Leverhulme Trust. A personal fellowship is not an essential step in an academic career, but it will give you a distinct advantage over your peers.

You will enjoy a dedicated period of research without the traditional pressures of teaching and administration (unlike those who go into lectureships and find their time for research squeezed to the margins). This leaves you more space to establish a research group, develop your research proposal-writing skills, and focus on writing papers and building your reputation at conferences. Still, many research fellows will undertake limited teaching and light administrative duties to build goodwill in their department and increase their indispensability, thus increasing their chances of being offered a permanent post by the university once their fellowship has ceased.

While you are a fellow you are indeed in a strong position to negotiate for a permanent academic position within your institution, as you are already directly contributing to their RAE grades. Perhaps I should elaborate on that: RAE is the Research Assessment Exercise, which is a measure of universities’ research output scored on a scale of 1 to 5*, with 5* being the highest. The funding universities get is partly determined by their RAE score, and although the exact assessment criteria change regularly, it is fair to say that a high number of publications is good for your institution. As a consequence universities are always keen to keep staff members who produce high-impact publications (that is, get their papers into journals with a high credibility as judged by their “impact ratings”) and can attract funding.

As I hinted above, after your postdoc years your first academic and permanent position is likely to be as a lecturer. These posts are given a Grade A or B, with A being more junior. The review of pay scales, which you may have seen reported earlier in the year, may change these terms, but the salaries will give you an idea of the seniority of the post. (Current salary ranges are available from the AUT.) The next step on the ladder is up to senior lecturer, then professor (also known as a chair). As you’ve observed in your own department, professors are a rare breed!

There is a final point of confusion I should mention: the readership. This is a post that is between senior lecturer and professor, but it is not a mandatory step on the career ladder. A reader is a senior researcher who shares the fellows’ focus on research and their minimal teaching and administration duties. For most academics, the main attraction of their job is the freedom to pursue their own research, so reader posts are again highly sought after. However, in contrast to the fellows, readers are funded by the university itself, so most departments can only support a small number of them.

For more general information on research in the U.K., take a look at the HERO Web site. However, the U.K. system is different from other European countries, as our degrees are shorter, so Ph.D. graduates are younger. I don’t have space here to describe the career paths in other countries, but if you look at the profile of European researchers on Next Wave you’ll develop an idea of the career paths typical of each country. You probably also work in a department with a broad range of other nationalities, so ask these other researchers about the university systems in their home countries.

So my top tips for you now are to:

5. As a general rule tell people about your interest in an academic career, as they may be aware of awards, vacancies, and other opportunities that will help you.

In the space I have here I can only summarise the top tips for longer-term success, which I’ve gathered from talking to academics in many different fields.

5. Build an international research career (i.e., do a postdoc in a different country).

But you may feel that all this is a long way ahead, so where do you start? Well, most first postdocs (I’m going to stick with postdoc as it is the term I’m most comfortable with!) work on projects that have been developed by the academic supervisor they are working for, the PI (no, not like Magnum, but in fact the principal investigator). Another role of the PI is to secure funding for your research project, and sometimes they apply for funds with a researcher in mind, who is named in the research proposal and known as the “named researcher” (who said academics have no imagination?), but a quick look around Science Careers demonstrates that most projects are staffed only after funding, so this is probably the surest way you can start your academic career.

Where else can you look for these positions? There are many dedicated sites and publications, so you need to ask around your department for advice on where to look for your particular field. In the U.K. there is, for example, a Web site for jobs in academia called, which also carries some international posts. I’d also look at the Institute of Chemical Engineers Web sit, which links to all the jobs it advertises in its magazine. If you are planning to move to another country, the University of Strathclyde Careers Service has written a comprehensive Guide to Jobsearch on the Internet for researchers, which can be browsed by geographical area as well as subject.

Just a few words of warning. When you search through vacancies, you will see the term “Research Fellow” cropping up from time to time. This is a final point that many find confusing. Some postdoc positions are indeed called fellowships, even though you apply for them in the same way as other posts. These shouldn’t be mistaken for the “Fellowships” I mentioned earlier, that is, those ones where you are awarded personal funding for your postdoctoral research.

A few final thoughts about your field. In chemical engineering (like most other engineering fields) there are fewer Ph.D. students and postdocs than in the more traditional sciences. This means that there is less competition for academic posts, and you may not have the struggle to secure a position that you might read about elsewhere in Next Wave. However, if you apply the strategies developed by researchers in these fields, you should find yourself on the academic fast track, wherever you ultimately decide to base your career.

Good luck in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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