Academic careers in the UK: how it works


The expectation in the UK is that you will probably spend the bulk of your academic life doing both teaching and research. While this is probably true, how you get there, and what it looks like if/when you do, will vary. Some aspects of academic careers here look good in comparison to other European countries, not least the possibility of obtaining a permanent job relatively soon after completing your doctorate. There is also more disciplinary flexibility or porosity, as you’re not fixed into one subject area. On the one hand, this is helpful as it can offer a wider range of options, but on the other hand, it can mean that career pathways are less obvious. This is particularly true for higher education (HE) specialists, which I’ll explain towards the end.

The market

When it comes to the UK sector overall, observers of comparative HE policy will be aware that we have a highly marketised system. There are high tuition fees, strong vertical differentiation, universities which are financially and organisationally autonomous from the state, and metrics play a key role in our governance regimes.

This creates a number of well-documented problems. In policy terms, universities are expected to respond to a regular stream of top-down changes, while the research landscape is dominated (i.e. in grant awards and doctoral numbers) by a relatively small number of institutions. In teaching, students are framed as customers, all final year students are expected to complete a student satisfaction survey, and the government promotes a “value for money” (i.e. graduate earnings) perspective as the chief purpose for a degree. The evidence suggests that poor mental health is an issue both for staff and students.

The arena

For early-career academics in the UK, a central concern is the “overproduction” of doctorates, in that there are far more doctorates awarded than there are academic positions. This is partly fuelled by a research assessment policy which includes doctoral numbers as a marker of quality – the more doctorates you award, the better. This overproduction is, of course, not a problem if the non-academic labour market offers sufficient numbers of appropriate positions.

In practice, the situation seems easier for those in STEM subjects, who can also work in industrial R&D or finance, than in the humanities and social sciences – although this may be due to a poor articulation of what holders of a doctorate can do (see here, for example). The academic labour market for humanities and social sciences is very competitive, and this appears to coincide with an inflation in the requirements for positions. As always, certain social groups (white, male, and middle class) have a head start in this race, which makes the academic work force far less diverse than the overall population.

Career development

In terms of success in the arena, a doctorate alone is not enough to get a lectureship, which is a permanent academic position. (It should be noted that when we say “permanent” in the UK, this means open-ended – we no longer have tenure in the UK and even professors are disposable!) To have a good chance of getting a lectureship, you have to accumulate various elements on your CV. And while the presence of career development alongside/within doctorates has improved over the last decade or so (see the Researcher Development Framework), the extent to which this is available varies from institution to institution. A lectureship will typically require you to have, in addition to your doctorate, a research track record and publications, experience of teaching and course administration, some form of academic citizenship such as journal reviews and 3rd mission activities, and ideally a successful grant application or two.

As you are unlikely to have all of this by the end of your doctorate, the “normal” next step would be a post-doc. To allow you to build up the skills and accomplishments to move forwards, your post-doc should ideally be full time and for a number of years. All being well, you would then have a good chance of obtaining that lectureship, which should have career development built into it. It is worth pointing out that the distance between doctorate and lectureship tends to be shorter in the social sciences and humanities than in STEM, where they often have to complete a long succession of post-docs before achieving that stability.

If the ideal route is a smooth transition from doctorate, to post-doc, to lectureship, and then upwards through the career track, this is often less straightforward in reality. Post-docs in the social sciences disappeared from state funding for a period, and are only now starting to re-emerge. We are also seeing a proliferation of precarious jobs across the sector: part-time, limited term positions in teaching or research, usually associated with individual grants, maternity cover, or universities simply trying to save money. This means that you might have to spend some time mixing and matching one or more contract at a time, although this does vary between disciplines, as noted above.

Where to for early-career researchers in higher education?

When it comes to being an HE academic in the UK, where you can find a home presents a conundrum. Firstly, there are differences in the kind of university you might work in. At the crude level, you can divide universities into research-focused (similar to a German Universität) and teaching oriented (closer to a Fachochshule). In practice, though, this is more of a spectrum than a binary distinction, and a lectureship will nearly always involve both teaching and research. What differs is the focus, space and support – as well as the pressure – to develop either or both. You may also find it easier to get a lecturership in a teaching-oriented university, but this could provide fewer opportunities for growth in research. There are career tracks for research-only and teaching-only staff, but these tend to be the exception (in the social sciences at least) rather than the rule.

As in many countries, HE is not a subject of study at Bachelor level, although it may feature as a topic within some social science degrees. Also, there are not many specific centres for, or postgraduate degrees in, higher education studies. In disciplinary terms, Education, Management, and Sociology are the most likely options, and the few explicitly HE research groups/centres tend to be located in these departments – like ours.

Beyond disciplines and specialised groups, though, the HE research community is established but quite diasporic. You may have one person in a philosophy department who focuses entirely on HE, or a few sociologists who touch on HE in their work, other staff who develop teaching in their discipline, and everything in between. In short, we’re mixed bunch, but we have an academic home in the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE). SRHE has a large membership, regular events, a newsletter, an international conference, as well as three journals and a book series. All of this helps develop the sense of a HE community within the UK context.

As with any job market, there are pros and cons. Market elements are pronounced, and the system itself is geared around inter- and within-university competition. Brexit is also a concern, as it makes the UK more unwelcoming. On the other side, though, we have a well-established community in higher education research, along with greater career stability and more disciplinary flexibility than some other countries.

Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Lancaster. He is mostly interested in how students’ experiences vary between universities and countries. His profile can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter.

Interested in academic career paths in other countries?
Check Staying in academia: navigating the academic career system in Germany by Marija Stambolieva.

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