Academic career paths after the doctorate?

By Katrina Gardner, Careers Manager for Researchers

A pair of feet stand before several chalked arrows, as if considering options.

Those of you seeking an academic career path will no doubt already understand that it is extremely competitive. There are very specific job requirements that you would be unlikely to encounter if you progressed in other popular professional roles. It is not simply a matter of proving your effectiveness in research and/or teaching but in addition you have to prove your increasing academic independence (for example a list of quality publications and funding successes). And every so often new criteria gets added to the list of job requirements. Criteria like impact, public engagement, collaboration, knowledge exchange, course design and teaching accreditation were probably not listed on the person specification for roles when your supervisor applied for their first role post-doctorate or even for fairly recent academics in your department. 

And to complicate things further, when searching on and other recruitment websites we see an increasing variety in job titles for both research and teaching roles which can cause confusion for you. You may wonder which roles are suitable for researchers finishing their doctorate? And are there better or worse roles for the career path you want to pursue? The answers may not be immediately obvious to you; therefore your job search activity may involve extensive time spent looking into each role, including making contact with the recruiters and other academics working in the department.  

The good news is that the variety in teaching job titles is due to a recent increase in teaching-specialist roles and a greater recognition of the teaching track as a viable long term academic career. There is more emphasis now on the need for quality teaching to meet the needs of our students and to perform well in national assessment activities such as the Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF, (undertaken by some but not all UK universities). 

Research roles 

Many postgraduate researchers progress straight into research-focused posts. These are more widely available in the STEM subjects, but opportunities are available in all disciplines. All UK posts will be advertised on 

Post-doctoral research posts requiring a doctorate are now typically called Research Associate or Research Fellow (not to be confused with independent Fellowship funding awards which are covered below). These posts will generally be advertised by a Principal Investigator (PI) who has already secured a large grant to research a specific topic. The grants will run for a fixed period so your research post will almost certainly be on a fixed-term contract.  

When you read through job descriptions, consider not only if you have the right skill-set for this role but also whether it is taking your research career in the right direction in terms of relevant research expertise, publications and networks.  

You may be able to apply for some Research Associate/Fellow posts before you have submitted your thesis. However, many recruiters will state in the advert that they only consider people that have already submitted.  

You can also look for Research Assistant roles. These don’t typically stipulate a doctorate as an essential criteria and will tend to be on a lower grade than Research Associate roles as they don’t entail as much responsibility. In a competitive market they could be a good entry route, especially in departments that are well known for supporting staff to progress to higher grades.  

Research Fellowships will give you the opportunity to develop yourself as an independent researcher. You would apply to a relevant funding provider with a robust proposal for a research project you want to manage. If successful, you would be awarded funding for a set number of years. Research Fellowships are very prestigious and attract many applicants and are therefore fiercely competitive. There will be a lengthy selection process and will be time-consuming for you but if successful will greatly enhance your academic career prospects. 

It is worth noting that fellowships within the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences can often be applied for at an earlier career stage than in the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) subjects. So it may be possible for some of you to start working on your application in the post-doctoral period whereas for others, you might have to wait a few years to build up your research profile. Talk to your supervisors and other academics to gain an insight into fellowships in your discipline.  

Teaching roles 

Teaching-focused (or teaching specialist) roles are a common first job for doctoral graduates in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.  In these disciplines people can progress on from teaching-focused roles to research roles and lectureships or stay on a teaching track. In the STEM disciplines there are opportunities to follow a teaching track career for those that prefer this to research.  

Looking on you will see a variety of job titles including Teaching Associate, Teaching Fellow, Associate Tutor and Lecturer (Learning, Teaching & Scholarship). Responsibilities will vary but many will offer the opportunity to organise, design and deliver undergraduate and/or postgraduate programmes. 

Many teaching roles will be advertised in Spring or Summer to start at the beginning of the next academic year. You may find some permanent posts but many will be on short-term contracts.  

Some teaching experience will be at the very least ‘preferred’ but doesn’t necessarily have to include Higher Education teaching. Teaching in groups as well as one-to-one supervision is highly valued but also tutoring, coaching and public engagement experience could match their criteria. Teaching accreditation is usually only a ‘desirable’ criteria. UK universities provide access to accreditation for all of their academics including postgraduate researchers.   

Combined Research and teaching: Lectureships 

For many lectureships you will have to build up your research profile for some years after your doctorate before progressing into a lectureship. Nonetheless, every year we see some of our PGRs manage to move straight into lecturing roles, including some permanent roles.  

The likelihood is that these lectureships are weighted much more towards teaching duties than research but nothing is set in stone. It may be immediately clear in the job advert if they mention that the post is open to recent doctoral graduates (or those about to submit) but if this is unclear then you need to contact them to find out. You may also want to get a sense beforehand of the ratio of research, teaching and admin duties to ensure it is a good fit for you.  

Other Professional Roles 

There are many research and teaching adjacent roles that may be a good fit for your skills, interests and priorities. Not everyone is able to move straight into an academic post. If you have to fill a gap, there will be other university posts that will enhance your academic CV in the short term.  And for some of you, these can offer long-term and fulfilling alternative career paths in higher education.  

Research related roles include research support, funding support, knowledge exchange, impact and public engagement, data management and research policy.  

Teaching related roles include learning technology, student learning development, student well-being and support roles, Widening Access and teaching administration. 

Some advice about job requirements and applications 

There is a great variety in the application documents required by different universities. The academic CV and Cover letter prevail but many recruiters will also ask for supporting statements. For teaching posts, the Teaching Statement is becoming more popular with UK recruiters (see this previous post on the Auditorium).  

The language used to describe criteria is becoming more diverse. But when we crack the jargon code we find that employers are looking for pretty much the same skills and accomplishments as each other. It is important to adopt the language of each recruiter in each individual application so this is a key aspect of tailoring your applications. If some criteria still leaves you feeling a bit flummoxed then don’t be afraid to ask the recruiters what this means exactly.  

Some questions to ask yourself (and be honest) 

  • Do you have a preference for research or teaching focused roles? 
  • Would you be happy to focus on either research or teaching in the early stages of your career? 
  • Would you be willing to work in another university role until you secured an academic post or as a long-term alternative? 
  • Would you be willing to take on a part-time role? If so, what else would you do to fill up your time? 
  • If you need to work on publications in your own time, are you able to balance this with your paid job? 
  • What jobs match your preferred work-like balance? 
  • Are you happy to consider short-term contracts? 
  • Would you consider applying for a research fellowship?  
  • Do you eventually want to progress to a lecturing post that includes both research and teaching? Would you prefer it to be weighted more towards research or teaching? 
  • Do you eventually want to be a PI? 

Discuss these questions with academics and university colleagues you know and trust. You might also find it useful to have a confidential chat with your university Career’s Advisors. And use the resources in the careers advice section on to find out more about the different options and applications process. Then you can make an informed choice on your academic career path and maximise your chances of success! 

2 responses to “Academic career paths after the doctorate?”

  1. Really useful advice here. Great to see such sensible advice for PGrs.Just a small comment – I hope we can move away from the use of the term ‘teaching only’. I feel it diminishes the status of people on these types of contract, and is often inaccurate as these contracts also include time and an expectation that people engage with the scholarship of learning and teaching (itself a form of research) and are often engaged in leadership activities at a range of levels commensurate with the post. In my institution we use the term ‘teaching specialist’ and in many Australian institutions the term use is ‘teaching focussed’, both of which are I feel more respectful. I think it’s important that communities like this aren’t complicit in reinforcing discourses that support a view of teaching as subordinate to research in HE. This comment isn’t meant as a criticism of the blog post but a a reminder of the power of language and our agency in using it.


  2. Thanks David! Great point here, and I’ve updated the post to reflect this.
    Kay G


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