Choosing what to do after your PhD isn’t always easy, particularly when you’re not sure if you want to work in academia. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of career opportunities that come with a PhD – and a good chance it’ll increase your earning potential.
If you’re completing or applying for a PhD, it’s likely that at some point you’ll consider working in academia. Academia is the career path of researchers who work to advance teaching and research in institutes of education. While most academics are employed by universities, institutes could include government-funded experiments or sites of historical preservation, for example.
The main objective of academia is to produce original research. Though not all academics work in university, this page shall focus mainly on the university progression path.
How much do academics earn?
According to official data produced by HESA, in 2021-22 most full-time academics employed by a university in the UK were salaried between £47,419 to £63,668. The second largest salary range, with just over 33% of academics falling into, was £35,326 to £47,419.
Average pay, however, will depend on the department. For example, those working in Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences are more likely to earn between £34,000-£45,000. Whereas, surprisingly, in the Humanities, Language Studies and Archaeology a higher percentage of academics were earning above £45,000. This, however, is likely because the sciences tend to have more job opportunities for early career researchers, thus lowering the average rate of pay.
How to become an academic
To become an academic in the UK it’s increasingly expected that candidates will have a doctoral degree. In order to obtain a doctoral degree at least an upper second-class undergraduate degree will be needed, and usually a Masters as well.
After finishing a PhD there are two different routes that can be taken to achieve a permanent position:
The first route focuses more on teaching. After completing a PhD, graduates might take up part-time teaching roles. The experience gained will make them more competitive candidates to apply for research or teaching fellowships and permanent lecture positions.
Alternatively, PhD graduates looking to focus on research might apply for at least one post-doctoral position. Having completed a postdoc, you will then be able to apply for fellowships and lectureships.
Candidates are not always expected to have completed a fellowship to apply for a lectureship. These roles can be obtained after completing a postdoc or teaching experience.
Postdocs and fellowships
Both postdocs (post-doctoral positions) and fellowships are fixed term contracts of research that employ recent PhD graduates. Usually contracts will be between one to four years and applicants will be expected to have completed their PhD no more than five years prior.
The main difference between postdocs and fellowships is the level of responsibility and control granted over a research project.
What is a postdoc?
A postdoc is a temporary funded research position at a university or in industry. Postdocs work under the supervision of a research group or established academic and are considered an employee, unlike PhD students. Some roles will include teaching responsibilities and assistant supervisory roles to students. Responsibilities will also include grant writing, funding applications and administrative duties.
Sometimes postdocs can be referred to as Postdoctoral Research Assistants or Postdoctoral Research Fellows. A postdoc, however, is not the same as a fellowship.
What is a fellowship?
Research fellowships are competitive and prestigious positions. Unlike postdocs, you will be funded to complete your own research project. Some positions will also guarantee a permanent academic role after completion. To successfully achieve a fellowship, you’ll need an interesting and viable research project, a history of academic excellence, and experience in writing successful funding or grant applications.
The other type is a teaching fellowship. These roles are not always for early career academics and will be offered to senior researchers so make sure you check the job description.
Do you need a postdoc or fellowship to work in academia?
Technically you do not need to have completed a postdoc or fellowship to work in academia, but it is becoming increasingly expected.
Employment in academia is more competitive each year as the number of PhDs rewarded is increasing, whereas the available permanent academic positions are not. The experience gained from completing one or more temporary positions can help you increase the competitiveness of your CV, make connections and build a positive reputation within the academic community.
Permanent positions and tenure
If you’re able to demonstrate a high level of skill in research through publications and successful funding applications, then you may be eligible for a permanent position.
Lecturing jobs are an entry level permanent position. Sometimes referred to as Assistant Professors, lecturers are required to teach, conduct independent research and administrative duties.
Usually lecture jobs have a probationary period of three to four years before the job is considered permanent. This period will also require successful completion of various training programmes.
The next level of academic rank is Senior Lecturer or Reader. Traditionally a senior lecturer’s position focuses on teaching whereas a reader will conduct more research. Reader positions, however, are becoming less common. Senior lecturers can also be referred to as Associate Professors, a title which is more commonly used in America.
To qualify for a promotion, you’ll usually be required to provide evidence of significant progression to a panel. Evidence could include publications, grants and contributions to teaching. Though there is no expected time frame, lecturers are often successfully promoted to senior roles after four or five years.
Professor is the most senior position in academia. They are expected to have extensively contributed to their research field, usually having multiple published monographs, and to have taken advanced leadership roles within their department.
What is tenure?
Tenure is a form of employment security common in North America that protects lecturers from being fired without proper cause. In the UK, however, academics in permanent roles receive the same employment security offered to every worker, though the details can change depending on the hiring institution.
Not all PhD students remain in academia after graduation. Many PhD graduates are able to thrive in industry roles because of the skills gained throughout their degree.
According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) just over 70% of PhD holders are no longer working in academia three and a half years after finishing their PhD, so you certainly won’t be in the minority if you decide that this is the best route for you!
You will have developed plenty of transferrable skills and hands-on experience during your PhD. These will serve you well when it comes to finding a job and help distinguish you from Bachelors and Masters graduates.
You’ll find PhD holders in all walks of life. From pharmaceuticals to the public sector, PhD graduates are not short of options. You also don't have to begin your industry career straight after graduation. You could go from academia to industry (or the other way around) at any point in your career.
If you're interested in the type of industry work you may be qualified for, here are some illustrative examples of PhD jobs:
A PhD in the Arts and Humanities demonstrates excellent written communication, presentation skills, creativity and analytical thinking. You may be suited to work for jobs in the Publishing industry, Digital Marketing or Civil Service.
A PhD in Biological and Medical Sciences builds specialist subject knowledge, data proficiency and collaborative skills. This will compliment work in industries such as Pharmaceuticals, Genomics or Clinical Care.
A PhD in Business and Finance will help build organisational and data experience that could benefit careers in Accountancy, Data Science or Consultancy.
A PhD in Chemical Sciences will provide you with laboratory skills and an advanced understanding of chemistry needed to benefit jobs in Chemical Engineering, Industrial Chemistry and Food Technology.
A PhD in Earth Sciences could set graduates up for careers in Construction, Environmental Protection or Mineral Surveying, utilising analytical skills and strong subject knowledge.
PhDs in Engineering have a strong emphasis on project management and practical construction. This could aid jobs in Management Consultancy and Finance as well as more practical fields such as Aeronautics.
The specialist knowledge gained from a PhD in Law can enable students to comfortably enter industries such as Investment. Additionally, soft skills gained in communication will help in careers such as Teaching or Public Engagement.
A PhD in Maths and Computing could benefit jobs in Finance, Investment or Web Development, complimenting skills in logic, problem solving and data.
A PhD in the Physical Sciences demonstrates experience with software and data. This could set graduates up to work in Software Engineering, Data Science or even Sound Engineering.
A PhD in Social Science and Health requires a deep understanding of human society on a macro or micro level. Graduates may find themselves working in Epidemiology, Public Health or Social Work.
You may be inclined to apply for jobs relating to the subject of your research or previous studies. But a PhD is a versatile enough qualification that you can often look outside your discipline area.
Non-academic PhD graduate jobs in STEM subjects
A PhD in a STEM subject can be used in a broad range of non-academic contexts, from industrial research settings to the public sector. Industry careers for STEM PhD holders could involve intellectual property, regulatory matters, big data, pharmaceuticals or consultancy.
Non-academic PhD graduate jobs in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
If your PhD is in an Arts, Humanities or Social Science (AHSS) discipline, the skills you have to offer differ from STEM PhD holders.
Your aptitudes as a AHSS PhD graduate are likely to be suited for industries where communication skills are necessary. The ability to research and write about complex topics will be in-demand across any number of leading companies and sectors. Also, creative thinking will be highly valued by employers in strategic planning or industries such as marketing.
Making the transition to a non-academic career
You should invest some time during your PhD for personal and professional development (this is true if you want to stay in academia too!).
Even if you attend none of the formal training courses offered by your department, your PhD itself will provide you with many skills. When leaving academia, you'll need to translate your skills so they make sense to the industry and commercial employers. Think outside the box and take stock of what you are good at or have experience in.
Some translation examples include:
The dissertation shows you're capable of presenting and organising large amounts of information.
Having published papers shows you can communicate information across a range of formats.
If you did interviews for your PhD project, you might graduate with skills in questionnaire design, sensitivity and data analysis.
There’s always a way to link your academic experience to the commercial world. Be prepared to do this in any upcoming job interviews.
It’s also a good idea to move away from the long, multiple page academic CV that you might be used to. Employers won’t read them. They also won’t be interested in scanning a lengthy list of articles. Instead, you should mention that you’ve had several publications without detailing every instance.