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Working in Academia

Written by Mark Bennett

If you’re completing or applying for a PhD then it’s likely that at some point you’ll consider working in academia. If you’ve done any research then you might have come across the terms postdoc, fellowship and lectureship. But what really is the difference between them, and which are the more senior positions?

Academia can be a complicated topic, and job titles will often be used differently depending on the country. So, this guide has set out everything you need to know about the academic pathway in the UK.

What is 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 2018-19 most full-time academics employed by a university in the UK were salaried between £45,892-£61,617. The second largest salary range, with just over 33% of academics falling into, was £34,189-£45,891.

The average pay of full time UK academics 2018-19
Percentage of academics Salary band
0.05% <£19,202
* This information has been produced by HESA.

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.

What are 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.

Looking to apply for a postdoc position?

Our sister site is dedicated to listing jobs for recently qualified PhD students

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 to do 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.

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Last Updated: 16 December 2020