Tuesday 26 May 2009

Thinking About an Academic Career ...

Many people, exhausted by the rigours of life "in the real world" think to themselves ... I would like to change my life. One common answer is to think of a career switch from a commercial or managerial life to an academic one. Whether this is inspired by fond memories of student days, or by the observation that academics seem to have a nice life is immaterial. The conclusion is reached that giving something back, sharing some of your experience or just enjoying the long summer breaks between terms might be more rewarding than beavering away in your current role.

You may already have guessed that having a PhD might help. In fact, the academic world has been changing over the last few decades and it may be sobering to reflect, for a moment, on those changes. Up until the advent of various forms of research assessment processes in the UK and elsewhere, it was possible to make a mid-career switch from practice to academia. The last of this generation are now approaching retirement from their academic roles and the sad reality is that they would no longer be appointable in many institutions because of a lack of research activity. For a time, signalling that you wanted to start a PhD would be enough to sway an interview panel. Things then moved to appointing people who had already started a PhD, then to preferring candidates that were in the final stages of their PhD. Today however, many institutions demand that even the most junior lecturing posts be filled by people who have completed their PhD. The competition for academic posts is often such that applicants need a finished PhD, some solid teaching experience and a few decent publications already in print just to be seen as appointable. The competition then rests on which applicant has the best PhD, publications and teaching experience to offer. Mid career switches are getting harder as the academic world professionalises. You may have 20 or 30 years experience of running your own business or part of someone else's business and that managerial knowledge is invaluable in many, many ways. But the truth is that you'll be up against some in their early to mid 20s with a first degree, possibly a masters, definitely a PhD, some tutoring and teaching experience gathered en route and a few publications in the pipeline. If you want to compete, you need to develop a 3-5 year plan of how you'll put those pieces together on your CV such that you'll be seen as a credible candidate. Then if you're lucky and get the job you might begin to revisit the idyllic impression you had of academic life ... but that's a whole other story. In the UK the Foundation for Management Education offers support for people looking to make the switch to an academic career and might be a good source of advice and/or support. See http://www.management-education.org.uk/

Pasted below is the job description for an academic job at a reputable UK university ... the post was described as being for a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer (which might help you make sense of the grades mentioned) ... and the thing to look for are the criteria that are seen as essential.

To undertake high-quality research in the subject area, actively contribute to teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level and to undertake administration as requested by the Head of Department

Main Duties and Responsibilities
For appointment at grade 7 (L) and 8 (SL) you will:
1. Develop and maintain individual/joint research projects in the subject related area and, where appropriate, to secure the funding required for the project

2. Contribute fully to developing and enhancing the research profile of the Department/Division including establishing a track record of publications of internationalquality in leading journals
3. Attendance and participation in appropriate research seminars/conferences within subject related area
4. Contribute fully to the planning, organisation and delivery of undergraduate and/or postgraduate teaching activities within the subject area in accordance with established Departmental programmes
5. Contribute fully to the ongoing development and design of the curriculum in a manner that supports a research-lead approach to student learning
6. Participate fully in examination and other assessment processes, as appropriate, using a variety of methods and techniques and provide effective, timely and appropriate feedback to students which supports their learning
7. Undertake departmental administration as assigned by the Head of Department
8. Engage in professional development activities as appropriate
9. Where appropriate, take responsibility for the supervision and training of postgraduate research students to ensure their effective development
10. Either sustain an independent research group in a subject related area or contribute to an existing research group

For appointment at grade 8 (i.e. SL) you will:
11. Sustain a substantial international reputation while developing and enhancing the research of the department/faculty, including establishing a track record of publications of international quality in leading journals, while securing the funding required for this research
12. To take responsibility for the planning, organisations and delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching activities in the relevant and related subject areas, in accordance with the department programme
13. Take responsibility for the supervision and training of postgraduate research students to ensure their effective development.

Knowledge, Qualifications, Skills and Experience

A1 Good first degree and, a PhD or equivalent research profile in subject related area
A2 Comprehensive and up to date knowledge of research within subject related area
A3 Developing track record of published research and/or development and delivery of teaching
A4 Developing international research profile

For appointment at level 8:
A5 An established track record of published research and development and delivery of teaching
A6 An established international research profile

Skills - Essential
C1 Excellent communications skills both oral and written

C2 Excellent interpersonal and presentation skills
C3 Time management skills
C4 Ability to work independently and as part of a team
C5 Ability to work with little supervision
C6 Self Motivation
C7 Ability to accept collegiate responsibilities and act accordingly
C8 Ability for independent thought to generate original hypothesis leading to generating research income

Experience - Essential
E1 Minimum of 2 years postdoctoral research experience within own subject area
E2 Evidence of an emerging track record of academic publications of international quality

E3 Experience of applying/potential capacity to apply for and secure research grant funding, where appropriate
E4 Teaching experience at undergraduate and/or postgraduate level, including course development and quality assurance where appropriate

For appointment at level 8:
E5 Minimum of 3-5 years postdoctoral research experiences within own subject area.
E6 Established track record of academic publications of international quality.
E7 Experience of applying for and securing reserach grant funding.

Job Features
Develop and maintain research plans and, where appropriate, submit grant applications/proposals on an ongoing basis throughout yearProduce publications as appropriate to subject specialism within appropriate agreed timescales/periodPrincipal Investigator or co-investigator for research grant(s) as appropriate

Individual or co-supervision of postgraduate research student(s) as appropriate
Undertake teaching in accordance with a fair distribution of departmental workload
Planning and Organising ... manage time and prioritise own work load appropriate in research, teaching and administrative duties
Monitor, review and revise research plans/grant submissions as appropriate
Revise annually in advance of due date, course documents, handouts and assessments for undergraduate or postgraduate courses
Plan and organise administrative duties on an ongoing basis
Reactive functions – respond to queries from departmental staff/students within reasonable timescale
Decision Making ... decide on research direction, methodology and where appropriate, submission of grant applications
Decide on choice of journal(s) for publication of research and conferences to attendDecide on course content, teaching methods and applications by students

Internal/External Relations
Internal – Head of Department of exchanging information, research strategy, learning and teaching strategy
Functional officers in respect of relevant functions (Research Officer, Assessment Officer, QA Officer)
Academic staff for advice and motivation as appropriateResearch students, supervising and supporting them
Undergraduate and postgraduate students providing teaching and learning supportAcademic support services for appropriate advice and for exchanging informationStudent support services to exchange information, refer/support students
External - Links with key research players, nationally and internationally, in the development of the subject specialism through a range of appropriate academic channels, including relevant professional bodies
Grant funding bodies (income generation)Journals and book publishers (publishing)Problem Solving
Act as first point of contact for problems/enquiries from students involved with area of teaching/researchAssist postgraduate students with problems relating to research
Deal with administrative problems as appropriate to status with reference to HOD and/or colleaguesInvestigate research problems and questions in accordance with own and Departmental research strategy


  1. Nice post mate, keep up the great work, just shared this with my friendz
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  2. Good day Prof. MacIntosh, I've read your post and it's pretty much useful with some kinds of self-reflection and I hope you would not mind providing some sort of advice on my personal challenge I am facing. A bit about myself, I have just reached the age of 40, have been working in the commercial sector for 16 years in the capacity of internal auditor before quitting the job, pursuing a MSc in Corporate Governance & Directorship with a mid-tier university in Hong Kong for stepping up to the PhD program which I have recently been admitted into (same university as the one I am now studying). I made this decision as I am tired of commercial sector and would like to start a new chapter for the second part of my life span which is interest-driven and my goal is to lecture at a university or tertiary institution and have a relatively plain and simple living. My academic and professional credentials are as follows, an ordinary degree in accountancy and a general MBA plus FCPA(HK) and FCPA(Aust) designations. From your personal perspective, would you consider I am putting myself in a risk rather than an opportunity in making this change? I appreciate your time spent in reading this and sorry for a bit long-winded on this.

    1. Dear Maverick

      many people are attracted to the possibility of switching career in the way that you are thinking of. One of the challenges that you'll face is the recognition that you are beginning again and there will be an odd mix of ample experience set against the sense that your new world treats you like an office junior. Patience is required. Getting a PhD is a necessary part of the process in my view, then publishing well during and after your PhD will begin to earn you credibility amongst the academic community. It will be a slow process but one that many others have achieved and one which is richly rewarding (though not always in the purely financial sense!)

      Good luck with your plan