What Does It Take to Become An Academic Researcher?

I guess the first question to ask and answer is what is an academic researcher? To me an academic researcher – or just an academic – is someone employed at a university who uses specific investigative techniques in order to improve their (and therefore humanity’s) understanding of the world.

It is possible to be an academic without doing researcher – in Australia they are called teaching only academics. It is also possible to be a researcher without being an academic. Indeed, it is possible to be a researcher without having a PhD. Furthermore, data suggests that in Australia there are more people in research jobs without a PhD than with. But that’s a topic for another time…

So to become an academic researcher you need to:

1. Gain a PhD in a suitable discipline. Well, you could get a PhD in any discipline. And in some areas, a PhD is not necessary to become an academic. But not matter the discipline you will need a PhD to get promoted beyond the early academic positions of assistant lecturer or lecturer. A PhD can be undertaken by anyone with suitable academic or life experience. But you must be enrolled through a university – in Australia anyway – to do a PhD. You’ll also need a supervisor (in many cases you’ll need two), and a topic to research. All PhD projects are about the pursuit of new knowledge. In Australia suitable academic experience is to have completed year 12 (high school), and then a degree. Surprisingly (to me anyway) Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data suggest only 84% of Australians will finish year 121. Roughly 30% of high-school graduates will start university and 80% of those will pass2. About 30% will undertake a PhD. And in the end, between 1.5%3 and 3% of Australians will end up with a PhD (depending on how you perform the calculation).

2. Get a job at a university as a researcher. Upon finishing 50% of PhD graduates will immediate leave the university research system. So they’ll become an administrator in a university or go off and do something else (it could be research), but not at a university or research institute. The reasons are many and varied – personal preference, lack of opportunities, life circumstance, luck… For those who stay they need funding for their role. A bit like a small business, but the money might come from someone else’s grant/work. Or you could be fortunate enough to have your own grant, or have a university-funded research position be available to you

So at this point, having completed your PhD and now holding a research job at a university you’d be considered an academic. But what does it take to stay there….

3. Get funding. Most universities do not directly employ researchers. Instead, researchers write grants that support their salary as well as the other costs of the research. As an early career researcher (ECR, someone within ten years of completing the PhD), you are more likely to be listed on someone else grant than be successful in your own right. But you will need to have helped write those grants and certainly made a contribution to the research (e.g. literature review or early proof-of-concept studies) necessary to be awarded the grant. Depending on the granting body and the type of grant, success rates are as low as 10% but usually no higher than 20%. And you have to do this for the rest of your time as an academic. Not just to fund your own salary (that might change), but to meet your key measures or metrics as an academic.

Becoming an academic researcher is hard!

Fewer than 3% of the population have PhDs &

long term, only 1% of graduates become professors!

4. Get published. The other key metric as an academic is publishing your research in a peer reviewed journal.. In Australia, required publication rates (i.e. KPIs set in performance plans) can vary from 3 to 10 per year depending on the university, discipline, and career stage. To put that in context, the international average is about 1 paper per year per academic researcher. Again, this needs to be maintained for a long period – ten years or more.

5. Stay the course. As with any long-term career, you need to stay the course. As mentioned above, that means getting funding regularly and consistently; publishing as well; not to mention things like student supervision, lecturing, and of course administration. You’ll need to maintain, but more likely build, a research group to help keep your productivity levels high. You’ll need to ride out the lean periods – in grants or publications. Overall, data from the USA, and UK suggests over a ten year period less than 5% of PhD graduates will stay the course and become a long-term academic.

There you have it – those who can hang in there can become a long-term successful academic researcher. Indeed, it is clear to me that more than anything, the trait you need to be successful is tenacity to keep going, keep trying when others might not.

And in the context of high performance that is not too surprising. If we were talking about elite sport, knowing only a small percentage are elite would seem obvious. And we all know that in elite sport those who succeed at the top level for a long time have both skills, and work ethic. As an academic, you are the elite professional in your field. Be proud of it. Conversely, if you want to do research, but not necessarily academic research there are many more pathways and options. Look into them.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).

1Australian institute of health and welfare, school retention and completion, https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/87fbf917-cf74-4747-84ab-bcc2e0e53755/aihw-australias-welfare-2017-chapter3-2.pdf.aspx accessed 15 May 2019

2Mapping Australian Higher Education, Grattan Institute, https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/875-Mapping-Australian-Higher-Education-2016.pdf, accessed 15 May 2019

3Trading Economics, Australia – % of population age 25+ with a doctoral degree or equivalent, https://tradingeconomics.com/australia/uis-percentage-of-population-age-25-with-a-doctoral-degree-or-equivalent-isced-8-total-wb-data.html, accessed 15 May 2019