What to Expect When Joining The Academy

So you’re considering a research career.

Good on you!

Firstly, let me say that research careers can in many colours, shapes, and flavours. Not all are the same. Not to mention that you don’t need to be in academia to do research. Nor do you need a PhD. And I’ve written about all of that in What Does It Take to Become A Researcher and What Does It Take to Become An Academic Researcher.

But if you’re considering an academic career there’s a few things that are worth knowing.

Qualifications

You cannot become a successful academic without a degree. And you’ll need a PhD at some point as well. Although there are likely examples of successful academics without a PhD (or perhaps even a degree) to be competitive in the job application process (particularly coming from outside academia) you’ll need a PhD.

“Business” activity

Academia is an interesting beast. It is a little like owning a shop on a high street or in shopping centre or mall. Or perhaps having a franchise. The community might come together, and advertise. They might also support you in terms of branding and marketing, and maybe even business training. But success or failure is essentially up to you. It’s the same in research. You get support from the university, but you need to attract your own grants, and publish your data. You need to connect with industry. You are responsible for making your work accessible. You are responsible for having a wider impact. You’re also responsible for tracking your own career, and its impact on the wider community.

If you want to grow, you’ll need to attract the funding. Regardless of the volume or value of the work. Of course the volume and/or the value might encourage investment.

If you want to hire new or more people, you’ll need the funding, and you’ll need to be heavily involved in the process. From writing the position description and the ad, to scheduling the timing and duration of the process to shortlisting, interviewing, and selection. Don’t get me wrong, there’ll be help from the university. And there’ll be a detailed university process and procedure to follow (must follow), but you’ll have to drive it yourself.

Most PhDs don’t have a long term career in academia

Stats from the US, and the UK show that less than 10% of PhD graduates have a ten or more year career in academia. Furthermore, 50% of those people who graduate a PhD leave academia immediately.

Telling people helps

Like any career move, telling your friends, and family you want to move is good. Telling other people as well is even better. Working with your manager or supervisor to make the change – even better still. Your friends, and family will offer support as well as advice (granted not always solicited or wanted). Other people can help with the same, not to mention potential opportunities. Your supervisor or manager can make things easier or harder. We often think they’ll make it harder. There’s no doubt that is possible; likely for some people even. But in my experience for the vast majority of people for the vast majority of times talking about it helps. It helps managers plan for you leaving (e.g. training others). It helps you get things done (e.g. academic career planning or associated activities). It helps you get a job (e.g. they can recommend people to talk to for advice, experience and even work).

A CV is long

Ten pages! Yep – Ten pages! It has everything on it, publications, awards, presentations. The lot. Grants. Experiences. Research techniques. Now, I think they should be shorter. And I’m not overly convinced that in any selection process a reviewer could look closely at five or more ten page CVs. But this is the current standard. So, when you’re going for jobs in academia bear that in mind. And like all job application process, follow the instructions in the application.

The job application process is long

You can expect to send in a detailed CV. And then can expect several interviews, maybe a research plan is needed, and perhaps a presentation on your research or your proposed approach. In all, some processes can take six months. And that might be for a relatively junior position. But the reason for the thoroughness is often related to the fact the position comes with funding (i.e. it might be what is known as a fellowship). Thus, you will have a grace period to find your own salary and grant funding.

Academic careers have many

benefits, including flexible

working hours and locations

You’ve got a lot to offer

If you’re coming from working outside academia, you’ll have a strong network of industry professionals. Depending on the type and nature of the research work you intend on doing you’ll be able to bring your network to bear on your research. It will make translating your findings into practice easier. It will make impacting the wider world easier. These two processes are increasingly sought after in academia.

Academic work can be different

Academic work can be different to working outside academia. For one thing, the hours are often variable. Depending on the nature of your research you could be starting or ending experiments late into the night or early morning. Being in charge of your own work also means you could choose to work from home or start late and finish late or start early and finish late. And the nature of academic research productivity can mean that quantity is more valuable than quality. Thus, getting more done in the same time can drive people to work long hours for extended periods, then take time off once that set of experiments is complete.

Predictions are not made lightly

Research needs lots and lots of data in order to make a decision or say something is “proven”. And even then, it is often not made or announced with certainty. Furthermore, if you collect ten data points and they all say the same thing, you’ll still be expected to collect the remaining ninety.

Your network matters

Depending on who you read, as many as 90% of jobs (certainly the data suggest well over 50%) are filled based on personal connection – not formal advertising. So grow and maintain your network. This is the same in academia.

Bosses and colleagues can still be ####s

Although the academic memes of sharing and collaboration abound, you can also get cut out, shoved out, pushed out and forgotten about. People are people. There are good ones and bad ones everywhere.

Skill development is different

Building and growing your skills in academia is important. And often that comes in the form of new techniques or approaches learned from colleagues, reading an article, asking a sales rep and attending conferences. Soft skills (such as people management) are important but they are treated like other skills – learned through doing, practice and observation, not through training. This could mean you experience managers, bosses, and leaders who lack skills that might be fundamental to success outside academia. It can also mean people who are awesome researchers are not great people managers. But, like I said, people are people no matter what the industry.

Know your career path

Academic career paths are relatively clear They go something like:

PhD Post Doc (x2 or 3) Lecturer Senior Lecturer Assoc Professor Professor

or

PhD Post Doc (x2 or 3) Senior Post-Doc Group Leader Assoc Professor Professor

Progression can be difficult. In some cases you’ll need to get a fellowship (your own funding for your salary) to move up a level. In other cases, you’ll need to demonstrate you meet the criteria for promotion from one level to the next. There’s broad sector-wide agreement on what is required for each, but there are also differences that exist between institutions and disciplines. So, know what you have to do now for promotion to the next level is important. More so than industry.

Promotion brings with it additional salary and responsibility, but it also means you’re more expensive on grants and to your employer… Good luck with it. As usual, let me know if I can help you make the transition.


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).