Not surprisingly, higher education (HE) is the most popular sector destination for doctoral graduates.
Research training is primarily designed as a preparation for an academic career. However, today's researchers increasingly have the opportunity to pursue a wide range of career paths within higher education institutions. In addition to research and lecturing posts, there are, as higher education expands and diversifies, a growing number of less obvious opportunities. Administration and other support functions, for example in staff training and development, careers support, student recruitment and marketing, knowledge transfer and a host of others, represent non-academic but interesting and challenging roles within higher education.
Statistics on higher education careers
Unfortunately, there is a shortage of information available in the UK on the career paths of researchers. Universities, however, do collect data on the first destination of their graduates, including doctoral graduates.
Exploring the national data and trends on the first destinations of UK doctoral candidates gives us a reasonable starting point. To do this we use data from analysis that Vitae (formerly the UK GRAD programme) conducted in What do researchers do? (2009) What Do PhDs do? (2004) and What Do PhDs Do? -Trends' (2007).
For all disciplines except the biomedical sciences, the education sector absorbed the highest proportion of doctoral graduates. A relatively small percentage worked in the further education and school sectors.
More than two in five UK doctoral graduates in employment remained in the higher education sector. Looking at 2003-2007 doctoral graduates:
- 23% became research staff in higher education (ranging from less than 1% for theology to 43% for biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics)
- 14% gained lecturing and other HE teaching posts (ranging from 6% for physics, chemistry and microbiology to 56% for law)
Advantages and disadvantages of careers in higher education
Higher education careers offer researchers a flexible, dynamic and generally international work environment, with support for part-time schedules and respect for a positive work-life balance being commonplace. A career in higher education generally comes with professional and personal development opportunities. Academic staff, in particular, often have the possibility to work overseas.
Depending on your role, you will have the opportunity to engage with teaching and learning, undertake independent research, and contribute to transfer of knowledge that benefits your institution and community.
It is important to note, however, that, in most disciplines, research and lecturing posts are highly sought-after and levels of competition are high. This is particularly the case for permanent positions. Many research positions are on fixed-term contracts due to the nature of research funding.
Consider too, that your earning potential in higher education is lower than many comparable professional careers. To improve the pay conditions within higher education, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) consulted with institutions and negotiated with unions to modernise pay and conditions within the sector. See the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) reviews including negotiating arrangements and finance and pay data, current pay agreements and other information.
‘To succeed in academia, you have to really want the job. We certainly are not in it for the money -- and at times it can drive you demented when you realise the vast amount of work you have undertaken within ridiculous timescales.
Nevertheless, when I think of the diversity of what I do in an average week, let alone in a year, virtually all of it work I enjoy doing, I wouldn't swap this for any other career. If you are fascinated by your research subject and want to go on exploring it, while also sharing your enthusiasm for it with the next generation of students, it is worth all the hard work in order to have that opportunity.’
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