Research roles in higher education are a popular destination for the UK's early career researchers: over one fifth of the UK's employed doctoral graduates take up HE research posts. The majority are offered as fixed-term contracts. The most sought after, and difficult, career progression is to lecturer. Some researchers prefer to aim for a permanent research position where they can make a valuable contribution to their field. These research-only positions are rare within universities and more likely to be found in university-affiliated or research council-owned research institutes.
Progressing as a researcher
There is an imbalance in the supply and demand for both permanent academic positions and specialist research roles: competition for posts in most subjects (there are few exceptions) is extremely high.
To progress in a research career in higher education you will need to be effective in most or all of the following:
- Undertaking innovative research
- Publishing your research
- Attracting research and project funding
- Teaching or lecturing
- Project management
- Supervision of research projects
- Participating in knowledge transfer
For further information on what is expected of HE staff at different levels of responsibility, see the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff's Library of Academic Role Profiles.
The remainder of this section looks more closely at early career research roles.
What do HEI research staff do?
By undertaking academic research, you will have the opportunity to:
- develop research projects
- interact and collaborate with other members of the higher education institution (principal investigators, technicians, research staff and students)
- communicate your research results to the wider research community, at local, national and international meetings and in scholarly journals, books or electronic repositories
- provide support and advice to others members of your research group or department and to assist in the supervision of doctoral researchers.
You can read more about how researchers impact the higher education sector and the wider community in What are HEI Research Staff for?'.
Employment conditions for research staff on fixed-term contracts have traditionally been less favourable than for HE staff on permanent contracts. This is beginning to change. Since 2002 there has been a UK Government Review ‘SET for Success', a European Charter for Researchers and a European Directive on fixed-term contracts, which have had a far-reaching impact on the employment terms and conditions for research staff. These policy initiatives have been subsumed into a revised Concordat for the career development of research staff (2008), which provides a ‘modus operandi' for research staff, universities and funders of research.
Research employment by discipline
Across all three years analysed in the Vitae (formerly the UK GRAD Programme) publication ‘What Do PhDs Do - Trends?' 22% of all doctoral graduates worked in HE research roles. These academic research roles were mainly as postdoctoral researchers on fixed-term contracts. However, as the latest available figures (2005 doctoral graduates) illustrate, there were considerable discipline variations in the percentage of doctoral graduates moving into research staff posts:
- Biological sciences - 66%
- Physical sciences and engineering - 42%
- Biomedical sciences - 32%
- Social sciences - 24%
- Arts and humanities - 17%
Conversely, arts and humanities and social sciences researchers were more likely than scientists and engineers to take up lecturing posts as doctoral graduates.
Here are some researcher career profiles from different disciplines.
- Varyl - geography - postdoctoral researcher
- Helen - politics - postdoctoral researcher
- Harriet - English - research fellow
- Peter - oral biology - research associate
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