Most degree programmes, especially those linked with professional accreditations, prepare individuals for roles in their respective careers, but this is not necessarily the case for academics. A PhD should be awarded when a person can demonstrate their research abilities, to carry out and defend an original body of knowledge that can be realistically completed within a three-to-four-year graduate programme. Furthermore, in this Practice Guide to Planning an Academic or Research Career, it is advise that teaching responsibilities, like leading seminars or lectures and marking, are just as essential as completing the PhD, for an academic career. Yet many Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working in higher education institutions (HEIs) might tell you that simply running the gauntlet between research and teaching did not adequately prepare them for a career in academia. The issue perhaps is the generalised assumption that research is only about writing and publishing, and that teaching is just lecturing and marking. The following is a more realistic breakdown for an ECR on what to expect in an academic job, with a few tips on how to stay afloat of the challenges of balancing and building a stable foundation from which to nurture your academic career.
What do academics really do?
It is important to understand that academic careers are constantly shifting, and this means that you should cover a wide suite of skills and expertise under the umbrella of teaching and research. For instance, government policies sway funding and curricula, and in turn influence the supply and demand of research and teaching in HEIs. The Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed further short-term challenges with the move to blended learning (mixture of online recorded and live sessions) and changes to funding institutions’ research priorities. So, how can ECRs be expected to navigate all these shifting contexts? I suggest attending to the following elements of a broader vision of teaching and research will help ECR build career resilience.
The HE sector is becoming increasingly aware about the extra support ECRs need to develop the skills for a holistic teaching portfolio. As a teacher, you should keep the following elements in mind:
1. Progressing qualifications – All academics are encouraged to become familiar with competencies that show good teaching practice. Awareness of the UK Professional Standards Framework will help support your understanding of the quality teaching expectations and duties at HEIs. For ECRs this means completing at least Level D2 (Fellow) of the HEA Academy. As one progresses through their years of teaching there are additional levels to complete towards Principal Fellowship.
2. Teaching evaluation – Each university module or course is evaluated at the end of the semester where students are asked to provide more formal anonymous feedback about their lectures. Students’ learning experience depends on the perceived value of the module content, the quality of the lectures and seminars, and the effectiveness of feedback. Evaluation by students is a critical part of developing academic teaching skills, as their feedback enables you to reflect on your practice and constructively adapt to their needs.
3. Peer observation skills – Teaching also involves being observed by your colleagues and assessed on your practice while delivering a lecture to students. This is usually a reciprocal duty, wherein you are paired with another colleague and requested to evaluate his or her practice as well. This is an excellent opportunity to augment your style by reflecting on your peers’ views of your teaching practice.
4. Programme development & curriculum knowledge – The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is the body that safeguards the standards and integrity of HE. An essential part of teaching is being aware of how your courses satisfy the QAA standards and other relevant appraisal frameworks.
5. Innovative and reflective pedagogy - Your ongoing involvement and development of teaching skills means participating in continued professional development (CPD) courses within your institution. This may be through internal teaching and learning conferences, or training sessions to learn new pedagogies or technologies (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard Collaborate).
6. Inclusivity in teaching practice – Be mindful of how your teaching practice accounts for inclusivity of Black and minority ethnic groups’ representation, student disabilities, or the general attainment gap of students relative to other student cohorts. Many of these areas will be embedded within your HEIs formal strategies and there may be scope for you to take part in progressing these.
7. Scholarship and external involvement – Finally, you can consolidate your commitment to teaching through membership and contributions within independent teaching and learning associations. These tend to offer you forums where you can engage with other academics with similar pedagogical interests or ideas, to widen deepen and refine your scholarship.
Completing a PhD does not make your research capabilities a finished product. Creating a thriving research presence in an academic career means taking what you have learnt through your PhD and pushing past the mindset of your doctoral programme into new spaces, ideas, methodologies, and applications. Your ongoing responsibilities under the research umbrella include:
1. Publishing – The classic edict ‘publish or perish’ is still very much an applicable one, especially for ECRs, to become citable and established. The best way to find your academic voice is to write for journals, learning to respect the journals’ mission, aims, and audience.
2. Bidding for grants – As an ECR it can be challenging to apply for large grants, but networking through your university mentors and colleagues can help give visibility of your interest in potential projects. It is sometimes easier to get invited on bidding teams if you can demonstrate some experience of being able to bid (even if unsuccessful). Focus firstly on trying to secure small grants (up to £10,000) and work through funders’ research focus and budgeting criteria.
3. Dissemination – Be sure to apply for conferences where you can present and share your research findings. This is a good networking activity but also an act of commitment to ongoing research projects. In some instances, planning to present at a particular conference can act as motivation for you to complete a research milestone e.g., journal article.
4. Supervision – As an ECR it is unlikely you would be assigned to supervise new doctoral candidates without some more experience, though you may supervise undergraduate and Master’s dissertations. The act of guiding research projects is an excellent means of engaging with emerging knowledge in the field.
5. Impact – It is important to understand what constitutes ‘impact’ from your work and keep it as a medium-term goal. Simply put, you achieve impact when your work propels an active change in practice or policy. This may be due to your work being mentioned or relied upon by policymakers, politicians, or private industry, to incite revisions to current practice or thought.
6. External recognition – Research also involves being recognised outside of your institution through your commitment to professional bodies or gaining academic awards which testify to your credibility to produce quality research. This includes being a reviewer or editor for academic journals or grant funding bodies or being a trustee for institutions which work in your field.
7. Internal recognition – It is important to develop connections with other colleagues within your institution and show a commitment to the research culture. You can do this by organising events and taking part in mentorship programmes.
Striking the balance
While the categorisation above shows functional differences between teaching and research, it also demonstrates their complementary and overlapping structures. As an ECR, it is important to strive for a balance in these different areas, while playing to your strengths and bolstering your weaknesses. Remember that everyone’s pathway will be different and depending on your field of expertise, it may be that your mid-career profile takes on more business development, knowledge exchange or practitioner-type activities, beyond just research and teaching. In any event, unless you are in a postdoctoral research role, it is likely that your core timetabled activities as an ECR will be heavily weighted toward teaching. How can you adapt to regain the right balance of research activity in such a position?
To start with, it is important to make the mental effort to select at least one dedicated day of the week where research takes priority. Changing your mindset can be difficult upfront, as teaching routines can be overwhelming. Often changing your entire routine like going to work in the library versus the office, might help you set a dedicated mindset for research. If your teaching routines are still overwhelming, seek support from your academic mentors, and think about what you can do to make your teaching responsibilities more efficient.
Also, keep in mind that research activities can be sluggish; it will take longer to see fruitful results because the research process is considerably slower than the pace of teaching. Try to be strategic about your publishing and bidding, so that there can be a progression toward impact. In general, you should try to build some momentum in this space so that you are actively producing an article or grant application while waiting on the outcome of another.