Research careers

Academic research

At a fundamental level, academic research is undertaken to create new knowledge. It occurs across all academic disciplines and therefore can add to theoretical understanding as well as be applied to real world problems. Academic research is predominantly carried out in universities, research institutes and partner organisations which could include charities, government, industry and the public sector.

This role can be attractive to those who are passionate about their discipline, enjoy conducting research and want to work in an intellectually stimulating environment, alongside like-minded people. In most disciplines, researchers often work in research groups, but team size and focus can vary. Collaborating with researchers from your own and different disciplines and institutions is encouraged, as is spending some of your time working overseas.

Academic researchers are expected to communicate their research to others through publishing papers, articles, journals and books and by speaking at academic conferences. Many will be involved in public engagement activities to raise awareness and understanding of their research and liaise with media outlets to gain publicity for it. Alongside this, researchers will be applying for grants and other sources of income to fund future research. Developing links with external organisations, business and industry to participate in knowledge exchange, applied research projects and commercialisation of research ideas, is also a key part of the role.

Academic research is predominantly funded by research councils, charities, industry and government and there is strong competition between institutions to attract this funding so that research can be undertaken and researchers can be employed. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system used to assess the quality of research produced by higher education institutions and goes some way to determine future funding allocation. As a result, academic researchers need to demonstrate that they can produce quality research which is recognised in its field and which has impact beyond the academic environment.

The nature of research funding means that permanent or open-ended contracts for research posts are less common than fixed term contracts that last the duration of the research project (typically 1-3 years). The vast majority of academic researchers start their career with a series of fixed term contracts before securing a permanent position. Success in achieving this is often the result of a good publication record, the ability to secure funding and a willingness to be flexible about your global geographical location, as well as your ability to conduct effective research in your field. In many disciplines, a permanent position is more likely to be found through a Lecturer post than a ‘research only’ post. This requires a willingness to undertake teaching, administrative and management responsibilities as well as research. Permanent ‘research only’ roles are more common in Science and Engineering disciplines.

There are about 130 universities in the UK but the 24 universities that form the 'Russell Group' receive a significant proportion of the grants that fund academic research and these institutions have dominated the research landscape. However, other universities, including the post 1992 institutions, where traditionally more vocational subjects were offered, are increasingly successful in attracting funding.

Types of graduate roles

Organisations who recruit academic researchers use some of the job titles below interchangeably. You need to look at the job description and person specification for a role to determine the qualifications, skills and experience required by that particular institution and the level of salary and responsibility the role offers.

Research Assistant - Entry-level role requiring a related degree, possibly a Master's in research methods, and experience of undertaking research at undergraduate level. Research Assistants will contribute to one or more research projects by undertaking a range of research activities that could include collecting data, conducting experiments, developing databases, carrying out interviews and writing reports. This can be a good way of trying out research as a career option and gaining experience before embarking on a PhD. Most roles will be offered on fixed term contracts. Typical salary: £25,000 - £30,000.

Research Technician - In this role your focus will be to support the activities of one or more research groups. You could have some responsibility for a laboratory or technical environment, be involved in training and demonstrating, as well as contributing to a range of research projects. A degree in a relevant subject is usually required with the role predominantly found in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. Experience in a relevant university or industry setting may be expected. Both fixed-term and open-ended contracts are common which can be attractive to those looking for a permanent role. Typical salary: £20,000 - £35,000 depending on the responsibilities of the post.

Research Associate (also known as Postdoc, Postdoctoral Researcher, Postdoctoral Research Assistant and Contract Researcher) - At this level you will be expected to have been awarded a PhD or be near to completing one. As a Research Associate you will be building on your research experience, usually in a field related to your PhD and developing your reputation. This will mean combining research activity with conference participation, public engagement activities and writing articles for publication. You will be working as part of a research group under the direction of a Principal Investigator (PI). Research Associates tend to be employed on fixed term contracts that typically last 1-3 years and it is common to have a number of these contracts before securing a permanent position. During your PhD, you may have a lot of autonomy in managing your own research project. As a Research Associate, especially in your first post, you are likely to be working on larger research projects managed by more senior researchers. As your experience develops you may be given wider responsibilities including research management, supervising and mentoring students, demonstrating, teaching and contributing to the wider work of the department or institute you are working in.

Research Fellow - Once you have built your reputation as a Research Associate, it is possible to apply for fellowship grants. These are extremely competitive but if successful, provide you with funding to enable you to undertake research in an area of your choice for 3-5 years. They are often seen as an indicator that you are a rising research star and can be extremely beneficial for your career as they raise the chances of you securing a permanent post. As well as managing your own research project, you may be responsible for Research Associates and PhD students.

Principal Investigator (PI) / Co-investigator (Co-I) - The PI has overall responsibility for the research group and the research projects they are working on. They may be assisted in this leadership role by one or more Co-investigators. Their role will include seeking out opportunities for funding and submitting grant applications to secure funding for their own salaries and that of their research group. At this point in your career you are likely to have national and international recognition as a researcher in your field.

Lecturer - Many researchers want to combine their research activity with university level teaching and therefore their ultimate aim is to secure a Lecturer post. Others decide this is the best option to guarantee a more permanent position, although it is highly competitive. It is usual to have had at least one or two Research Associate posts, combined with teaching experience and a good publication record before being successful at gaining a Lecturer position. However, each discipline and institution is different therefore it is important to understand what is typical for your field.

Entry points

In some disciplines it is possible to work as a Research Assistant after an undergraduate or Master’s degree. This can be useful to gain experience and enable you to decide whether it is a career path you want to pursue. However the vast majority of academic researchers have a PhD or equivalent doctoral qualification and career progression beyond the initial entry point would be difficult without one. Embarking on a PhD or doctorate qualification can be possible after an undergraduate degree but often a research-based Masters is required. It is also possible to study for a PhD part-time and some opportunities are available to work as a Research Assistant and complete a PhD at the same time. You will usually need a 1st or a high 2.1 to secure funding for a PhD.

Skills and experience required

The skills and experience you need depend on the nature of the research you are carrying out and the discipline you are working in but could include:

  • Quantitative research and interviewing skills
  • Qualitative research and interviewing skills
  • Literature review and reading
  • Statistical analysis
  • Data analysis
  • Technical skills
  • Scientific, laboratory or fieldwork experience
  • Writing skills – reports, journal articles, book chapters, research findings, press releases
  • Presentation skills – presenting research findings to both academic and lay audiences
  • Public engagement – interpersonal, communication, adaptability, confidence
  • Grant writing experience and success in securing funding
  • Working collaboratively, networking and working across disciplines
  • Project management and the ability to manage workload and competing priorities
  • Time management
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity and innovation with novel approaches and ideas
  • Persuasion and negotiation – you need to convince others to publish your work or fund you
  • Resilience – academic research is prone to setbacks and is a competitive environment

Experience of conducting research in an academic environment is vital. You will need knowledge and passion in your subject area and the insight to identify novel areas of research and inspire others with your ideas.

All researchers are looking for their research findings to have impact. In academic research this is demonstrated through a researcher's list of publications, conference presentations and citations.

For some disciplines, especially where the research is more applied, experience and/or qualifications in a particular profession or sector may be required.

Academic research involves international travel to conduct research, attend conferences and participate in exchanges. It is also likely that researchers will work overseas during their career. Adaptability to work in and collaborate with colleagues in other countries is therefore important.

Job search strategies

As a student, you are surrounded by academic researchers so make the most of that opportunity and talk to those around you about the work.

Undergraduates / Taught Masters Students

  • Seek out PhD students in your department and talk to them about their experience.
  • Talk to your tutors about PhD opportunities and their perspective on what is required for your discipline.
  • Take every opportunity to gain research experience - opt for a practical dissertation, apply for summer research projects, gain work experience in a research setting, consider volunteering to develop your research skills.
  • Look for advertised PhD opportunities and find the institutions that conduct research in the areas that interest you. Identify potential supervisors and make contact to discuss options.
  • Be proactive about researching institutions and consider organising a visit.

PhD Students and Researchers
  • Seek out researchers in your department/field and talk to them about their experiences.
  • Talk to your supervisors / PI / colleagues about your potential as a researcher.
  • Make the most of conferences and events to network and develop links with researchers in your field and stay in touch.
  • Look for informal and formal ways to publish and promote your research.
  • Apply for grants and bursaries – even small amounts can show success at applying.
  • Take every opportunity to add to your experience; contribute to other research projects, organise research seminars and internal conferences, collaborate.
  • Consider moving institution to diversify your experience and networks.
Useful websites for further information
Academic Career (University of Manchester)
What it takes to make it as an academic.
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
Information and resources for PhD students and early career researchers in the arts and humanities subjects.
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Support for research skills training in the Biosciences.
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Information on funding, doctoral training and postgraduate careers in social sciences.
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Information on funding for studentships in engineering and physical sciences can be found via the ‘Skills’ tab.
Research jobs in Europe and funding for research opportunities worldwide.
PhD opportunities.
Postdoctoral opportunities.
Higher education jobs (Guardian)
News and jobs in the HE sector.
Jobs in higher education, including teaching, academic research, PhD opportunities, administration and student services roles.
Medical Research Council (MRC)
Information for medical sciences researchers on funding, skills development and career options.
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Information for prospective and current environmental sciences research students on funding and career options.
Jobs in research and research support.
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
The UK research council funding research in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics. Includes information on work experience opportunities for students via the ‘Skills’ tab.
Times Higher Education
Includes news along with academic and administrative jobs.
UK research and innovation
A new body working in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. Search the Skills section for information on postgraduate research.
Vitae (Researcher Careers)
Careers pages tailored to researchers.
Debate, analysis and information on Higher Education issues.

Last updated: 09 Oct 2018