Starting an Academic Career as a Mature Student

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Sara McDonnell talks to a career expert and an academic about the challenges of entering academia at a later stage in life, and advice on how to make it work.

Entering academia from another career should, in theory, be no different from those who join the profession straight from university. However, in practice it can be a challenge for anyone coming from an established career to the relative instability of an early academic career. Those who return to university to undertake doctoral research will find themselves in competition with other early career researchers who may have greater flexibility when applying for postdoctoral positions or part-time teaching.   

The challenges

If you’ve not travelled the traditional postgraduate route through academic conferences, it may be more difficult to network and make a name for yourself in the academic community. This can, in turn, make it more difficult to get funding for research in order to build your portfolio and publishing record.

It also might be difficult to make prior experience ‘count’ when it comes to job applications, as in many cases, it is only possible to start building your academic portfolio after completing your PhD. “Occasionally you may see people coming in at a senior academic level with significant previous career experience,” explains Clare Jones, senior careers adviser for research staff and postgraduate research students at Nottingham University. “They may also have had some connections with academia, perhaps through collaborative research work or as a visiting lecturer or external supervisor. But these tend to be the less obvious route.”  

“An extremely competitive career route”

What is also important to be aware of – and this applies to anyone considering academia as a career path – is that there are a lot more PhD graduates than there are academic posts so competition for jobs is likely to be fierce. “For anybody at the moment, academia is an extremely competitive career route,” Jones explains. “The stage between PhD and getting an academic post is a very transitional phase of someone’s career. You may be doing all the right things and it still may not happen.”

Tips for success

That said, it is certainly possible for PhD graduates to enter academia at a later stage in life, and there are academics in universities around the country to prove it. Dr Josie Kelly, a lecturer at Aston University Business School, completed her PhD in politics while in her late thirties. “The things, I think, that help on a CV are: firstly, to clearly demonstrate that you have a personal research strategy, you know what it means and you can talk how you intend to go about achieving your personal aims and goals, to complement the department’s/university’s ambitions,” she says. “The second thing you need is some evidence that you understand the pedagogic process and that you understand what research-lead teaching is about, with some understanding of current policy debates, which can be gleaned from reading the Times Higher Education Supplement. The third thing is that you know how to do these things – that you have a handle on the administration and life experiences.”

The importance of a strong research portfolio

However, Dr Kelly stresses that your research portfolio is the key to success. “Research continues to count as the main factor in whether someone is appointed or not,” she says. She also advises, when it comes to publishing, to ensure you are the named author. “And if you apply for any funding, make sure it’s in your name,” she adds. “Most universities won’t appoint unless you can demonstrate you’re research active, because their reputation depends on it.”

‘Portfolio’ careers

While waiting to secure a permanent lectureship, there are a number of ways in which postdoctoral candidates can keep their research going and make ends meet. “In arts, humanities and social science, there may be more scope for people to be portfolio career working, where they’re doing some academic work but doing some work in a freelance capacity, perhaps as a consultant, or publishing writing as a freelancer,” says Clare Jones. “That kind of career path is something that newly graduated PhD students wouldn’t be so aware of.”

Research roles

In the sciences, it’s also possible to build up a portfolio career, by undertaking a series of open-ended research roles. However, these lack the security of a permanent post. “Some people carve themselves quite a niche working hard to attract their own funding,” continues Jones. “It is possible to work in academia just in research roles, but there are risks attached. There are people who are long-term postdoctoral researchers.” There are also fellowship routes for what is now termed ‘early career researchers’. “They might be able to apply for fellowships that would give them some independent research money that would allow them to develop their portfolio and to put themselves in a position to apply for the next post as an academic,” continues Jones.

Presentation always important

It’s worth remembering general jobseeking tips as well as those specific to academia, when looking for your first post. Things like getting your CV checked for grammatical and spelling errors, working on your interview technique and brushing up on your presentation skills, are factors that apply to anyone looking for work. Tenacity, in both looking for and applying for jobs, is also a helpful quality to have, as it’s likely that you’ll have to apply for – and potentially interview for – a number of posts before securing one.

A vocation worth striving for

Finally, it’s also worth keeping your goals in mind and remembering why you studied, or are considering studying, a PhD in the first place. For most academics, it’s the love of their subject, and the prospect of immersing themselves and furthering knowledge in it, that will have driven their study in the first place. It is this enthusiasm which is likely to help you overcome whatever challenges you may face when kick-starting an academic career. 

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