Last year, after a period of successive postdoctoral positions on temporary contracts, I obtained my first permanent academic position as a lecturer in biomedical science at Teesside University. Since starting my role, I have a better understanding of what lecturers actually do, and it’s a lot more than teaching and research. In this blog, I will be sharing what I wish I knew when I was applying for lectureships and asking whether you should be applying for one too.
When you approach the end of your PhD you face a crossroads; you either pursue a career in academia, or you move outside of academia usually into a position that allows you to utilise skills you have developed during your PhD. Even if you decide on a postdoc position, you face the same crossroads every time your contract ends if there is no funding to keep you in your current position. If you make the decision to pursue an academic career, there are a number of different routes you can follow to try and obtain what can often feel like a non-existent entity; that elusive permanent position, or tenure as it’s also known. For the rest of this blog, please keep in mind that my perspective is primarily from experience of academia in the UK, and systems are likely to vary slightly depending on country and region.
One way to try and break free from the perpetual postdoc cycle is to obtain a fellowship. These can be teaching or research based but can be just as competitive as obtaining a permanent position, and you don’t get the job security because they’re typically based on fixed-term contracts. However, they are excellent stepping stones towards a permanent position, giving you an opportunity to demonstrate independence, project leadership, and budget management, which will be appealing to a hiring committee. A fellowship should put you in a good position to get either a permanent research position (rare, but some research-intensive institutions do have them), or a permanent lectureship, which can either be fully teaching based, or teaching and research. To be clear, having a fellowship may in some instances be a prerequisite for a permanent research position, but it certainly isn’t for lectureships. If it was, we would have hardly any academics!
So how do you know when in your career to apply for a lectureship? As I said earlier, when each successive postdoc contract comes to an end, you face a crossroads where you must ask yourself whether you want to apply for another postdoc position, a lectureship, or a position outside of academia. At this stage, applying for one of the fellowships I’ve just mentioned wouldn’t be an option unless you’re able to endure a period of unemployment whilst you wait months for the outcome. Fellowships are best applied for whilst you’re still in a contract with the research support and financial security that brings. The requirement to balance fellowship applications whilst managing your contracted workload reflects how institutions and organisations perpetuate excessive work practices, whilst virtue signalling about healthy work-life balance and mental wellbeing. But that’s a discussion for another day. Facing that crossroads, if you’ve had one postdoc position, or even two, you may want to consider another one, depending on whether or not you think it will advance your career. However, you might find yourself ready for the next stage, perhaps recognising the lack of progression a lateral move to another postdoc might bring. With fellowships not an option due to time constraints, this might be a good time to consider lectureships.
In the UK, there are some fixed-term temporary lectureships, often to cover teaching due to staff absence, for example. However, most lectureships are permanent positions. This is roughly equivalent to having tenure in places like the USA, although you do still have a probation period. When applying for lectureships it is important to be aware of the different terminology which is used to describe essentially the same thing. For example, some positions are advertised as “lecturer”, whilst others are advertised as “assistant professor”. As previously mentioned, lectureships will typically be advertised as being teaching based (as in there will be no research hours allocated into the workload) or teaching and research (where time is divided between these activities). This allows academics the flexibility to decide what type of lecturer they want to be, and what they want to focus on. With only a small amount of teaching experience, and a strong interest in my research area, I knew a teaching and research contract would be better suited for me.
Being interviewed for a lectureship is not comparable to any other interview you may have had earlier in your career, such as for PhD or postdoc positions. In those interviews you are generally questioned on your knowledge, research interests, and skills. The same applies when being interviewed for a lectureship except you might also have to put those things into the context of current issues in Higher Education to demonstrate your knowledge of structures and potential ongoing challenges. It is also beneficial to demonstrate understanding of the student body of that particular institution. For example, at my current institution there is a high proportion of local students, many who are balancing working and/or carer commitments alongside their studies. This is different to the university 30 miles up the road where I studied, and which has a high proportion of privately educated students (I wasn’t one of them). These things I was prepared for when applying for my lectureship, and my experience as a lecturer over the past 12 months has been a good one on balance. However, there are three key things in hindsight I wish I had known when applying for my lectureship, and they might be things you also want to consider when applying for yours.
The first one is workload. This is an official system which allocates hours based on all the activities you are contracted to do, such as teaching, supervision, admin, marking, research and so on. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, and workload systems can be a point of contention in academia, with hours allocated for each task varying across institutions. It is important to ask questions about the workload system so you can determine whether or not you consider it reasonable.
The second thing I wish I had known, or rather in hindsight wish I’d asked about, was the structure of the academic timetable. We have three-hour long classes which is longer than other places I have worked where classes have been 1-2 hours. This has been a particular challenge for me due to autoimmune disease-related chronic fatigue, so if you have health-related things which may need to be accommodated for, it’s important to ask.
Finally, despite having research hours allocated into my contract I get no start up fund as a new academic. This means that I have no lab, no consumables, and no equipment in which to do my research, which had to effectively stop until I obtained a small grant. Other institutions offer new academics not just start up funds but also a research allocation cost which rolls over annually. It is important to ask how each institution approaches internal research funding, including for internally funded PhDs. New academics can only be competitive for external grants if they are initially supported by internal funds to get their research started and generate pilot data. Without this, grant applications will continue to fail.
My perspective is UK-centric and bioscience-focused. Other countries and areas of academia do vary, some for the better, some not. I was reluctant to apply for anything that involved teaching because I didn’t think I would be any good at it, but then I realised how much I valued job security, and my lectureship has given me that. Now, teaching is one of the favourite things I enjoy about my job. So if you want to pursue a career in academia and find yourself at a crossroads, consider applying for a lectureship.
See if there is a Lecturship position for you in the Dementia Researcher job listings.
Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali is a Lecturer in Biomedical Science at Teesside University & Affiliate Researcher at Glasgow University. In addition to teaching, Kamar is exploring how neuroinflammation following traumatic brain injury contributes to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases that lead to dementia. Having first pursued a career as an NHS Psychologist, Kamar went back to University in Durham to look at rodent behavioural tasks to completed her PhD, and then worked as a regional Programme Manager for NC3Rs.
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