The Academic ‘Career’ is dead. Long live the Academic Career!

The academic career is dead. There, I’ve said it. Over the last few years I have been trying to build an academic career, in the process loosing sight of why I became an ‘academic’ in the first place. I decided to take stock and consider what an ‘academic career’ really is and have come to the conclusion that the traditional notion of an ‘academic career’ is outdated and potentially at odds with the philosophy of academia in the first place. I suspect that the ‘academic’ of the future will not be tied to an institution but be a thought leader, communicator and teacher undertaking a range of activities on a freelance/contract basis – and that the world will be a better place for it…

Why am I an academic?

I have been trying to remember the answer to this question recently – why am I an academic? I guess the main reason why I took an academic job at a university was because I thought I could make a difference – that I could contribute to improvements in practice, that I could influence a new generation of professionals and that I could develop new innovative ways of thinking about some of the key issues in my field. I seem to have forgotten this recently and have spent less time focussing on communicating what I see as the key issues and messages in this area, and more trying to build an ‘academic career’ – whatever that is.

I am increasingly realising that the academic career, as we know it, is dead.

Of course, this is not revolutionary thinking. It is increasing recognised that the traditional notion of the career is outdated, but in academia? a profession developed over hundreds, if not thousands if years?

What is an academic career?

The whole system is set up around the idea of ‘tenure’ or progression awarded to those who have contributed the most to their field either in research (publishing and grant returns) or teaching and management. According to – the UK’ official graduate careers website – this progression looks something like this:

Phd – Postdoctoral researcher – Independent research fellow – Lecturer – Senior Lecturer – Reader – Professor

Of course in practice this can differ slightly, and the League of European Research Universities (LERU) provides academic career maps for other EU countries,  but the point is that the traditional academic career path is linear and mandates to some degree that those wishing to pursue this path spend the majority of their time employed by an academic institution.

Do researchers have a right to an academic career?

It seems that the majority of PhD candidates and Early Career Researchers actively seek an academic ‘career’ in part to validate or reward their years of training, and there have been many blog posts and news articles criticising the lack of paid academic opportunities and stories about PhDs seeking jobs outside of academic institutions – as if this is a bad thing. Now I am not saying that these views are unwarranted, but I feel we need to think outside of the confines a little more and after all the lack of permanent academic positions is a well known issue as the professional body that deals with the development of researchers in the UK – Vitae – points out by reporting that:

“…as few as 10% of research staff will obtain a permanent academic contract.”

And what about colleagues who do not come from a research background but have spent many years working in practice and have developed arguably more valuable vocational skills at the forefront of their industries? The current trend towards institutions only employing doctorally qualified academics, or mandating that existing staff pursue PhD’s whether they want to or not, is perhaps putting the brakes on their academic careers – to the detriment of the academy as a whole where diversity should be celebrated.

What is an academic?

Perhaps we need to take stock of what an academic is (or is perceived to be) and decouple this from the notion of an academic career. The common definition of an ‘academic’ appears to be “a person who works as a teacher or researcher at a university or other higher education institution”. This definition however does not necessarily fit with the definition of ‘academia’ which has come to mean “the cultural accumulation of knowledge, its development and transmission across generations and its practitioners and transmitters”. No mention of higher eduction institutions there. It is the second definition that appeals more to me personally and I prefer to think of myself as a professional working in academia, rather than an academic per se.

What does an academic do?

Do you want to be an academic? or do you want to do what an academic does day by day. This is an interesting question posed by the Univeristy of Manchester careers service. They correctly point out that the primary purpose of being an academic is sometimes at odds with the work which academics regularly find themselves doing. I suspect many academics take the job with aspirations to improve and enhance the state of knowledge in our field of interests, contribute to society and practice and pass on our knowledge to a new generation to help them build a better world in the future (that last bit may just be my own lofty hippy ideal…). The reality is however very different with the politics (internal and external) and daily administration often taking up far more time than is given to teaching and research.

What should a academic do?

By my definition, academics are professional thinkers and communicators. We are, writers, speakers, innovators, teachers and leaders and we can do this through a wide range of platforms – journals, books, blogs, lectures and seminars (public and teaching), videos, podcasts etc. etc. The traditional modes of academic communication are becoming less important. Academic subscription journals and expensively produced books – the stock in trade of traditional research communication – are becoming replaced with open access journals, blogs, websites and e-books. The same is true of teaching where the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ mode of communication is becoming replaced with distance and blended learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and courses developed and delivered by private organisations. The point is you doing necessary need to be an academic employed at an academic institution to contribute to the academy. Academics need to reflect these changes in their practice. We need to become more agile both in terms of our employment and our modes of communication. Academic ‘tenure’ is the past – flexibility is the future…

Long live the academic career…

So, am I depressed by the demise of the traditional academic career? No. I welcome it.  I suspect the future academic career is more a portfolio of employed work both at higher eduction institutions, private organisations and freelance writing and consultancy. Personally i think that a ‘career’ built a long these lines will allow more freedom of thought, more opportunities to undertake work that contributes to society rather than an institutions reputation and a closer understanding of the ‘real’ issues in practice.

But what about job security – surely the lack of a permanent full time academic contract results in a hand to mouth existence? A permanent contract means you can save for the future, buy a house, fund foreign holidays? Well a full time contract has not resulted in any of this for me at least… I am also not so sure here is such a thing in the current climate as a permanent position and tenure does not necessarily equal security. I think that increasingly diversity will be the new security. Should one job cease, you still have a range of options to pay the bills.

Follow your dreams…

To return to my original question then – why am I an academic? The answer was to make a difference – not build an academic career. I guess that what I am saying is that one should always pursue their dreams and visions first and there is more than one way of doing so. Any benefits, achievement and awards will follow. This could be traditional career advancement if that is your thing, public recognition, monetary reward, financial security or that warm fuzzy feeling of making the world a better place (just me again?). The point is chasing a ‘traditional academic’ career and the perceived benefits this may bring is a distraction. So follow your dreams – develop your ideas and let the rest sort itself out.

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” (Victor Hugo)

8 comments on “The Academic ‘Career’ is dead. Long live the Academic Career!
  1. Dr. Alex, I have been reading your blog for awhile. Giant inspiration, on a variety of levels. I wrote this post last week, as I have been grappling with my career path.
    I really appreciate this post! It gave me some…. validation

    • Hi Monica

      Thanks for reading the blog! I am glad you found the post useful. I see that you have some similar thoughts about career too. I think that the place of the academic is changing – perhaps it is a generational thing?

      Good luck with everything…


  2. Hi Alex,

    It looks like that you have really targeted the point! I come from a country where universities were (and are …) highly ‘institutionalised’. Florence, Siena, Bologna, and Italy in general quite stick to your analysis. However, I can say that an increasing number of academics – and not only – smile when you pose the question whether ‘Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo Galilei’ ever had a PhD!

    • HI Fabrizio

      Thanks for the comment and I like the question you pose 🙂 – I also like to remember that many “academics” dismissed Einstein’s theory of general relativity because it was proposed by a clerk in the patent office denied membership of a university….



  4. “Thinking is too late to chase your dream”! Its very important to follow your dreams to be successful. Just being an academic doesn’t complete the definition of a successful academic. One needs to make a difference in the field that they have chosen.

  5. Pingback: Academia: Job or Passion? – liubaveto

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