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A graduate's guide to careers in academia

GradAustralia

Lead the way with cutting-edge research by pursuing a career in academia. Consider this grad career path if you're inquisitive & have a passion for teaching.

Overview of academia

Academia is concerned with the pursuit of research, education and scholarship. Academics are people who work in this field, either as a teacher or researcher at a university or other higher education institution. They are typically people who study and analyse their area of specialisation before sharing their findings through teaching, publishing and participating in public discussions.

An academic in a business faculty, for example, might seek to analyse how leadership can be used to motivate a workforce or what an ageing population may mean for productivity in the future.

While their work is largely theoretical, many academics are now seeking to blend theory and practice into their research activities. This might mean commercialising an idea, for example, developing software to detect fraud in the stock market. Having academics with real-world experience is particularly important in courses such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and is typically used as a drawcard to attract potential students.

Entering academia

A career as an academic will often begin with short-term or casual positions as a tutor. To secure these positions you need to be a standout performer as a student. This means highly competitive marks (ideally including some academic merit prizes), strong relationships with faculty and successful admission to an honours program (many of which require prospective applicants to possess a distinction average and several references). You might also demonstrate that you’ve been involved in Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS).

From this point, it’s a matter of continuing to distinguish yourself, through excellence in teaching and research, so that you can pursue new academic opportunities as they arise. You’ll need to make a concerted effort to publish articles in prestigious journals or take up extracurricular activities.

Another way you may want to become an academic is by completing a masters program or PhD. Today most candidates need a PhD to obtain a full-time position, as the criteria for most academic jobs tend to favour coursework over research. Impressive professional experience is also looked upon favourably. Ideally, the experience will be aligned with your research interests. For example, you have experience in audit and accounting at a large accounting firm and are interested in pursuing further research in this area.

Whichever path you choose, it’s important to bear in mind that academic institutions are drawn primarily to people who possess both scholarly potential and a clear idea of their area of research.

What’s involved?

Academics generally divide their time between three main tasks: teaching, research and community involvement.

Your teaching responsibilities will depend on your position, for example, associate lecturers and lecturers are generally expected to spend more time instructing students. Teaching involves more than delivering the lessons. You must also prepare classes, administer tests, mark essays, and provide students with academic support and guidance. If you’re employed at a tertiary institution and hold a relatively senior position, you may also find that a lot of your time is taken up by meetings in which you set policies, review the curriculum, and coordinate with colleagues to implement new academic initiatives.

Most business faculties have a number of ‘schools’ within them that correspond to the university’s specialisations. For example, there might be schools in organisation and management, innovation and entrepreneurship, economics or marketing. You will typically be teaching within one of these schools.

Generally, academics are expected to support the reputation of their home university by engaging in research and publishing their findings in reputable journals. There are social and professional advantages to doing this. Business academics often offer key insights that can play a role in shaping public policies, for example, banking regulation, or work and management culture.

Best and worst

The tertiary sector is perceived as offering impressive job stability and excellent working conditions. Indeed, academics enjoy a more balanced lifestyle compared to other business specialisations, such as management consulting or investment banking.

However, academia isn’t only competitive to enter – it’s competitive to succeed within. Academics are frequently under enormous pressure to publish articles in reputable journals while also teaching classes, supervising students, and travelling to attend conferences and other events. Moreover, working with large institutions, such as universities, means working within a complex system of rules and responsibilities.

Academia is also not as financially lucrative compared to some business specialisations, particularly when compared to hedge funds, private equity, venture capital or investment banking.

Career progression for academics

At most Australian colleges and universities, the career progression of an academic follows a somewhat predictable path, with standardised job titles corresponding to award salaries as set out by the Australian government’s Higher Education Academic Salaries Award. Each university has an agreement with staff that includes the more relevant rules about appointments, promotions and salaries.

Postgraduate research allows one to gain a PhD and begin applying for work as an associate lecturer. Associate lecturers may also be graduates who lack a PhD but have distinguished themselves with professional experience or other successes. On average, associate lecturers earn $62,000–92,000 per year. PhD students may also apply for a teaching fellowship. This gives them a teaching load that comes with an expectation of research output, which can include progress on their PhD. These are fixed-term appointments ranging from one to three years.

Lecturers are academics who typically possess a PhD and significant teaching experience. They can be offered a permanent contract or offered a fixed-term appointment (for example, to cover for another academic on sabbatical). The average salary of lecturers in Australia is $92,000–118,000.

Generally, lecturers become senior lecturers after four to six years of experience. By this point, they are expected to demonstrate sustained competence in teaching and research, with an established academic profile. Australian senior lecturers earn $112,000–140,000 per year.

An associate professorship represents a university’s recognition of your excellence in teaching and research and is generally awarded to academics who have made a strong impact outside of ‘the academy’ (generally by influencing policy, publishing books or developing a strong international profile). They earn $149,000–188,000 per year.

A professorship is the pinnacle of an academic’s career (though one’s contributions may be recognised after retirement with an emeritus professorship). Being appointed a professor means that you have excelled at making significant contributions to your field of study, and over time, achieved recognition both in Australia and internationally for your research.

Many professors are expected to assume administrative responsibilities, meaning that they can be involved in developing curricula, reviewing applications for other academic appointments and setting university policy. Professors generally earn more than $175,000 per year.

Job title examples

  • Tutor
  • Lecturer
  • Course coordinator
  • Dean
  • Researcher.

Choose this if you:

  • Have an exceptional academic transcript
  • Love research and have an inquiring mind
  • Are highly self-motivated
  • Wish to teach.