Teaching and research in Higher Education

Academic jobs include roles such as lecturer, university teacher, postdoctoral research fellow, assistant professor, teaching fellow, and research associate


Growth in the percentage of the population who go on to tertiary education over many years has resulted in an expansion of the higher education sector and an increase in academic jobs in universities. In their most recent data released in January 2023, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reported that there were over 233,930 academic staff working in higher education in the UK in December 2021, an increase of 4% from 224,530 in December 2020.   

As the main employers of academic staff are universities and other specialist higher education or research institutes, employment opportunities are concentrated in cities, with a large number of opportunities in the many universities in London and the South East of England.  

Higher Education Statistics Agency staff statistics

What it's like

Academic jobs usually include a combination of teaching, research and administrative responsibilities. The proportion  of time spent on each will vary depending on the specific job role, the subject area taught or researched, career stage, and the type of university.  

Roles such as University Teacher or Teaching Fellow will mainly focus on teaching–related tasks with some course organisation and may have limited time to carry out research or scholarship. In contrast, those employed in roles such as Research Associate will focus mainly on research-related tasks and may have no or limited time to teach. Lecturers, however, will balance their time more evenly between research in their discipline and teaching. 

Typical teaching tasks include:

  • delivering lectures and leading seminars
  • creating assessments and giving feedback
  • designing and developing new courses
  • acting as dissertation or research supervisors
  • creating online learning materials. 

Typical research tasks involve:

  • coming up with new ideas for research
  • designing research methods
  • carrying out experiments or field work
  • analysing results
  • writing up research for publication or presenting it at conferences
  • applying for research funding.

This post gives more detail of the different responsibilities:

Balancing academic research and teaching (jobs.ac.uk)

Academic jobs may involve working longer than a typical 9 – 5 day as the workload can be high. Many academic staff will work at evenings and weekends during busy times. However, as academics work independently, there can be a lot of flexibility to manage your own time. 

In the early stages of an academic career you are likely to be employed on short-term contracts, often of 1 – 3 years, so there can be some job insecurity before you secure a permanent job. In 2019/20, 33% of academic staff were on fixed-term contracts, with the majority of these employed in research-only or teaching-only roles. Those in typical lecturer roles are more likely to be employed on permanent contracts.  

Part-time work is possible, and the most recent statistics show that those employed in teaching only roles are more likely to be working part time (68%) compared to those employed in lecturer or research roles (18% for both). 

Higher Education Lecturer job profile – Prospects website 

Lecturer (higher education) job description - Targetjobs website 

Academic Researcher job profile – Prospects website 

Routes into these roles

There is no requirement to have a formal teaching qualification to teach in higher education in the UK. However, typically a PhD in a related subject area is a requirement for entry to an academic career, in many cases after completing a related postgraduate Masters degree. For teaching roles in some vocational subject areas, for example accountancy, law and art and design, professional work experience in the area is important and entry may be possible without a PhD. It is becoming more common for universities in the UK to ask for evidence of ability to teach, which can be shown through awards such as Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA). 

In many subject areas, in particular for teaching in the sciences and social sciences, it is common to work as a researcher in universities for some years to build up a research profile, which may include publishing research outcomes and winning funding for research. This research experience is usually required along with teaching experience to compete successfully for a lecturer job. It is possible to continue in research-only roles long term and to progress to head of a research group with limited teaching responsibility. This is more common in medical or science-related disciplines and the typical career path in most disciplines is to a lecturer role and progression beyond that.   

Read our advice on what to consider before applying for a PhD:

Moving on to a PhD

Work experience

While you are working towards your PhD, take every opportunity to build up relevant experience in teaching as well as research, and to develop your profile as a researcher. This will put you in a stronger position when it comes to applying for posts after your PhD.  

Our information for current PhD students includes examples of how you can build the experience you need for an academic career:  

An academic career

Keeping up to date with current issues 

Times Higher Education – key resource for news, comment and analysis of the HE sector. University of Edinburgh current students have free access to this: 

Teaching Matters – blog and podcasts showcasing innovative approaches and successes in learning and teaching here at Edinburgh:  

AdvanceHE - library of resources on current issues:

Finding jobs and employers

For an overview of the different approaches you may take to finding jobs, see:  

Academic Job search