Where Do I Fit in the British Academic System?



I'm a British student, currently 12 to 18 months away from completing my Ph.D. at a U.S. institution following a B.Sc. from a U.K. university. My work is interdisciplinary, involving geography, ecology, plant physiology, and climate-change modelling. I'm keen to return to the United Kingdom to start a postdoc or look for a lecturing position; I want to remain in academia.

Getting a postdoc seems enormously challenging. Aside from directly approaching potential collaborators (of whom there are few), I have found only one possible research grant: the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) David Phillips fellowship. Are there other fellowships out there that do not exclude researchers who have not resided in the United Kingdom for the last few years?

Taking a lecturing position, assuming one was available in my field, seems a possible way forward, but also directs me away from research.

I'm beginning to wonder if the options are so narrow in the United Kingdom that I'll be committing career suicide by returning. That said I'm at a loss as to where to begin even if I did decide to stay in the United States. Help!

Thanks for your thoughts,


Dear Aileen,*

I do not think that returning to the United Kingdom would be career suicide at all; many British scientists have managed to come home after a research period abroad. International experience is often seen as a real advantage in academia, so despite the real challenges it presents, you should view your degree earned abroad as a career booster, not a career ender. But if I understand your situation correctly, at this point you should forget, for now, about David Phillips fellowships and lectureships and focus instead on finding yourself a good postdoc position in an active U.K. lab.

It's certainly true that working overseas can remove one from the U.K. academic network, or keep one from entering it in the first place. It is also true that re-entry can be difficult. It is not impossible however: Many people have accomplished it. I'll try to help you get started.

First off, let's make sure that you understand the academic career structure in the UK. I am not sure what you mean by a "lecturing position," which could be either a lectureship or a teaching-assistant position. Of course, these are very different scientific jobs. Lectureships are the first permanent posts researchers may obtain in academia in the U.K. Most often, researchers get a lectureship only after several years of postdoctoral experience and, even setting aside the complexities that the interdisciplinary nature of your work creates, the competition is likely to be strong. I encourage you to take a look at this previous article, in which I outlined U.K.'s academic career track in detail.

If by "lecturing position" you mean a teaching assistant position, these are becoming increasingly common in the U.K., but you should be wary of accepting one without understanding the implications: it will take you away from research. This disadvantage would be offset somewhat by the advantage of bringing you back into the U.K. academic system and providing time and space to look into your other options.

So what are those other options? For you, the logical next step is to find a good postdoc position. Finding a postdoc in the U.K. shouldn't be too difficult immediately after finishing your Ph.D. Most postdocs and other U.K. academic positions are now advertised in major scientific journals and Web sites, such as New Scientist, Science , or jobs.ac.uk, so an easy way to begin with your search would be to sign up for email alerts and start building a picture of the labour market in your field. Then, since your research is interdisciplinary and specialised--and your research community small--you may need to be a little bit creative.

Indeed, though you may know, currently, few potential supervisors, your multidisciplinary background is really an advantage and perhaps one that you haven't fully explored. Even if there are few people working directly in your field, there are many people, probably, who do work in closely associated fields (if this isn't the case you should seriously ask yourself, 'why not?' and consider changing fields). A good way to identify those groups would be to study the literature. The authors would be an obvious lead, but the list of citations is likely to be full of people to contact for potential postdoctoral employment.

Science is truly international, and hopefully there will be some labs in the U.K. that are doing the kind of work you would like to be doing. If you find that there are no U.K. labs working in this field, then it is too soon for you to come home. You should gain postdoctoral experience in a foreign lab until you are fit to apply for a fellowship or a lectureship in the U.K.--and launch your own research group in your field of interest.

Now, assuming that you have identified suitable prospective employers, how should you get in touch? I'd be wary about sending out speculative applications, as the best research leaders are inundated with them and won't have time to respond to "cold-calls." Instead, when they have a post available they will either advertise it or recruit someone whose work or supervisor they know. So, it is better to take a longer term view and get your work known and people interested. You could try to get an invitation to give a talk at labs of interest, for example. Your supervisor may be able to help with this, especially if it turns out that he or she has contacts with that group.

Perhaps you could also arrange to meet them at a conference or on a trip back to the United Kingdom. There is a lot of advice on Science's Next Wave about networking and promoting yourself; I'd recommend you use this advice to develop your own marketing strategy with the aim of making key U.K. academics aware of you and your work.

Finding a welcoming P.I. is one thing; finding a paying position in that P.I.'s laboratory is another thing entirely. Hopefully the lab will have money to pay you, but if not, you may have to write your own grant proposals jointly with the lab P.I. But if your future supervisor is prominent in his field and you can really impress him, you may find that money appears magically; it's amazing what a successful P.I. can accomplish when motivated.

Looking toward the future, the David Phillips fellowships you mention are highly regarded and very competitive because they offer funding to start a research group and the freedom to follow your own lines of research for a few years even before getting a lectureship. What it takes to get one of these, and what your responsibilities become when you get one, has been outlined in a series of profiles previously published on Next Wave. You'll also find a list of fellowships to apply for in the U.K. and Ireland, and I would advise you to check out the NERC - the Natural Environment Research Council, British Ecological Society and HERO (Higher Education & Research Opportunities in the U.K.) Web sites too.

You will notice that most of the people who earn these awards have done one or two postdocs already. With the notable exception of the David Phillips fellowships, a minimum of 2 or 3 years postdoctoral experience is required for most. You mentioned the problem of residency and fellowship eligibility; typically, those residency requirements are only for non-nationals of the European Economic Area (EEA), so they should present no problem. Some funding bodies, like the Wellcome Trust, demand in addition that EEA nationals have a "relevant connection to the EEA," but with your British degree you even meet that criterion.

Perhaps in your situation the key to success is patience. A prestigious fellowship may not be what brings you back to Britain at the end of your Ph.D., but you have more than a year to improve your insights in academia and look for a good postdoc in the U.K., or elsewhere. Either way, you will then be in a better position to apply for a fellowship, or even a lectureship. By taking one step at a time, you will have all the chances on your side to make it as a successful academic in the U.K.

Good luck in your career,

The CareerDoctor

* Names have been changed.

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