How to Become a University Lecturer
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Higher education lecturers, also known as further education lecturers, teach undergraduate or postgraduate students – age 18 and above – in a university or further education college environment.
They may teach academic or vocational subjects, the former requiring education to PhD level and the latter involving significant professional experience in the chosen field.
Lecturers have simultaneous teaching, research and administration responsibilities. Whilst rewarding, it is a demanding role that requires dedication and a passion for both teaching and making original contributions to your subject area.
Lecturing is an excellent career for individuals who love to both learn and teach.
This article will cover what working as a university lecturer is like, the skills involved and the steps needed to secure a position. It will also discuss remuneration and future career prospects.
Working as a lecturer involves three main strands of focus: teaching, administration and research.
The teaching component involves:
- Taking lectures
- Running seminars
- Having tutorials with your students
Lecturers often design and develop their own courses and teaching materials. They, therefore, have a portion of creative freedom in choosing which topics, case studies, activities or texts to include in their syllabus and deciding how they will deliver their teaching.
Lecturers commonly teach students from across all years so will deliver a variety of courses at different levels during their careers.
Due to the demands of being an active and supportive supervisor, these roles are often split equally between the department and you will have a handful of supervisions at each level.
Lecturers often find that these supervisions are one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of their role.
Your departmental role may also involve an element of pastoral care for those you teach, and you may have a group of students specifically assigned to you as tutees.
Alongside teaching, lecturing involves the necessary marking for assignments, coursework and, sometimes, examinations.
Designing course structures and developing and updating teaching materials each year also involves time-consuming preparation, particularly if your course is new.
You may have to conduct administrative tasks for your department, being involved to a degree in student admissions, university open days and induction programmes.
Your department may also have several committees or boards for different purposes – such as finance and external and internal development – that you may be required to participate in.
It is also likely you will be involved in the process of securing funding for your department. This will involve preparing bids for research projects.
Lecturing staff will also be required to attend departmental meetings and undergo staff training when it is deemed necessary.
Research is often the most time-consuming aspect of working as a higher education lecturer.
Many universities, particularly the top universities and those in the Russel Group, place great priority upon departmental research.
This means that, often, particularly early on, your position at the university will likely be contingent on producing a certain amount of publishable research. You may not have complete free reign with your personal research projects, as these will need to actively contribute to your university’s international research profile.
Conducting your research, writing it up and preparing it for publication will consume a significant proportion of your time. Making contributions to your field of research is, however, incredibly satisfying.
You will also be required to represent the university in the national and international academic community, through attending and presenting your work at conferences.
Whilst it can be stressful and incredibly meticulous at times, a want to conduct detailed and extensive research into a particular subject area tends to be the most common reason for following the career path into lecturing.
To be a further education lecturer, you will need to have detailed knowledge of a particular research area. This specialism, formed from your PhD, will help to guide and form the ongoing direction of your research.
It is important to settle on a particular topic of research for exploration fairly early on in your academic career. This can be honed as you progress academically, but displaying the common thread throughout your academic career can help secure your masters, PhD and lecturing positions.
University departments employ lecturers who strengthen their existing staff cohort, and this is often decided according to whether your research is complementary to, or fills a gap within, current provision.
If your subject area is particularly specialised, lecturing posts may only be available at a limited number of institutions.
Conducting academic research requires excellent focus and can be painstaking at times. Luckily, most of the skills and qualities needed to be proficient in research – being detail-oriented, a strong writer, self-motivated and able to work under pressure to deadlines – are put to the test early on in your academic career.
You can gain experience of what research work is like during your undergraduate degree and can make an informed judgement as to whether you have the passion for research needed to continue on the path to becoming a lecturer.
2. Good Communication Skills and the Ability to Engage Students
Due to the direct teaching component involved in all lecturing jobs, lecturers need to be not only comfortable presenting in front of an audience but able to bring in their own creativity and spark.
The best lecturers are incredibly natural, connecting with students at their level, using issues and examples that they find important and relatable. The most memorable lectures are dynamic and can trigger varied conversations through a variety of media.
Presenting at academic conferences will require different forms of presentation, depending on the subject matter and event. Most ask for a reading of all or part of your accepted paper, followed by a Q&A session with the attendees.
An innate confidence with presenting will help at these events, as will preparing for the types of questions that may be asked. Ultimately, however, proficiency in communicating at a lectern comes through experience.
It is worth noting that a lecturer need not be an extrovert – indeed, many lecturers would describe themselves as primarily introverted characters – but they do need to be strong and innovative communicators when required.
As discussed, teaching undergraduate or postgraduate students forms a significant portion of the work of a lecturer. Lecturers need to have a full understanding of what it takes to be an engaging teacher and have the ability to consistently deliver in practice.
They need to be enthusiastic about their subject areas and able to pass this on to their students through inspiring lectures and seminars.
An understanding of the different ways of learning is important, as everyone learns differently. This knowledge should be reflected in the way a lecturer delivers their course or module, to ensure accessibility and success.
As well as delivering engaging course content to their students, lecturers are responsible for encouraging students in their overall development. An ability to empathise and connect with students is beneficial, particularly for one-on-one research supervision or pastoral work.
Although lecturing positions do not necessarily require a teaching qualification, it is a desirable skillset to have. In a competitive process, an application with a formal qualification may have the edge.
Although they sometimes feel like a distraction from teaching and research, behind-the-scenes preparation and administrative duties are important for the faculty and department.
Proficiency in using computer software for both admin and teaching purposes will be required, as will the ability to multi-task and develop different streams of work in parallel.
Lecturers must structure their working time effectively to fulfil the different aspects of their roles. They will often be working on writing up research whilst preparing next week’s lecture materials, holding office hours and marking assignments.
Strong self-management and organisational skills ensure lecturers can successfully work to multiple deadlines.
The Key Steps to Becoming a Lecturer
The journey to becoming a lecturer is lengthy. For most disciplines, a strong undergraduate degree (2:1 or above) and a PhD are required, alongside multiple publications in reputable journals and an arsenal of teaching experience gathered along the way.
Although a master’s degree may not be explicitly required, it is often a pre-requisite of securing a PhD position.
Working your way through three degrees is no small undertaking and is a large commitment in terms of both time and money. It is, therefore, important that you are fully committed to your subject area and ready to live and breathe your research as, if not, your interest will burn out long before you have completed your studies.
On average, it takes eight years in academia to reach the point where you have completed your PhD and can secure a lecturing position. Remember that you will, however, be researching, publishing work and gaining teaching experience during this time.
If you are thinking about pursuing a career in academia, a brilliant academic record with good grades across all your undergraduate and postgraduate modules is important. Focus on being an excellent student and proving your intellectual potential.
Applying to universities that are well regarded for your subject is also crucial. This is the case throughout your studies, but particularly with your PhD. Being a part of a department that is leading research in your area will help to strengthen your PhD work and your desirability to other institutions.
Seek opportunities to speak at academic conferences during your PhD. These conferences are great spaces to make new contacts and to learn about the latest advances and research trends in your field. Presenting your work to the international academic community will feature heavily when you are a lecturer, so gaining practice presenting and networking will help you to build your academic credentials early.
Connections formed with academics whilst completing your PhD may help to secure you a position on completion of your thesis. Seek an active role, engaging in and supporting the wider department.
It is worth noting here that, for lecturers in vocational subjects (particularly in art and design), significant professional experience is required in place of a PhD qualification. Lecturers in these disciplines often lecture part-time around working for or running their own successful businesses.
For other practical disciplines, such as engineering, a PhD is often required alongside professional experience working on tangible projects in the business world.
Having a good portfolio of published work is crucial for securing your initial lecturing position and for maintaining your post at your university. It can, however, be a daunting prospect if you have never been through the process before.
If you are thinking about pursuing a career in academia, seek to have some of your work published as early as possible.
Initially, start small. If your university has one, submit some of your undergraduate essays to the student-run academic journal.
Once you have written your undergraduate dissertation and it has been marked, send it into an academic journal to see if they will publish it. Your dissertation supervisor will likely support you with this.
The same goes for master’s projects and dissertations and, of course, your PhD thesis. Actively seek opportunities for publication and use the support available to you within your university. There are often support groups running where you can chat to and learn from other early career researchers.
Submitting to journals can be a long process and it often takes a while to receive a response. The time frame needs to be considered as you can often only submit your piece to one journal at a time.
Due to the emphasis placed upon publication, it is useful to have more than one piece being reviewed for inclusion into a journal or conference at any one time. The greater the number of high quality and well-received published articles you have to your name, the more appealing you will be to universities seeking to fill a lecturing position.
Teaching experience is also vital for securing yourself a lecturing position. It will depend on your institution whether more emphasis is placed on teaching or research, but a strong ability and creative approach in the lecture theatre will help you to secure a job.
Some PhD programs involve students taking on roles as graduate teaching assistants and aiding undergraduate or postgraduate program delivery. This is an excellent opportunity to gain the teaching skills that will be invaluable later.
If this is not an option in your program, or the limited number of graduate teaching assistant vacancies are full, featuring as a guest lecturer on one of the existing undergraduate or master’s programs may be an option. Look out for any opportunity to help with lectures, guide seminars or help with course design.
If opportunities to be a part of the formal teaching in your PhD department are absent, you may be able to support teaching through running extra workshops relating to certain assignments or topics, relieving pressure on lecturers’ office hours.
Get to know your department fully so you can recognise opportunities to support their teaching for mutual benefit.
Some universities will ask for applicants to lecturing positions to have or to be willing to work towards a HEA Fellowship awarded by Advance HE. This is achieved by obtaining a teaching qualification aligned to the HEA UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF).
The opportunity to complete a teaching qualification (such as a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) or a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education) may also be offered by your department.
Securing a lecturing role at a university is a highly competitive process. It will likely involve an initial lengthy application and at least one interview. Your academic credentials and research portfolio will be scrutinised, alongside your teaching experience.
In your application, it is vital to clearly express how your experience and skills map onto the criteria in the job description.
Make sure when you talk about your research and future direction, you demonstrate how it fits with the department’s existing research. You want to show that you will be an asset as both a member of the teaching staff and as a researcher.
Showcase your published research and don’t be shy about your achievements. Universities seek research that has the potential to bring recognition and build reputation, so any well-regarded publications – regardless of the readership and reach – are an asset.
Ensure you highlight your experience of teaching thus far and convey why you are the best person to deliver the course modules in question.
In the early years of your lecturing career, your posts are likely to be part-time or on a fixed-term contract.
Until you can secure a permanent position, you will likely have to move between universities, and perhaps even countries, to find open temporary positions. It is, therefore, not usually viable to use location as a factor when searching for positions.
Whilst initially involving an element of instability, lecturing offers exciting opportunities to explore new areas, institutions and working cultures.
It is also worth noting that permanent lecturing positions commonly have probationary periods of three to five years, particularly within the institutions of the Russel Group.
Most higher education lecturer positions are advertised online via university websites so it is worth creating a list of your top institutions and checking these regularly.
There are also job sites that focus solely on roles in academia, such as:
- Europe-wide sites Euraxess or Academic Positions
- The Times Higher Education’s global Uni Jobs
- Use WikiJob's search tool to look for lecturing jobs
Remember that LinkedIn is an excellent resource when job hunting. Follow universities and relevant job search platforms to hear about opportunities as they arise.
It is also common to hear about vacancies through the network you have built during your time as a PhD student – from other PhD students, members of the department or connections from academic conferences.
If you have built a strong working relationship with your supervisor, they will likely pass on news of any vacancies to you. This may be within your department or at another institution.
It is important to be active in your search for lecturing roles. Never be afraid to enquire early at your current PhD institution to assess the opportunity available or likelihood of it arising. Also, let your PhD colleagues and departmental advisors know your intentions. They may come across opportunities through their own academic networks.
Going into academia, particularly given the increased cost of higher education in the UK, is a large investment. Whilst this can be initially testing, once qualified, working as a lecturer will provide you with a decent salary and good career prospects.
If you are fortunate, you may be able to secure a part-time paid graduate teaching position whilst completing your PhD. Whilst teaching experience is crucial, and every opportunity to be in the classroom should be seized, receiving a salary is not a given. In the UK, it is common for PhD teaching responsibilities to be required as part of a grant or bursary.
The average starting salary for a lecturer is around £35,000, rising to around £43,000 with experience. As a senior lecturer, you can expect to earn up to around £60,000. Depending on your experience, managerial level and university, salaries can reach £100,000 for the most senior figures.
The potential career progression in a lecturing position is good, with senior lecturing roles, professorships and Head of Department positions available to work towards during your career.
Not all lecturers will become professors, as promotion requires a certain level of excellence. Advancements can be secured through applying when an existing position becomes vacant, or through nomination by the Head of Department.
Academia is a competitive space, but as a skilled and engaging lecturer – strong in both teaching and research performance – you would stand in good stead for progressing to your desired professional level.
Lecturing is a highly competitive career that requires excellence in both teaching and research. Lecturers with strong research skills and a drive to continually produce research to publish on the international stage are critical to universities.
An engaging teaching manner and ability to create and deliver well-structured and engaging course modules to students is essential to achieve high-quality essay submissions and good exam scores.
Becoming a lecturer has a long timeframe for qualification, with study to PhD level or equivalent required. Research work undertaken in this time is, however, similar to that required from a professional lecturer.
Continued study enables the building and honing of a strong research direction to follow throughout your career.
The varied responsibilities of the role are appealing, as is the opportunity to teach whilst furthering your academic ambitions.
Once you have secured a permanent position at a university, lecturing is a financially solid and intellectually stimulating career path with opportunities to achieve personal fulfilment through publication, promotion and the success of your students.