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How to Work in Academia

By Chloe Lane

Updated September 13, 2021 Updated September 13, 2021

Like the idea of working in academia? Find out how these three academics started their careers.  

If you want a career where you’re constantly learning, researching, teaching and publishing your work, academia might be the career path for you. Each academic’s career is completely unique, and varies massively across job roles, specialities, universities and countries.  

Academic roles within universities tend to be very competitive and passion for your specialisation is essential. Most roles require a PhD, and you’ll need to build up contacts in your specialised field. 

For this reason, many PhD graduates start out their careers in roles such as a research assistant or a research fellow. These are usually short-term roles on temporary contracts, but you’ll earn some valuable work experience to secure the more competitive full-time roles.  

Three academics working in universities around the world told us why and how they became academics and what advice they would offer to students looking to study in the field. 

“There’s no perfect route into academia” - Samantha Walkden, lecturer at Leeds Trinity University 

Sam Walkden

Samantha Walkden is a lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Leeds Trinity University in the UK.  

No two days are ever the same in Walkden’s role: some days she’s in meetings, others she’s talking about new research projects with academics at other institutions or preparing workshop materials. 

She also teaches the MSc Applied Custodial Leadership, a graduate scheme in partnership with a charity called Unlocked. Here, she supports students who are completing a part-time master's whilst working full-time as prison officers. 

Walkden insists that there’s no ‘perfect’ route to get into academia, as proved by her own career path. Walkden studied forensic psychology at undergraduate level and worked at McDonalds after class: her job for more than four years. “But I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do forever,” she said. 

After the passing of her beloved grandma in her final year of university, Walkden decided to explore her career options in psychology, eventually landing a two-week work placement in a psychology department. She then used this experience to become a full-time healthcare worker.  

After working as a health worker for two years, Walkden switched to part-time to complete her master’s in investigative psychology. 

“Towards the end of my master's I applied for the vice chancellors fee waiver to complete my PhD and was successful,” she said.  

In 2017, she started to guest lecture on a forensic psychology undergraduate course, which gave her an insight into life as a lecturer. She realised this was something she wanted to pursue. 

She said: “I’m passionate about sharing my knowledge and experience with students but also wanted the opportunity to continue to conduct research in forensic psychology” 

In 2020 Walkden applied for the position of Forensic Psychology Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University and got the job. 

Her advice? “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask for opportunities, talk to people about your passion and make yourself known,” she said.  

“It’s important to remember that you might not be confident at the start, you won’t know all the answers and you will make mistakes. But you have to take that first step and learn from the bottom up. It isn’t a quick or easy process, but you need to gain small experiences in order to learn and grow,” said Walkden. 

She added: "Believe in yourself and I wish you all the best in your future careers."

“You have to work hard to achieve good results”- Katri Kauppi, Associate Professor at Aalto University  

Katri Kauppi

Katri Kauppi is an Associate Professor at Finland’s Aalto University School of Business. She has also worked at Manchester Alliance Business School and Nottingham University Business School. 

Her day-to-day tasks change depending on whether she’s teaching a course or doing research.  

When she’s teaching, Kauppi is preparing for classes, lecturing, setting up course materials online and grading work. When doing research, she reads scientific articles, conducts interviews and collects data, amongst other things. 

While completing her master’s course, Kuappi’s professors started to suggest she pursue a PhD. 

“It was not something I had considered earlier but I was immediately drawn to it,” she said. “During my doctoral studies it quickly became obvious that I enjoyed both the research and teaching aspects of the work and had found the career I wanted to pursue.” 

Following this path, Kauppi was able to work abroad in the UK before returning to Aalto University School of Business, gaining tenure in 2018 and working as an associate professor. 

She said: “I have not found it difficult, although you do have to work hard to achieve good results in both teaching and research.  

“I have always also had great supervisors and co-authors who have helped me in pursuing the merits needed in an academic career.” 

Her advice to students looking to work in Academia? “It’s important to find great supervisors who can teach you how to conduct rigorous and relevant research.  

“Building an international network of research collaborators is important from early on. Also look for teaching assistant and research assistant positions to get to know faculty and see what the work is like.”

“Pursue projects you’re passionate about” - Mikhail Denissenya, Postdoctoral Fellow, Nazarbayev University 

Mikhail

Mikhail Denissenya is a postdoctoral fellow at Nazarbayev University in Kazakstan, with a focus on cosmology and astrophysics. He designs and performs computer simulations to answer fundamental questions about the universe.  

When asked what initially attracted him to academia, Denissenya said: “I believe academia is a magic place where new ideas are constantly born. The anomalous concentration of great minds and diverse personalities brings a unique experience to a younger generation.  

“You can easily meet like-minded people who are ambitious enough to make a difference in improving our lives and society, advance our knowledge and technology.” 

Denissenya’s career path was not  straightforward. He majored in electrical engineering while studying his undergraduate degree at al-Farabi Kazakh National University. During this time, he became interested in theoretical physics. He explained that it was “hard to resist” the urge to pursue this interest. 

“I was fascinated with quantum devices and theoretical descriptions of how they work at the atomic level,” he said. This inspired him to undertake a master’s in theoretical physics and then a PhD at the University of Graz in Austria

Today, he explores this and many other questions about the universe as a post-doc at the Energetic Cosmos Laboratory of Nazarbayev University. 

Denissenya’s advice for students looking to get into academia? Choose to study and explore projects you’re passionate about. 

He said: “It's essential to connect with researchers obsessed with what they do and happy to share their scientific vision with you.  

“If you find your research projects involve inspiration, drive, and having fun then you have enough fuel to make your own path in academia.” 

This article was originally published in August 2021 . It was last updated in September 2021

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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