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Heading for the Top: Three Academic Career Routes in UK Universities

Updated on February 20, 2009

Research route:

Research Associate/Assistant/Officer -> Research Fellow -> Senior Research Fellow -> Professor

Academic route:

Lecturer -> Senior Lecturer -> Principal Lecturer/ Reader -> Professor

Executive route:

Senior Lecturer -> Head of School -> Dean of Faculty -> Academic Pro Vice Chancellor > Vice Chancellor

Research Route

Research Associate/Assistant/Officer -> Research Fellow -> Senior Research Fellow -> Professor

The majority of funding of these research posts within universities is frequently on a fixed term basis by companies, research charities, the European Union, Government Departments and the Research Councils. Therefore, the biggest drawback of this route is lack of job security for researchers on fixed term contracts.

Advantages of this route is that it gives you focused attention on research without teaching and administration chores as of the academic route, hence it's easier to build up a strong track record of research in terms of publication and attracting fundings etc. It's not uncommon that people take this route initially switch to academic route once they build enough track record of publications and research network.

Academic Route

Lecturer -> Senior Lecturer -> Principal Lecturer/ Reader -> Professor

This is the most popular and traditional route in academic career. Depend on your university (old or new) and your role (teaching or research), you may go for Principal Lecturer (new universities, teaching) or Reader (old universities, research) at level 3.

Executive Route

Senior Lecturer -> Head of School -> Dean of Faculty -> Academic Pro Vice Chancellor > Vice Chancellor

The starting point of this route is higher than the above two routes. You need to be at least a Senior Lecturer to take this route. I never see a Head of School who is only a lecturer in my whole experiece in higher education sector. Most vice-chancellors follow the traditional executive route of head of school, dean of faculty and pro vice-chancellor on the way to the top. Obtaining professorship will significantly help your progression to senior positions at the stages of Head of School and Dean of Faculty, and vice versa.

In some universities, senior executive roles are on a part-time basis in additional to the holder's current academic role and with a three to five years tenure.

You will need to be able to convey to an appointments committee your strategic-level experience, vision and ambition. Experience of cross-university roles is very important, while successful experience at pro vice-chancellor level will give the committee confidence that you can do the job. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you have run a project or team of people, have significant management experience and have had to take difficult decisions. Experience as dean of a large faculty with a big budget will help, but provide opportunities to demonstrate strong leadership and management.


When you apply for promotion, whether in current institution or another one, usually you are asked to provide evidences in the following three areas:

  1. Excellence in practice
  2. Leadership
  3. Impact and recognition

Evidence of excellence in practice

  • Publications record

  • Award of internal and external funding for research, teaching development and community projects

  • Successful development and convening of new modules or programmes

  • Recruitment of postgraduate research students, successful lead supervision and completions

  • Engagement in disciplinary networks, e.g. scholarly bodies, research networks, professional bodies

  • Engagement in professional development to improve practice, e.g. professional qualifications, short courses, academic CPD, leadership & management programmes

Evidence of leadership

  • Support, guidance and development of colleagues as academic practitioners, including formal mentoring

  • Successful leadership of programmes, research groups, teaching teams

  • Internal or external leadership roles, e.g. formal academic school or faculty responsibilities, conference organisation, internal or external committees and other research or teaching networks

  • Contributions to disciplinary development through research, curriculum, knowledge transfer

  • Development of new strategies and collaborations in collaborative research, outreach, interdisciplinary programme development

  • Contribution to the leadership of the university through formal roles and responsibilities, engagement in external scrutiny processes, e.g. REF, QAA, PSRB, policy development work

  • Refereeing, review, and editorial work for scholarly publications

Evidence of impact and recognition

  • Peer recognition through nomination for prizes and awards in relation to any aspect of academic work, including university prizes

  • Media attention

  • Invitations and appointments to external roles, e.g. external examiner, academic adviser, fellowships, plenaries, symposia, guest lectures and seminars, consultancies, policy work

  • Appointment to editorial boards, review panels, advisory committees, research council panels

  • Policy, strategy and advisory roles in relation to department and university TLA policy and practice

Pay scales

Most academic staff employed within higher education are paid according to the position of their posts on a salary scale. In 2004, a pay framework was agreed which saw individual universities agreeing new grading structures which mapped on to a single national pay spine.

Normally you can guess a person's salary based on his/her post and years of experience on this post. However, at Dean level and above, pay scale is negotiable according to your qualifications and experience.


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    • CPDInteractive profile image

      CPDInteractive 5 years ago from Suite 606, 343 Lt Collins St, Melbourne VIC 3000

      I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information.