Researcher Alumni case study - working as an academic

Posted in: Academic Career, Alumni Case Study - Researchers, For PhDs, Sector Insight

In our latest researcher alumni case study, Dr James Roscow from the Department of Mechanical Engineering gives us an insight into day-today life as a lecturer

  1. What do you do day-to-day in your current role?

My time is split mainly between research and teaching, plus some administrative duties. The time of year dictates exactly what I do on a given day, although one of the main benefits of being an academic is the autonomy it affords to structure your own time and do the things that interest you. Research for me nowadays is less about hands-on work in the lab (although I still try to get in there when I can to work with PhD students and researchers in the group). Instead, my time is spent trying to secure funding to carry out the research, working on papers, supervising students and postdocs, discussing ideas with colleagues and collaborators, and keeping up with the literature to try to find the next grant idea.

Most of my teaching is in the autumn semester, and this takes up a lot of my time both in the lead up to and during the term. Teaching isn’t just delivering a lecture – it involves a lot of preparation including learning the material inside out, planning the course, writing problem sheets and exams, and answering student questions. It’s very rewarding in a different way to research as it’s forced me to learn the subjects I teach in a much deeper way than if studying for an exam as an undergraduate, and really think about how to explain important concepts in a way that is engaging and useful for a large cohort of students.

Alongside the teaching, I’ve done a bit of outreach (talks to GCSE and A-Level students) and sit on a committee looking to improve the equity, diversity, and inclusion for those that work and study within the department. There’s plenty of other committees that one can get involved in, which can help influence the research and teaching strategy of the department/faculty, as well as the culture in general, although early career lecturers tend to be slightly protected so they can focus on their research and teaching.

If this sounds like a lot – it is. There often doesn’t feel like there’s enough time in the day/week to get everything done so being able to prioritise and protect time effectively is a useful skill to have, particularly to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

  1. Give a brief overview of your career history to date, and any steps you feel were important to you

After graduating with a degree in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Manchester, I got a job at an engineering company in Bristol working as a mechanical testing technician. I found that I wasn’t particularly stimulated, largely because I just had to hand over experimental data to someone else to do the analysis and work out what was happening in the components I was testing (the interesting bit!) so after a year I left to pursue a PhD at the University of Bath. I essentially kept the same working hours when I started my PhD as I had in industry although with flexibility to work as and when I felt I worked best, and treated it, as far as I could anyway, as a job that I would put down at the end of each day and each week. The major difference was that I was given the freedom and trust to manage my time as I saw fit and was far more productive and engaged in the work because of this. I guess this is what convinced me that it was the sort of environment that I could continue working in, despite research itself being far from stress-free. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to travel during my PhD to conferences and research visits, which pushed me out of my comfort zone to learn new skills, and I met a lot of people who I still collaborate with to this day. Finding these connections away from my supervisor has been important when establishing my independence as a researcher.

When I finished my PhD, I hadn’t given a huge amount of thought to what I wanted to do next but got the opportunity to stay on for a bit as a research assistant and then postdoc with my PhD supervisor. He continued to encourage me to pursue the research I wanted to do in the time around the main tasks of the projects I was employed on. Soon after, a Prize Fellow position (essentially a Research Fellow but with a planned transition to a Lectureship after two years) was advertised that I was encouraged to apply for, and which I was lucky enough to get. During this period, I was afforded the time to think carefully about the research I wanted to do and strategize how I could go about doing it. This was key in enabling me to learn the different skillset required of a lecturer, both in terms of research and teaching, and focus mainly on building up establishing my own research direction before my teaching load become too heavy.


  1. How do you use the skills from research in your current role? What skills do you think are most needed in your current role, and do you have any thoughts on how researchers can be developing these?

There isn’t much that I learnt from my PhD that I don’t still use in one form or another. Being able to communicate clearly, both through writing and orally, is critical for many parts of the job. I was encouraged early in my PhD to write (abstracts, papers, literature reviews), and my supervisor’s positive but critical feedback really helped improve my confidence. Reading papers critically, both in terms of the technical content and the style, can help develop your writing skills. I enjoy writing, too, which definitely helps! I was pretty bad at presenting when I started my PhD but again this is something you can improve through practising and watching others (both good and bad) closely, not copying but trying to find a style that I was comfortable with by reflecting on what made others good (or not so good!) speakers. There are obviously technical skills that can be very specific to a researcher’s expertise, but being able to be analytical, rational, and logical when faced with a problem is something that can be applied generally whatever the discipline. Another one is time management and the ability to plan. I used to actively avoid planning when I was younger as it seemed a bit dull, but you can’t run successful and focussed research projects without having a clear and coherent idea of what you’re trying to achieve.

  1. What advice would you have for researchers interested in similar roles, including how and where to look for vacancies

It’s worth starting to think about what your first research proposal is going to look like before you start searching for positions. Most lectureship positions will request a research vision or short proposal as part of the application process, and this can be difficult to get together at short notice, largely because ideas can take a while to crystallise. Ask your supervisor or a former colleague if they are willing to share a proposal with you so you can see what goes into them and seek feedback on your ideas. Familiarise yourself with the funding landscape as it’s likely you’ll be asked how you’re going to fund your research vision during interviews. If you don’t have someone who fulfils the role already, ask someone you respect/trust to be your mentor and seek their advice.

For vacancies, I often see things advertised on Twitter so even if you don’t post anything yourself, following groups, departments, and universities that you would be interested in working at could be useful. I imagine the same goes for some other social media platforms, but I don’t have any personal experience. Have a look at the various research council-funded fellowship schemes as well, aimed either at post-doctoral or early career researchers. These tend to be highly competitive, as is most funding, but even if unsuccessful you will gain experience of grant writing, and useful feedback on your ideas.


Posted in: Academic Career, Alumni Case Study - Researchers, For PhDs, Sector Insight


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