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What do academic employers really want? By Inger Mewburn and Rachael Pitt (Advocate 23 02)

Posted 27 June 2016 by Paul Clifton (NTEU National Office)

By Dr Rachael Pitt and Dr Inger Mewburn 

Your latest fixed-term academic contract is drawing to a close and you’ve started looking for the next role, maybe in a new city. You’ve found a few roles in your field, in locations you could contemplate living in, and sit down to start applying. 

In Australia applying for an academic job involves answering a set of key selection criteria that are specified in the position description. A key selection criteria might be something like ‘Demonstrated ability to exercise independence and creativity while being a part of a team’. Your job is to write anywhere from one paragraph to one page to demonstrate how you possess the skills and capabilities implied in the statement. 

The task is not easy. Are you the best person to say how you work in a team? How do you demonstrate this along with independence and creativity all within the one response? If there are twenty or more of these key selection criteria, which there sometimes are, you have a long night of writing ahead of you.

Amidst writing pages and pages of responses to key selection criteria during a job hunt, Rachael noticed some mismatches in the stated expectations with the conventional ideas of what a PhD graduate possesses, and suggested we study the ads themselves. The first outcomes of this study have been published in a paper called ‘Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions’1.

We downloaded all the position descriptions advertised in Victorian (Australia) universities on one day and then focused in on the levels that early career academics might apply for, i.e., Levels A (associate lecturer/research associate) through to C (senior lecturer/senior research fellow). This resulted in 42 position descriptions being analysed (not the 300+ erroneously reported on elsewhere), with Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework2 informing our analysis.

The position descriptions themselves ranged in length from 2–7 pages and contained anywhere from four to 24 key selection criteria. Some position descriptions clearly outlined the skills and experience deemed most important for the role, but others were unnecessarily complex, even contradictory. 

Some (not all) of the roles were so broad, and required expertise across so many different skill sets, that we wondered how many people would actually be suitable for the role. We had visions of Superman leaping 24 key selection criteria in a single job application and meeting the myriad requirements of the role. 

Based on our analysis, it’s highly likely you will need more than a PhD on your CV if your dream is to be an academic. You’ll need to be able to demonstrate skills in a wide range of communication mediums, grant writing, managing money, and teaching. 

You should not neglect the so-called ‘soft skills’ either. For example, we found evidence that some universities want to ‘buy’ your professional network to increase their own institutional prestige, or to find placements for undergraduate students in industry. 

Sometimes PhD graduates are led to think that leaving academia is a sign of failure, but this research suggests that graduates with experience in industry may have significant advantages should they wish to return to the academy at a later date – particularly in the professions.

As we might expect, greater breadth of expertise and experience was sought at each academic level, indicating the need for academics to increasingly become ‘well-rounded’ as they progress, including increasing expectations around mentoring and managing others. Continuously acquiring and honing these ‘ancillary’ skills while managing a typical academic workload can be challenging. 

We can only hope that universities are providing adequately resourced professional development opportunities. It’s worth noting that it can be very hard to acquire and improve a broad and varied skill set if you are part of the so-called ‘precariat’, with little to no job security. If you have no budget for conference travel or opportunity to manage the work of others it can be difficult to build up the kind of portfolio you will need to have. 

If you are just starting out and wishing to follow an academic career, you could consider using our method to undertake your own analysis of position descriptions at various levels in your field. The exercise might yield valuable insights into the skills and expertise your next academic employer will want. 

Dr Rachael Pitt is an independent scholar.

Dr Inger Mewburn does research on research and blogs about it. 




  1. Pitt, R., & Mewburn, I. (2016). Academic superheroes: A critical analysis of academic job descriptions. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(1), 88-101. doi: 10.1080/1360080X.2015.1126896. Temporarily available as an open access paper from the Taylor and Francis database: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1360080X.2015.1126896#.VqreMPEnIZQ
  2. Vitae. (2010). Researcher development statement. Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) Limited. Retrieved from www.vitae.ak.uk/rdf.


This article appears in the June 2016 edition of Advocate:

(34 MB) - PDF

Advocate, June 2016

Federal Election 2016. $100,000 degrees? No way.



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