In this article, we briefly introduce some important concepts of university-related studies and careers. Read on for a primer on academic life and research.
The typical career path in academia is:
- Bachelor’s Degree: a starting university student, typically 3-4 year programs (called “undergraduate” degrees in some parts of the world)
- Master’s Degree: typically 1-2 year programs. Can be skipped or combined with a PhD in some parts of the world.
- PhD Degree: typically 3-5 year programs. Required for nearly all academic careers (i.e., professorship).
- Postdoctoral Fellowship: typically 1-2 year in length, these are post-PhD positions. Doing 2-3 of these “postdocs” is not unusual.
- Lecturer / Senior Lecturer / Assistant Professor: an introductory-level professor. After 4-8 years, they are generally either tenured (promoted to permanent professors, see below) or dismissed.
- Associate Professor: a mid-career professor. Usually a tenured position (i.e., cannot be dismissed except under exceptional circumstances).
- Professor: sometimes referred to as a “full” professor, this is a senior position, usually the highest achieved by academics.
- University Professor / Professor Emeritus / Distinguished Professor: exceptional academics may attain this honorary position above that of a professor.
Publishing and Journals
The main measure of an academic’s success is conducting and publishing original research (hence the oft-quoted “publish or perish” mantra). Here are the key concepts in academic publishing:
- Article Types: Journals are the main form of distributing academic knowledge. Journal articles (“papers”) are typically 4-12 pages in length, and are anonymously peer-reviewed by 2-3 other scientists prior to acceptance and publication. Conference articles are associated with scientific meetings, and are regarded as less prestigious than journal articles (however, exceptions exist – in fields such as computer science and engineering, conferences can yield very significant papers).
- Citations: typically taken as the key measure of a scientist’s, article’s and journal’s success and impact. A citation is when one article refers to another. An article that has been cited many times is regarded as an important and useful piece of research. Roughly speaking, any paper cited over 10-20 times is well-regarded in the scientific community; over 50-100 is truly exceptional.
- Impact Factor (“IF”): a measure of how significant or prestigious a journal is, calculated based on the average number of citations to articles published in the journal – e.g., the world’s best academic journals, Nature and Science, have impact factors of around 30: each article published by them is cited, on average, approximately 30 times per year. It is used as an indication of the relative importance of a journal within its field. Roughly speaking, impact factors around 20-30 are exceptional; around 10 are great; around 5 are good; below 3 are average; below 1 are poor. Publishing in high impact factor journals is a prerequisite to proceeding up the academic career ladder.
- H-Index: a metric defined to measure both the productivity and impact of researchers. It is based on how many of a researcher’s articles have been highly cited. Specifically, an H-index of x means that x papers have been cited x or more times (e.g., an H-index of 75 means a researcher has had 75 papers that have each been cited 75 times or more). Roughly speaking, an H-index of about 10-15 may be sufficient for promotion to mid-level (associate) professorship; 20 for full professorship; 40-50 for membership in prestigious national academies.
- Author Order: in nearly all scientific fields many authors contribute to a scientific article (pure mathematics being an exception). They are all listed as co-authors of a paper, in an order that should correspond to their contribution. The “first author” is the most prestigious position, and is reserved for the researcher that contributed the most. In practice, the “last author” is often the professor from whose lab the research originated.
- Importance for PhD Students: some universities require, as a prerequisite for graduation, that a PhD student publish at least 1-3 papers in international journals as first author. Regardless of whether or not your university requires this, having 1-3 papers by the time you graduate is almost a prerequisite for being competitive for postdoctoral positions after graduating.
In addition to publishing papers, participating in the scientific community’s various conferences is also important. This provides a way to meet and network with fellow scientists – a great way to establish international collaborations. Participation in conferences ranges from basic posters and talks by students and postdoctoral fellows, to invited and keynote lectures by prestigious professors.
As a student or postdoctoral fellow, funding concerns are relatively simple: just find one scholarship or fellowship. All remaining infrastructure and supplies are generally provided by funding from one’s research supervisors (professors) and university. However, as one proceeds towards an independent researcher role (a “principal investigator”, PI for short), i.e., towards professorship, leading and funding a research group, then constantly obtaining money for research becomes an utmost priority.
Being successful in obtaining funding allows one to grow a research group (hiring more PhD students and postdoctoral fellows), buying equipment, attending conferences, and tackling ambitious, interesting, expensive projects. Funding sources are generally all competitive, requiring official written proposals to be submitted and anonymously judged and ranked. The resulting funding can range from $10,000’s to $1,000,000’s of dollars, and come from:
- Universities: the researcher’s host university may provide starting grants for new professors, and also has annual funds for expenditures (e.g., buying scientific intrumentation).
- Governments: government support can come through funding competitions (e.g., Masden Fund), through government-setup organizations (e.g., the MacDiarmid Institute) or prizes (e.g., the $500,000 PM’s Science Prize). Often government departments (e.g., Defense) may directly fund research of particular interest to them.
- Private Organizations / Charities / Foundations: ranging from the extremely prestigious Nobel Prizes, MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’ and Gates Foundation to smaller organizations, there are thousands of international and national sources of such funding.
- Business: companies may contract their R&D out to academia, or form partnerships with universities, do bring research from labs to marketplace.
To be competitive for such funding, academics are judged on both their novel ideas for future research and on their past track record of completing successful research (proven by publishing in high impact factor journals, ideally leading to many citations; obtaining patents, prizes and being a quality teacher also helps). To formalize this process and attempt a level playing field, metrics and procedures have been formalized by governments – e.g., in New Zealand, the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF).