Careers in Academia: An Overview

Author:  Yeva Ragauskayte

Traditional academic science focuses on laboratory research to gather new knowledge and on teaching to impart that scientific knowledge to future generations.  Whether a person working in academia spends more time with research, teaching, or administration is a matter of personal preferences and skills.

Scientists who decide to devote part or all of their careers to teaching have a few options.  The more popular route combines teaching with research at the undergraduate, graduate, or professional school level.  These positions allow scientists to continue their pursuit of knowledge and at the same time interact with students.  Some scientists devote so much time to education that they have little time left for their own research.  Others even forgo the university and research environment to teach science to K-12 students.  K-12 teaching positions usually require a Bachelor’s degree and state and/or national certification.  Any post-secondary teaching position usually requires a Ph.D.  Teaching, from the primary to the professional level, provides a great way for people to share their expertise with others.

Scientists conducting research in the university setting seek to advance the knowledge of a particular subject.  Unlike industrial scientists, university scientists have more freedom with the direction that they take with their work.  Many scientists work in the laboratory setting with post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates.  Often times, university professors give lectures concerning their research at meetings around the world.  Therefore, professors require not only a Ph.D. and good investigative skills, but also strong communication skills. 

For those who want to participate in the research setting, but do not possess a Ph.D., lab assistant or technician positions are an option.  These positions require a Bachelor’s degree (usually in a life science) or sometimes just an Associate degree or vocational training.  Lab assistants and technicians perform various laboratory tasks under the supervision of a head scientist or other administrator.  They are not allowed to conduct their own research, but follow instructions to perform laboratory tasks with specified laboratory equipment.  Careers in clinical labs in hospital environments are especially popular.  Lab assistants and technicians must be detail-oriented and practical. 

Field assistants also work under scientists, and are in charge of collecting and analyzing data.  Such work requires an Associate or Bachelor’s degree in the subject of study.  Field assistants may have to put in long hours in inhospitable conditions, depending on what they are studying.

Scientists sometimes prefer administrative work to bench work.  Administrative positions entail many different responsibilities and require excellent organizational and communication skills.  Administrators oversee the organization, communication and resources for research projects.  Most administrators have Ph.D.’s and have extensive experience in the research they are overseeing. 

Opportunities exist within academic science for people of many different education levels, skills, and interests.  The plethora of job opportunities is advertised on university websites, in science journals, and on field-specific organization websites.


For more information:


American Physiological Society

Ecological Society of America

Rutgers University

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics