Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: On International Legal Academia in the UK (Part I) – Securing Your First Academic Post

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: On International Legal Academia in the UK (Part I) – Securing Your First Academic Post

[Alexander Gilder (@DrAlexGilder) is Lecturer in International Law and Security and Deputy Director of Global Law at Reading at the University of Reading.]

The pathways for early career researchers (ECRs) to enter an academic career can look very different depending on the jurisdiction in which you are based. International law academia results in individuals moving to institutions around the world but it can be hard to understand the key differences when you haven’t studied or worked in that jurisdiction. What I hope to do in this post is shed some light on what ECRs need to demonstrate for an early career post in the UK and some of the challenges for international law academics in particular. In the first part I discuss some of the key preparatory activities you can undertake to ready yourself for the academic job market. In the second part I explore aspects of what to expect when entering UK academia. 

Before delving into specifics, readers may find it useful to know a little more about the UK academic structure. Institutions will use some variation of the following, with differences in title styling or salary grade, usually positioned on the nationally negotiated single pay spine: Lecturer (or Assistant Professor), Senior Lecturer/Reader (or Associate Professor) and Professor. Some posts may be followed by ‘in International Law’ or similar to denote a specialism, but do not be discouraged from applying for the more common ‘in Law’ positions as this does not necessarily mean the institution does not need an international law specialist.

It is normal in the UK for posts at Lecturer level to ask for your PhD to be ‘near completion’ as one of the criteria, making it commonplace for third and fourth year PhD students to apply for full-time Lectureships and finalise the writing up of their thesis while in their new position. This is in contrast to several other European jurisdictions that may require you to evidence successful defence of your thesis to take up a comparable Assistant or Junior Professorship that may also be more likely to be fixed term as opposed to a permanent position (subject to a probationary period).

Post-doctoral fellowships and similar positions that are research focussed are rarer in the UK than some other jurisdictions. They typically come in two forms in the UK: (1) fixed term roles that an individual has received funding for, such as the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowships; or (2) fixed term roles that form part of a larger research grant held by a Principal Investigator at the institution.

Laying the Groundwork During the PhD

How then do you go about getting one of these roles? As if completing your PhD in 3-4 years (sometimes more) is not tough enough, institutions ask you to accumulate additional accolades in order to be competitive on the job market. Consider making plans for strands of your research that would be ideal for further development into publications and make yourself aware of the other boxes you will need to tick for academic posts in several years’ time. The writing and publishing process for articles can take unforeseen amounts of time and those early in their PhD study should map out a strategy with their supervisors and peers. Many colleagues will happily exchange stories of their publishing experience with particular journals to help you target the outlets appropriate for your work.

It is not always the norm for PhD students in UK legal academia to include supervisors as co-authors unless the supervisor has genuinely co-written the article. It is more common for the PhD student to be supported by their supervisors in securing their first sole-authored peer-reviewed publication at some point during the PhD. It is also common to see PhD students publishing book reviews and blog posts. In recent years The Conversation has become an excellent place for PhD students to showcase their research by linking it to current affairs that are relevant for non-academic audiences. Book reviews, blog posts, and other types of publications can be great to learn about different types of writing and to importantly expand your network.

However, it is full length, peer-reviewed articles which are of vital importance. This is because articles are eligible for the Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF is a periodic exercise where research activity is reviewed within each institution to provide benchmarks for the allocation of research funding nationally. Research outputs, such as books, articles and chapters are scored on a scale of 1-4 with institutions aiming for as much of their submitted material as possible being judged as 3* or 4*. REF is far too complicated to explain fully in this post but what is important for ECRs to know at the outset is that once you are in a role with responsibility for research you are eligible for submission to REF. Consequently, institutions will often want to see that you are capable of, or have the potential of, producing work with sufficient ‘originality, significance and rigour’ to achieve a minimum of 3*. Expectations will differ depending on when in the cycle you are applying and also the research intensity of the institution and school. REF has often been subject to criticism, particularly due to the pressures it places on staff.

Another important part of securing an academic post in the UK is ensuring that during your PhD you have undertaken a variety of teaching activities. In some other jurisdictions an international law academic might only teach international law as part of a particular section of the wider School of Law. However, in the UK it would be rare to exclusively teach on say an LLM in International Law. Instead, it is almost always expected that a Lecturer will teach on subjects that form the foundations of legal knowledge as part of the undergraduate law degree. These include Criminal Law, Equity and Trusts, EU Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, Land Law, and Constitutional and Administrative Law. This can be a hurdle for PhD students who did not complete their undergraduate studies in the UK, but there are many academics trained in other jurisdictions teaching on the above subjects. Gaining teaching experience beyond international law, regardless of the jurisdiction in which you are based, can be key experience for strengthening your position on the UK job market as well as showing a willingness to chip in with these subjects!

Another way for PhD students to prepare for a teaching role can be through training offered by their institution. Many UK institutions will offer an introductory module on teaching in higher education that may meet the requirements for you to be awarded Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). You may be able to register for further modules to complete a Postgraduate Certificate that results in HEA Fellowship (a common probationary target for Lecturers).

It is not possible in one post to expand on every area in which you will need to develop and gain experience. But ECRs no matter the jurisdiction should consider their 5-year research plan. Ensure that towards the end of your PhD you are considering the next steps in your research and how your plans to publish your PhD and embark on new projects can result in achievable outputs that, in the UK at least, would benefit an institution’s REF submission. As I’ll explain in part two, once you are in your first academic post the expectations placed on you to achieve results can seem daunting. But with a 5-year research plan and an idea of the expectations you can begin to strategize the pathway you will forge in international law.

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