Top 10 tips for starting your first academic job

With university staff thinking about the start of the next academic year, Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman offer some advice to staff due to arrive on campus this autumn

July 25, 2016
Business people waiting to attend job interview
Source: iStock

Turn up on the right day

The letter of offer from your new employer will have specified a start date. It would be polite to stick to that agreement.

In all likelihood, your arrival on that day will come as a surprise to your new colleagues.

Of course, you might have been in regular contact with your prospective colleagues and perhaps even struck a specific agreement about when, where and who to meet on your first day.

Sometimes, however, it can seem like no one is expecting you.

At one level, they do know you are coming because they went to a lot of expense, paperwork and effort to select you from the interview process. On another level, academic life is busy and sometimes disjointed. That your new head of department isn’t on campus or has forgotten to leave specific instructions for your induction is something you shouldn’t take personally.

As a minimum you should turn up on the allotted day, be seen to have done so and make some appointments to meet the key people. At least that way you’ll be seen as self-sufficient.

There’s always the chance that your new colleagues did know you were coming, had organised a programme of events and meetings and put on a small social gathering to greet you like a long lost friend. On balance then, turning up on the right day is the way to go.

Bring the right things with you

When joining a university, you need to bring a lot of stuff with you.

Your contract and welcome pack will have contained oodles of paperwork.

Many expect you to bring along the originals of your degree certificates. Never mind that they’re framed and on the wall at your grandparents. Get them, bring them with you and return them to your loved ones once that is done. You can photocopy through the glass so don’t unframe them.

Among these other pieces of paperwork will be a random selection of flotsam and jetsam. Nail the important one, give them your bank details if you want to get paid, complete the application form for a parking permit should you need one, be very specific with the registration form that creates your login and email.

Joining the gym, the amateur dramatics society, etc. can wait until you get there. Oh, and take a copy of them lest they get lost later.

Practise saying 'no' (however hard it seems)

In your new role you will have an actual line manager and many more people who will masquerade as such.

Be wary of colleagues offering you the personal development opportunity of helping them with their teaching, tutorials, marking, etc. 

You’ve been hired to do a job. Not doing anything and expecting a salary is, at best, naively optimistic.

However, doing someone else’s job as well as your own is different form of naivety.  Speak to your line manager at the earliest opportunity to get some clarity over what is expected of you.

Success and progress probably boils down to one or two core things like teaching well and producing research. When presented by opportunities, learn to apply the following test: will this help me deliver against the objectives that I have been set or not?

Be collegiate, be polite but be clear about what is your job and what is someone else’s. 

Book research time as if it were a meeting

Being an academic is often a battle between creating space to do research and the noise of everything else.

Don't let email control you, turn off email notifications and visit your inbox when it suits you.

Teaching, marking, meetings and the like can expand to fill the available space. The one thing that you could always do later is to spend quality time reading and writing but if you don’t prioritise this it grinds to a halt.

It is much, much harder to get back up to speed than you’d think. Put some meeting time in your diary for you. You can always shift it around to suit other commitments but at least then you’ll see when it is in danger of being pushed out of your diary altogether. 

Write first

If you're in the social sciences your research boils down to writing. Prioritise writing in the working day. Some people find it easier to write in the morning, others are night owls. Given that you’ll likely have a writing routine from your PhD, you should know what works for you.

Stick to it. If you don’t write, you and your career will be going nowhere.


Do your fair share. Most places will have some kind of workload model. Whether your colleagues view them as a means of bringing equality and fairness to all, or a management tool designed to suppress the workers, they are here to stay.

Learn how your particular model works and check that you are pulling your weight. Then remember that it is a privilege to impart your expertise and enthusiasm for your subject. Strive to be a great lecturer, it is your job title after all.

Go and sit in on the lectures of your colleagues. Pick up tips, ask for feedback and try to teach in a way that makes your students want to stay awake.

You might even inspire someone or make a difference in the world.


The university sector tends not to talk about management or organisation, preferring the jaunty phrase “admin”. No one really likes doing it, it rarely makes a career but it needs to be done. Everyone will be expected to carry out some admin role but these will vary from running your own course(s), to running whole programmes or departments.

The trick is to find a role that you enjoy, make it your own and get a reputation for doing it well.

Develop your profile

No one is going to do this for you. In years gone by this meant simply updating your CV when you wanted to go for promotion or a job elsewhere. Nowadays it is a lot more complicated. 

There will be an in-house publications repository where the university will keep its open-access material so that the wider public can find it, read it and allow it to create impact. 

This, however, is the bare minimum that you’ll be obliged to do. There are a plethora of social media platforms out there: ResearchGate,, GoogleScholar, Twitter, Linkedin, etc. These are increasingly important and curating your online profile takes time and effort that you probably can’t afford but you probably can’t afford not to.

Where am I going next?

Unless you were either a very late starter or a very slow finisher, your PhD completion should have been out of the way long before you turned 70.

This new job will probably not be your last job! It is probably sensible to think about using this job to get your next one.

Think about the criteria for that next job and work backwards to spot the gaps in your current CV.

Use this as another way of scrutinising the endless list of opportunities that are put in front of you. Even if you don’t want to move jobs, you might want to be promoted but in many ways this comes down to the same thing.

Read the political landscape

Apply your research skills to your new institution and get to know the political landscape of your new home.

Know who did, does or will squabble with who. Try to identify the movers and shakers and just accept that these will not always be same people as those in the relevant boxes of an organogram.

Get to know what is seen as important locally.

Is social media and profile important or seen as the desperate floundering of those not cut out for peer review? Are there local forms of recognition, awards and if so, are they worth winning?

Then critically, are the things that will be seen as successful here transferable to the place you want to go next?

This political insight will help you work with, rather than against, the grain. Some excel at it and seem to focus their energies almost exclusively on diplomacy, subterfuge and campaigning.

Even if it’s not your thing, you probably shouldn’t ignore it.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot Watt University, where Kevin O'Gorman is professor of management and business history. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot Watt's It's Not You, It's Your Data blog

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