Academic Career Advice

A student sent me an e-mail this week that prompted an extended, and slightly surprising, response. I didn’t really think that I had that much to offer on the subject of “how do I choose an MSc? And how do I get into teaching?”. Rather than my rather elongated reply go to waste, here is the nearly unredacted e-mail below.

Hi [student],

You’ve also asked a series of large questions that are, literally, years away!

What type of Masters should you go for?
Doing an MSc is often an additional top-up to your knowledge, critical thinking, and personal development. For some fields (think acoustics) it’s required because there aren’t many training centres that do a subject specific degree. Therefore, many students will leave university or college having not touched a sound level meter, leaving the companies with a lot of internal training left to do before the applicant can ‘do’ the job.

In terms of critical thinking development – a good MSc/MEng will give you some taught modules and then some independent modules that focus on a task your own design. More often than not this will be a pilot project, and then a larger project. Certainly for most universities the model works well as they teach you how to do publishable research, and then make you properly design the research project to completion.

The most important type of masters is the one that you want to do.

Currently, you probably don’t have enough subject knowledge to pick out a single MSc (from Applied Acoustics through to Audio Engineering, and Music Technology). You probably just know what you like. In a few years with a bit of knowledge you’ll able to find the right course, delivered in the right way, and the right topic of dissertation.

And also, what would be a possible way of becoming a lecturer?
There are several types of lecturer, so I’ll try to address most of them. I’ll get to how you become one at the end.

The first is a college lecturer. These guys often have an honours degree and a bit of experience. It’s unlikely they’re an expert, or understand the Higher Education model of publishing and grant funding – but they’re subject experts in their own way. Being an inspiration can really help get the next generation into University.

Secondly, you’ve got a University lecturer.. but as a part-timer. They’re known as Associate Lecturers. Often they work in the industry and they’re employed to cover specific units and topics. They’re specialists in their field. It’s every possibility that they are MSc’d or even PhD’d, but in Solent’s case they are unlikely to be that highly trained. They’re just very good at their industry job. You work between 1-3 days a week covering a specialist topic. The rest of the working week is spent doing the job for a commercial company.

Lastly, you end up as a full time University lecturer. In more modern universities – they will be ex-professionals who want to ‘give back’ into the industry. Despite our ages, the team at Solent are in this category.
In the ‘russell group’ universities there will be an expectation for a PhD as a minimum, but this is slowly creeping into the modern university culture too. As part of the job you will have completed research projects, become a world-leading specialist in something, and then teach on that subject.

To give you some context – there are four Drs on staff. Outside of teaching we engage in topics of research that can be found in the Institute of Acoustics, Audio Engineering Society, SMPTE, and other journals. We’re lucky enough to be supported in the research by [team’s MSc and PhD projects]. There are a lot of very clever people on the team.

How do I actually become a lecturer though?!
Hopefully that’s given you an overview of what the skills are, how you use them, and how they relate to a ‘lecturing’ job. Now I can finally answer your ultimate question of how to become one. The short answer is that you study as much as you can, work in the field for a few years, and then apply. In everyone’s case; they arrived at the job in a slightly different way.

Not everyone who has a PhD will teach, and not all who teach have a PhD.

I certainly didn’t think that I would become a university lecturer – it happened as a result of having a student who told me that my part-time teaching should become a vocation. I applied for two jobs, and one of those was at Solent.

Final Words of Advice
To conclude my lengthy e-mail, I will offer you some advice. Enjoy your undergraduate degree. Go out and do as much work experience as possible. You’re at an early stage of your university life; it’s great that you’re aware of the possibilities but don’t drown yourself with them.

If you do want to continue on the academic path then ask the lecturing staff once you’re ready. For some people looking at ten years of university (i.e. me) was fun, and for others is wasn’t (my mate Conor). We’re both successful and happy.

I hope that some of my advice helps you, either now or in the future. I’m in the university over Easter so get in touch if you want to sit and discuss specific courses or any point I’ve made!

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