A Mid-Career academic diary

In this post, I thought it might be interesting to outline some of the typical work tasks for me as a mid-career academic. Hopefully this is not too self-indulgent; I thought that if you’re an early career researcher or student considering future careers, this may be of interest to you. Perhaps you’re an international academic, curious about the UK system. Or perhaps you’re a student, parent, or a journalist, or wondering what keeps academics so busy all the time!

If you would like to contribute to this series, please drop me a line.

Our jobs are varied, and interesting. We do a variety of different tasks every day, which keeps us busy, but also engaged. This was captured in this excellent graphic by Susan Wardell.

What do academics do all day?

At the moment, I’m a Senior Lecturer at a research-intensive university in the UK. That means that my contract, which is pretty typical, is divided up approximately as 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% administration. Individuals may have variations on this if they take on large leadership roles or are bought out on grants, but essentially, most of us do some combination of research, teaching and administration. Many universities have a ‘workload model’ that attempts to balance out teaching, research and administration equitably.

Most full-time academics in the UK will work 12 months a year, with a standard amount of annual leave. Our jobs involve much more than teaching, so we’re kept busy all year around, even when the students have gone home.

Below is a snapshot of some typical tasks academics undertake. I’m sure I’ve missed lots; feel free to comment and add detail in the comments below.


Teaching includes a wide range of tasks, such as writing and delivering lectures, seminars and practicals, marking student work, supervising or advising dissertation students, teaching field classes in the UK or abroad, pastoral care for students, tutorials, meeting colleagues to discuss teaching plans, responding to student emails or queries, hosting office hours where students can seek advice, writing student references, maintaining the Virtual Learning Environment (e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle), and all this for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Often this will cluster in term-time, but even out of term we’re busy supervising student dissertations, marking work, holding exam boards, setting and marking resits, and preparing our teaching for next year.

Engaging with students is often a highlight for many people.

Bethan Davies lecturing to students in Iceland


Administration includes a wide range of tasks. As academics, we’re unusual in that we administer and deliver our own degrees, run our departments, and interact with faculty and university-level committees. Academic administrative roles could include Director of Postgraduates, Director of Undergraduate Teaching, degree-scheme lead, Admissions lead, study abroad and international exchanges, EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) lead, Athena Swan lead, Exams and Assessment Officer, mentoring colleagues, and many more. We usually act under the leadership of a Head of Department and, beyond that, a Head of School or Dean.

Colleagues may also sit on panels to review and rank grant proposals for colleagues (especially where demand-management means only a limited number of proposals can be submitted), or conduct other acts of service within the university. Finally, many colleagues also sit on multiple committees for various teaching or research tasks at school, faculty and university level.

Leadership is seen as important for career progression, and it’s a key part of our job. As a more senior academic, these days I have more significant leadership roles than as a junior academic.


Research includes a wide range of tasks, from actively undertaking research (including undertaking fieldwork, remote sensing, data collection, interviews, working in a laboratory, analysing data, and so on), to writing grants and papers, supervising PhD or research postgraduates, supervising post-doctoral researchers and fellows, giving and attending research seminars at our institution or at other institutions to which we’ve been invited, reading published papers and books, attending conferences and giving and listening to lectures and talks, and so on. Often research, especially committed time in the field or laboratory, and international conferences, will cluster out of term time.

As I’ve become more senior, I’ve moved more towards research management, doing a bit less active research myself, and spending more time mentoring and supporting the research of my mentees and students.

This photograph shows me (Bethan Davies) visiting Nancy Bertler and others in her ice core laboratory at GNS, New Zealand. The ice core is continuously melted and analysed by numerous automatic machines.

Professional service

Alongside these roles within the university, most academics do a fair amount of professional service outside of the university. This includes reviewing papers, books or grants for various publishers or grant-funding bodies, serving on grant funding committees to evaluate and rank submitted grants, serving as editors for academic publishers, undertaking science communication or public engagement (such as going into schools, talking to journalists, serving as external examiners for degree programmes in other universities, writing blogs or maintaining websites like this one, mentoring colleagues, writing references, presenting at public science events, and many other things), serving on committees of professional organisations, examining external PhD or MRes students (at another university), and many other acts of service. Most of these acts are unpaid, or paid only nominally.

As I’ve become more senior, more and more of my time is taken up with professional service. A large proportion of my time is spent reading and evaluating or constructively critiquing the work of my colleagues and students, be it their papers, grants, or other projects.

Finally, we all receive, read, and respond to, what feels like hundreds of emails, every single day!

Supportive colleagues

Academics are typically supported by a raft of committed and talented professional services colleagues working in a range of different realms, from IT to the laboratories, managing the grant-funding process and supporting costing and delivery of funded research, supporting teaching and learning, and ensuring that the department runs smoothly and meets its collective goals.

Want to contribute your day? Get in touch.

See all posts in the Academic Diary series.

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