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Careers in academia

Author: Dr Josie McLaren, Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Finance, Newcastle University Business School and Melis Besen, Lecturer in Accounting and Finance, Newcastle University Business School

Published: 21 Jan 2022

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Advice and guidance for accountants looking to step into academia.

Roadmap for practitioners

Accounting and Finance degrees have always been popular university programmes at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Continued demand from both home and international students ensures that there is always a need for universities to maintain and create new academic positions in Accounting and Finance. In UK universities, although the average ratio of the number of students to staff (the ‘SSR’) in the Accounting and Finance subject area has improved slightly over the past five years, it continues to be around 25% higher than the overall average SSR for university subjects1. Universities and academic schools are working hard to address this deficit through investing in more staff, and the technical expertise and industry experience possessed by qualified accounting professionals is desirable for a variety of lecturing contracts, including those that focus on teaching and research, on teaching only, or teaching combined with scholarship activities such as projects that involve engagement with the profession on particular issues (for example digital learning and assessment), employability initiatives or education-based research.

But how best to get into academia, or find out whether you are interested in academia as a career? Here is a list of suggestions that may support your thinking, followed by a short profile of a colleague who joined Newcastle University when I was Accounting and Finance Subject Group Head:

  • A really helpful first step is to get some teaching experience. This will tell you whether you actually enjoy teaching and will help with thinking about your next career step. Furthermore, the experience will stand you in good stead, should you wish to transition to academia in the future. Many Accounting and Finance groups/departments will rely on adjunct members of staff or visiting lecturers to help support seminar teaching, particularly of the technical accounting material. This may be something you can do whilst you are still working in practice. Don’t wait for positions to be advertised as many are filled by word of mouth – contact heads of subject group to ask if they have any vacancies. A good time of year to do this is in the early spring, as preparations will be starting for the following academic year.
  • Academic life is not the easy option! As with most jobs, there are pressures at particular times (such as exam marking). The environment suits those with an enquiring mind, who are curious about why accounting and finance is practised in the way it is, the key issues being discussed and how it could be better. You may wish to think about whether you are interested in undertaking research (which could be a requirement in some institutions, depending on the contract type). There are all sorts of opportunities for practitioner-based research, where you can bring your skills, experience and contacts to make a great contribution.
  • Find out about what being an academic actually entails. Talk to anybody you may know who works in a university to see what it’s like. This may be through contacts you have already established, through networking events such as Flourishing in Academia or conferences organised by ICAEW (see upcoming events). You could make a direct approach to somebody at your local university (have a look at the staff profiles on the webpage) or even talk to your old lecturers (whether you studied accounting or finance or not)!
  • Look out for the various positions that are advertised. One of the most common websites used by UK universities is jobs.ac.uk or you could reach out and connect with academics on LinkedIn. You can also register for emails re vacancies at university websites. Pay attention to the essential and desirable attributes as these will vary across institutions and positions.
  • Find a mentor who can help – perhaps somebody at your local university or, if you are an ICAEW member, get in touch with CABA to benefit from career coaching
  • Be prepared to be asked to undertake further qualifications. For example, universities may want you to apply for a teaching qualification such as Fellow of the Higher Education Academy or support you to study for higher degrees such as a PhD or DBA.
  • Once in position you need to be prepared to learn. Don’t rush and expect to land a role as a professor or manager immediately! Academia suits people who are willing to take the time and effort to constantly read and learn about their subject, and someone very open-minded.

The perspective of an accountant who made the switch

I joined Newcastle University in July 2019 after spending eight years working in industry in group accounting. As I reached my early thirties, I started to realise that my strengths were in team-working and mentoring others, and I wanted to find a role that would play on those strengths. I managed to secure some part-time hours teaching seminars at Northumbria University through contacts from my time as a student. I found this an excellent way to test out my teaching skills. I quickly realised that there is nothing like the buzz you get after a successful lesson or when a student tells you that you have helped them to learn something new.

I actually met a Newcastle University colleague at the ICAEW Flourishing in Academia event. This gave me the confidence to approach Josie as Subject Group Head to enquire about seminar support. I did this for a couple of months and then I applied for a lectureship position, securing a permanent full-time post at the university. I teach on a range of modules covering financial accounting and professional skills. I am progressing well with my PhD, exploring professional identity and how this develops when chartered accountants move from practice to industry. I never thought I’d be studying again but it is an exciting journey with the support of experienced supervisors. This year I managed to secure a bursary from the Chartered Accountants’ Livery Charity to support my research, following a successful interview process. ICAEW members pursuing a career in academia and undertaking doctoral studies are eligible to apply to the charity for funding to support with research costs such as travel, conferences, and interview transcription. You can find out more about the bursary here.

I have been overwhelmed by the support and kindness of my colleagues and this has made the switch from industry to academia really worthwhile. I would advise anyone who is looking for a similar change to go into it with an open mind, a willingness to learn, flexibility and adaptability. There are challenges but the students make it all worth it and it will be some of the most rewarding work you will ever do!

Dr Josie McLaren is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Finance and the former head of the Accounting and Finance Subject Group at Newcastle University Business School (2017-2021). Ms Melis Besen is a Lecturer in Accounting and Finance at Newcastle University Business School. For any questions on this article, please contact josie.mclaren@ncl.ac.uk or melis.besen@ncl.ac.uk or reach out via LinkedIn.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.

1 Based on information in The Guardian league tables, the average SSR for the Accounting and Finance subject area was 20.9 in 2022 compared to 21.1 in 2017. For all subject areas, the average was 16.1 in 2022 compared to 16.0 in 2017. See for example the 2022 tables here