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Planning your law career path in academia

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator


Academia is concerned with the pursuit of research, education and scholarship. Academics are people who work in this field, either as a teacher or researcher at a university or other higher education institution. They are typically people who study, analyse and critique the law before sharing their findings through teaching, publishing and participating in public discussions. While their work is largely theoretical, as opposed to solicitors whose work is largely practical, many academics are now seeking to blend theory and practice into their research activities.

Entering Academia

A career as an academic will often begin with short-term or casual positions as a tutor. To secure these positions you need to be a standout performer as a student. This means highly competitive marks (ideally including some academic merit prizes), strong relationships with faculty, and successful admission to an honours program (many of which require prospective applicants to possess a distinction average and several references). You might also demonstrate that you’ve been involved in Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS).

From this point, it’s a matter of continuing to distinguish yourself, through excellence in teaching and research, so that you can pursue new academic opportunities as they arise. You’ll need to make a concerted effort to publish articles in prestigious journals. It can also help to participate in extracurricular activities such as

Moot Competitions.

Another way you may want to become an academic is by completing a masters program or PhD. Today, most candidates need a PhD to obtain a full-time position as the criteria for most academic jobs tend to favour coursework over research. Impressive professional experience is also looked upon favourably. Ideally the experience will be aligned with your research interests (for example, you completed a period of service in DFAT and are interested in pursuing further research in international law).

Whichever path you choose, it’s important to bear in mind that academic institutions are drawn primarily to people who possess both scholarly potential and a clear idea of their area of research.

What’s involved?

Academics generally divide their time between three main tasks: teaching, research, and community involvement.

Your teaching responsibilities will depend on your position, with associate lecturers and lecturers, for example, generally expected to spend more time instructing students. Teaching involves more than delivering the lessons. You must also prepare classes, administer tests, mark essays, and provide students with academic support and guidance. If you’re employed at a tertiary institution and hold a relatively senior position, you may also find that a lot of your time is taken up by meetings in which you set policies, review the curriculum, and coordinate with colleagues to implement new academic initiatives.

Generally, academics are expected to support the reputation of their home university by engaging in research and publishing their findings in reputable journals. There are social and professional advantages to doing this. Law academics often offer key insights that can play a role in shaping public policies, and may even influence court decisions. Unsurprisingly, the academics who engage in this type of research often practise as well.

Best and worst

The tertiary sector is perceived as offering impressive job stability and excellent working conditions. Indeed, the life of an academic often includes a good salary, prestige and high workplace flexibility – something that is much more difficult to achieve in legal practise.

However academia isn’t only competitive to enter – it’s competitive to succeed within. Academics are frequently under enormous pressure to publish articles in reputable journals while also teaching classes, supervising students, and travelling to attend conferences and other events. Moreover, working within large institutions, such as universities, means working within a complex system of rules and responsibilities.

Career progression

At most Australian colleges and universities, the career progression of an academic follows a somewhat predictable path, with standardised job titles corresponding to award salaries as set out by the Australian government’s Higher Education Academic Salaries Award. Each university has an agreement with staff that includes the more relevant rules about appointments, promotions and salaries.

Postgraduate research allows one to gain a PhD and begin applying for work as an associate lecturer. Associate lecturers may also be law graduates who lack a PhD but have distinguished themselves with professional experience or other successes. On average, associate lecturers earn $62,000–92,000 per year PhD students may also apply for a teaching fellowship. This gives them a teaching load that comes with an expectation of research output, which can include progress on the PhD. These are fixed-term appointments ranging from one to three years.

Lecturers are academics who typically possess a PhD and significant teaching experience. They can be offered a permanent contract or offered a fixed-term appointment (for example, to cover for another academic on sabbatical). The average salary of lecturers in Australia is $92,000–118,000.

Generally, lecturers become senior lecturers after four to six years of experience. By this point, they are expected to demonstrate sustained competence in teaching and research, with an established academic profile. Australian senior lecturers earn $112,000–140,000 per year.

An associate professorship represents a university’s recognition of your excellence in teaching and research, and is generally awarded to academics who have made a strong impact outside of ‘the academy’ (generally by influencing policy, publishing books, or developing a strong international profile). They earn $149,000–188,000 per year.

A professorship is the pinnacle of an academic’s career (though one’s contributions may be recognised after retirement with an emeritus professorship). Being appointed a professor means that you have excelled at making significant contributions to your field of study and, over time, achieved recognition both in Australia and internationally for your research. Many professors are expected to assume administrative responsibilities, meaning that they can be involved in developing curricula, reviewing applications for other academic appointments, and setting university policy. Professors generally earn more than $175,000 per year.

Job title examples:

  • tutor
  • lecturer
  • course coordinator
  • law librarian
  • legal careers consultant
  • dean
  • researcher.

Choose this if you:

  • Have an exceptional academic transcript.
  • Enjoy reading and writing.
  • Prefer legal theory to legal practice.
  • Wish to teach the law.
  • Have an inquiring mind.
  • Are highly self-motivated.
  • Can commit to working hard for a long time to secure tenure.