Ingredients for success in Academia

In today’s fast-paced, information-rich and highly competitive world, how can you succeed in Academia?  I’ve been thinking about this for some time, in part because I am trying train my own graduate students in the best way possible, and because of my own continual process of self-reflection.  Aspects of this topic also came up through some recent discussions in the twitterverse.  I think there are some fundamental skills that are needed to succeed in Academia today, and the game has changed in the past decade.  It’s not enough to do high quality research, publish your work, and teach – everyone is doing this!  There’s a whole other set of skills that need to be honed and mastered, and here’s my top twelve list.

But first, some caveats: (1) Success comes in many different forms, and in this post, I am referring to some strategies for getting a tenure-track post, and surviving the first several years afterwards. (2) I am not an expert, nor necessarily a role model, but I do think that after 10 years as a professor, I have some words of advice but please recognize these are from my own perspective and I’m biassed by my North American / Canadian experiences.  My comments are also more relevant to scientific disciplines.  (3) Everyone’s list is different – ask you colleagues / peers / mentors about their list and see whether it matches up with mine.

1.Time management skills (organization).  I did not write this post with a particular ‘rank’ in mind, but if I were to rank the list, this is my number one.   Academics are juggling multiple tasks, all the time, and it is getting worse.  The ability to use an agenda, manage tasks, and manage time is often the difference between success and failure.   I find that the time pressures get worse every single year, and it is a constant battle to stay on top of tasks, and a constant battle to prioritize about how to spend your time.  Develop a system, and stick with it – and block out time for things that are important but always get pushed out of the way because more urgent tasks sneak up on you.

2. Work ethic.  This is pretty obvious: academics work really hard, and need to have a very high work ethic.  It’s impossible to succeed without the ability to get down to the task at hand, focus, and get the job done.  The mantra is pretty simple:  SHOW UP, and get the work done. Now, be careful, however – not all work is productive work.  Productivity is about doing work well, and may not have anything to do with quantity of hours.   Work hard at the right things….

3. Communication skills.  All highly successful academics that I know have excellent communication skills.  They may not have perfected all aspects of communication (i.e., not all great writers are also great presenters), but I guarantee they have perfected at least one.  Academics have to write grants, scientific papers, reports. Academics have to lecture to undergraduates, speak in public settings, and deliver discipline-specific talks at conferences.  These skills must be honed, and if you are seeking an academic career and are weak in some areas of communication, get some help.  This may be in the form of taking a writing class, doing on-line tutorials in grammar, or perhaps taking an acting class to improve oral communication skills.  Or…write a blog – regular posts will certainly help improve your communication skills!

4. Curiosity & Passion & Creativity.  Although a lot of Academia is about managing people, money and time, an important fraction is about letting your curiosity, passion and creativity blossom.  This may come in strange ways and in strange times.  Keep a small notebook around so when that really neat idea hits you, you can jot it down and come back to it later.   I think one reason a lot of academics followed that career path is because in can offer opportunities for creative thinking – don’t forget this when you are bogged down in the daily grind….

5. Interpersonal skills (be nice!).  I’ve written about karma in academia before – fundamentally, collegiality is very important within the Academic community.  Be nice to people, give them time, share, listen, collaborate, and take time to laugh and have fun with everyone in your community.  There are a lot of politics within the Academic world, and I’m not too sure whether or how I navigate these, but I do know that it always pays to be friendly, and develop  your interpersonal skills – in the long run it will help you meet success.

6. Good timing (seizing opportunities).  I have had some good fortune in my career. In particular, the timing of my job offer at McGill was very significant.  This can be beyond your control, except to say that sometimes the perfect opportunity comes by and you mustn’t let it pass!  It took four people to really push me to apply for my current position because I did not think I was ready yet – i.e., I wanted to get a few more publications out before feeling really competitive for a tenure-track job.  However, thanks to those individuals who pushed me along, I did seize that opportunity and it paid off.

7. Know when to be a specialist, know when to be a generalist.  This is a big topic, and I will write a longer post about this sometime in the future.  For now, however, I will keep it to the basics:  During the Ph.D. students are typically in the processes of becoming more and more specialized.  When applying for an academic position, however, these newly minted PhDs must suddenly become generalists and discuss how their research program will fit into a Department, and how they will collaborate with other researchers at the University and beyond, and how they will get big research grants.  All of these require job candidates to think in more general, and big-picture terms.   This is difficult to do without practice…so… join a general ‘journal club’ in your Department, read broadly every now and then, and towards the end of your Ph.D. really start to think about how your work fits into the larger discipline- and I don’t mean just your field of study, but rather the broader academic/research environment, and society at large.  You must be both a generalist and a specialists to succeed in Academia.

8. Appreciate history.   You are a product of your academic past, your upbringing, your peers, and your past and current personal relationships.  Always remember this, and keep in mind that you likely carry traits from this history, and sometimes these traits can be used to your advantage, and sometimes they can hurt.  The best advice I have is to stay grounded, and level-headed.  Always acknowledge  your ‘academic baggage’ and then move on.  Related to this, and in a more academic sense, know the history of your discipline also.  Don’t forget that your research is also a product of where you came from, and its time stamp.

9. Knowing when to say no.  You will always be asked to do more than you can do, and at some point this can break you.  Stay somewhat selfish, and say no to things that take you too far from your career goals.  The key step to getting an academic post, and keeping it, is often research productivity, and so at the later stages of your PhD and early on in your academic position, keep focused on research and try to manage your time to keep that part of your portfolio moving forward.  I think it’s too easy to let research productivity slip when you are balancing other pressures of Academia.

10.  Stop being a perfectionist.  Most academics that I know have the ‘problem of perfectionism’.  Don’t misunderstand – perfection in what you do is a suitable and admirable goal, and you should not compromise on your core scientific principles.  However, that particular statistical analysis, or manuscript, or data collection will never, ever stop and you can get caught in a vicious cycle where the end just never happens.  This circle of perfectionism will take all your time, sap your energy, and result in zero productivity.  Success in academia means you need to recognize that compromises are possible, and that your ‘close enough’ is probably at a very high level of perfection anyway, and you will be the only person who knows you got to 96% of where you aimed instead of 100%.  (…do you know about the impostor syndrome?)

11. Remain optimistic.  it’s a scary world, a changing world, it can be a depressing world.  Furthermore, there are ever increasing demands on your time (professional and personal) and it can be a difficult road.  The day is full of never-ending emails, pressures, and you leave the workplace knowing it will be the same tomorrow.  I can also guess that you are probably checking your emails on a smartphone first thing in the morning.  All of this gives reason to be pessimistic about your work, and the future.  This requires an overall shift in mindset and philosophy.  Here’s one way to achieve it, via a true story.  For a few years I rode an early morning commuter train into work.  In the winter, it was dark, cold, snowy and the mood as I walked up to the train platform was often rather somber.  However, one fellow who I got to know used to stop me every morning, shake my hand, look in my eyes and say “Chris, look at this – ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE“.  Indeed, every day is another day in paradise.  Remain optimistic.

12. Get a PhD and stay healthy ….Oh yeah, you’ll need that Ph.D. – go get one of those.  And to do that requires all the same things I mentioned above, plus a good brain – but I know you already have one of those.  Your mother was right, also: stay healthy – eat your veggies and get some sleep.

So there ends my twelve ingredients for success in Academia.  Missing anything?

There are, of course, many other people who have written on this topic.  For example, ‘The Professor is In‘ is devoted to navigating academia from all its interesting angles;  this one has some nice thoughts about happiness and the ‘work-life’ balance, and this Science – Careers post has ideas and tips that are complementary to what I have written.  And there are many, many others!

Feedback is welcomed – please let me know your thoughts…

 

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12 thoughts on “Ingredients for success in Academia

  1. This is a great list. I would add a couple of things:
    Entrepreneurship is a really important skill for academics. Spotting opportunities, negotiating with collaborators and funders, thinking “outside the box” in terms of projects and funding arrangements. Remember – money follows money, so it is important sometimes to just get your foot in the door (say, with a small grant), deliver it and build on and around it.
    Leadership skills are also very important. Leadership is generally not given to someone, (s)he has to demonstrate these skills first in all sorts of ways such as volunteering to take on additional tasks or to take something forward (and off the hands of the senior team).
    My last skill is about keeping an eye on the longer term goals, and clarity of thought at every level. Don’t waste time with stuff that is unimportant. And don’t miss opportunities because you don’t feel you will not get credit, or because you are shy.
    I have recently had to reduce my hours significantly because of family problems. But my colleagues have hardly noticed because I have skimmed through my emails and picked out the key ones to answer or send on. This has required clarity of thought and prioritisation. There are many things that I have not done – but I have chosen which ones to leave and which to do, and it is amazing how well I have kept my plates spinning. A very welcome by-product has been that members of my team have really stepped up their game, and taken responsibility in a way that I could never get them to do before. I think I may retain this way of working even when my home troubles have resolved!
    I am a Professor of Health Services Research in Swansea, UK

  2. Helen – thanks for the thoughtful comment – I agree – Leadership skills can be essential! Especially when running a large research group. I also agree that keeping the long-view in mind is essential. Your personal story at the end of your comment is very much appreciated – you are correct that when time is really precious, it does make prioritizing unbelievably important. And strategic approaches to ‘tasks’ is so important. Thank you.

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