An academic career – do you have the write skills?

What’s your writing like? Do you enjoy it? Are you any good at it? The reason I ask is that I’ve been reading a number of blogs recently about the requirements and skills needed to be a successful academic (e.g. Academic Juggling). I found out that writing – doing lots of it – tends to dominate.
Publish, publish, publish
If you’re serious about an academic career, you’ll be all too aware that you need to publish your findings in good quality peer-reviewed journals on a regular basis to maintain your standing in the field (and your job!). This means you need to get writing and start practising as early in your research career as possible. Ask your supervisor if s/he will mentor you with your academic writing, or ask for help from an alternative ‘friendly’ academic or postdoc. There are courses you can attend at your institution, nationally or on-line to help to hone your writing skills (see my previous blog: Publish (by the rules) or Perish!). You can also offer to write a review on your research topic for a journal as another way to enhance your research profile.

Writing grant proposals
The second most important activity, when you become an academic, is to compete for grants in order to fund your research. These can be large international, multi-national consortia, national governmental grants or private, charitable funds. Writing a grant application is like writing a business plan and requires the investigative insights and knowledge of the research landscape demonstrated in a scientific paper, combined with the ability to ‘sell’ your proposal in the face of very tough competition. No doubt you will need input from your collaborators, which will have to be brought together into a coherent and succinct document. What’s more, you will likely need to include timelines, milestones, budgeting and tick a whole host of compulsory administrative boxes using an electronic system which may ‘go down’ and scupper you just as you’re about to press the submit button! [Maybe you can tell I’ve been through this process myself!] Again, you can get some early practice in, even as a PhD student, and certainly during your postdoc years, by applying for small internal funds, competitive travel grants and even assisting your supervisor with larger applications. Workshops and mentoring are also available to improve your skills (see a very useful document produced by the Human Frontier Science Program).

Many new academics are given teaching duties, which means writing lectures. This can take up a lot of your time – far more than delivering the actual lectures themselves – not to mention the accompanying assessments and student pastoral care. Teaching tools and support from higher education support organisations can help to relieve the load, e.g. Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, Higher Education Academy, American Institute of Biological Sciences. However, for the most part, you may just need to aim to put in a lot of extra hours when you start your job!

Administrative work
On top of your core research commitments, as an academic you will need to take part in the administrative activities of your university department. Academics are assigned various roles such as undergraduate or postgraduate director of studies, admissions tutor, careers tutor, committee member, e.g. ethics, teaching, research and examinations. This will usually involve a lot of paperwork for you to read, submit to meetings, reports to write and so on. This type of writing is very different from that required for academic papers so you would do well, when you take up your post, to take advantage of the staff development courses offered by your institution. These can include topics such as how to chair meetings, write up minutes and manage your time effectively.

Of course, there are other discretionary academic writing opportunities, in addition to these core obligations. For example, writing conference presentations and engaging with social media (tweeting, blogging), which can be as important for your career, helping to raise your profile and keep you well networked. Ironically, it may be your ability to prioritise and balance all of these diverse writing tasks, not the writing itself, which will be the greatest determinant of your ultimate success!  

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