Want an academic career? Cultivate people and ideas

“Start to cultivate relationships very early in your PhD” and “Start an ‘Ideas’ folder”. I saw these words of advice written on a blog today, entitled ‘Transitioning from grad school to a postoc’. It was posted on a forum called ‘Tenure, she wrote’, which posts lots of great blogs and is worth looking at when you get a chance. Although it refers to the first stages of a research career path, it’s highly relevant to anyone considering a future academic career.

The reason I say this is that when you look at advertised tenured academic positions, being able to demonstrate independent and innovative thinking is a one of the essential application criteria (usually articulated along the lines of ‘an established or growing international reputation’, ‘proven ability to secure research funding’ or ‘a consistent track record of quality publications’). The university faculty needs to keep moving forward and, ideally, wants to be leading the field in its key areas of research. If you can show that you are an independent innovative thinker, who is prepared to move out from the shadow of your supervisor and take your research in new directions you will stand out from the crowd. Your list of publications may be impressive, but are you ready to be the person whose name is listed last, can you take on the role of corresponding author, will you be able to submit successful funding applications, demonstrating that you’re re-positioning your research away from that of your current professor? Securing an independent research fellowship early in your career will allow you to shape your research interests to prepare you more readily for this transition. Alternatively, your postdoctoral position may have uncovered a niche of expertise, away from that of your supervisor, which you feel confident to pursue at the leadership level.

So, referring back to the start of this blog, two key activities that will almost certainly help lead you towards independence are the cultivation of people and ideas.
Meeting delegates at conferences, discussing your findings, collaborating with others and sharing perspectives are all crucial components to enhancing the scope of your research. You will discover new insights, experience different viewpoints and expand your horizons, probably unexpectedly! People think in different ways, analyse and synthesise information differently, which means you can benefit from their opinions and they can benefit from yours; so it’s a symbiotic arrangement which means it can also be sustainable and productive. You can evidence this from the number of long-standing colleagues and friends your professors have made over the years – this is one of the reasons they love to meet up at conferences and meetings! Ideas are generated from these stimulating interactions, whether in person or over email/social media. Ideas and flashes of inspiration, which may seem trivial or impractical at the time, should be stored away in case they become viable in the future, as you’ll probably forget them in the meantime.   
Current senior academics and professors will have benefited from making strategic collaborations early in their careers and will also have had innovative ideas to take their research in new directions. Even if you look at those ‘on their way up’ you can see that people and ideas are the crucial seeds to cultivate to grow a successful academic career.


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