The hidden keys to academic success

Guest Blog alert! 

We don’t hear much from professors when advising on careers, so it’s with great excitement that I introduce my guest writer for this month’s blog – Professor Dale Sanders (former director of a major UK research institute).

Much has been written about securing a permanent academic position, not to mention surveys, statistics, podcasts and career stories, for example this blog from The Node. So, if you’re very talented and/or lucky enough to land one such post for yourself, how do you make a success of your new academic career?

Last week, I ran a session for junior academics in which we discussed the challenges of pivoting from a largely autonomous and hands-on role as a postdoctoral researcher, into a leadership position in which you are responsible for activities of which, generally speaking, you have no experience. In addition to the challenges of managing your time so that you can accommodate a variety of new collegiate responsibilities, such as recruitment, administration and committee representation, you remain under pressure to demonstrate your productivity in the form of publications and funding (for which, in many cases, you will be ‘measured and judged’).  

In my workshop session, the junior academic leaders identified a whole host of personal and professional ‘hidden extras’ that are key to academic positions. They are never advertised, but they are vital if you’re to succeed – without having some kind of meltdown! Having coached many junior leaders and witnessed the stresses and strains of the academic world, I feel I have a good objective sense of what these hidden extras are – as portrayed as an iceberg above.

However, on the basis that it’s always really valuable to receive mentoring and advice from experienced academics, who have witnessed the changes and challenges of academic life first-hand, I hope you will find the following guest blog a very useful guide to some of the ‘hidden extras’ that are not articulated in job advertisements, but that will be helpful in your achieving and maintaining a successful academic career.


GUEST BLOG: Professor Dale Sanders
(former Director, John Innes Centre, UK)
10 Key Skills and Personal Qualities that can help you to be Successful as an Academic in Science

I have listed 10 of these key skills below. Ability to write great research manuscripts and grant applications is essential, of course, and is subsumed at various places in the list below that relates more generally to inter-personal attributes. 

This list is not prioritised in any sense – all are important and indeed are inter-related.  And, of course, the list is not intended to be exclusive: many other skills and qualities could be addressed.

Collegiality. The days of a one-person lab-leader and their little group are long gone; thinking big about research nearly always involves collaborating with others to address the issue you are investigating. This applies within your own research field nationally and internationally. For those with whom you do not collaborate, you need to keep in touch with what they are doing, so keep them as friends even if you disagree at an intellectual level. And at home, it is just as important to be collegial with the many other academics in your department who work in different fields. Remember this is in your own interests: support others within your department to achieve collective excellence to make your department world-renowned. Departments don’t run by themselves, and good ones require democratic participation of their academics. Perhaps think about how you can help by improving standards in teaching and more generally the way your department is run.

Tolerance. We are all social animals, and it is inevitable that colleagues (whether within your research group, your institution, or wider in your national or international communities) will occasionally irritate you – or worse, offend. When this happens (it will!), you can take a step back to ask where they are coming from and to try to understand, even if you do not agree with their position. You might find that if you open up a discussion you will find common ground and they will not irritate you so much after all!

Inclusivity. The best academic activity – whether this is teaching or research – gets done by seeking wide opinion for decision-making. Our inherent biases will sometimes prevent diverse input. We need to recognise that each of us has those biases and enable that recognition to accommodate new thinking that might appear a first sight to be contrary to your instincts.

Resilience. You will have periods of low self-esteem. Perhaps a grant application or a paper get negative reviews or students feed back with negative comments on some lectures you have given? There is not an academic this hasn’t happened to. But coping with external negativity is part of your job. Try to de-personalise this and then question objectively where this negativity comes from. If you then feel comments are justified, you can act. If you still feel that comments are unfair, you can discuss with colleagues to get advice.

Big Picture Thinking. You were hired in a competitive environment because of your amazing achievements. Don’t lose sight of that in the day-to-day of running a lab and interacting with the rest of your department. Ask yourself: what are the major research problems I can solve? Can I develop a testable hypothesis? Who will I involve? And, if appropriate, how can I improve human health of the environment we live in?

Recruitment. You will want to recruit the very best and most committed grad students, research assistants, and post-docs to your lab. Ensure that you have your vision right when you recruit: it’s not just about the science the interviewee has done, but about their interpersonal skills. At this stage it is always useful to get second, informal opinions with respect to recruitment.

Mentoring. This will become part of your job. You owe it to those that you recruit, almost all of whom will be either students of researchers on fixed-term contracts, to help them develop their careers, whether this be inside or outside of science. Remind them when appropriate that there is a world outside of research science, and that the analytical skills that they learn as part of their role are transferrable to so many other areas of society where they can contribute to their careers as well as more general contributions.

Communication. You will need to communicate with your students, your lab, your departmental peers and externally to your institution even less frequently.  The key to good communication is to remember your audience: where are they coming from and what is their baseline knowledge? What are their expectations of you? This doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear of course: you can, as a scientist challenge, beliefs. But be respectful and clear. Know exactly what you want to say before you say it.

Willingness to learn. You will make mistakes: all of us do. This can be at the level of appointing an inappropriate graduate student or saying something you later regretted.  Temporarily, apologies can retrieve a situation. But in the context of wider thinking, it is never too late to self-question: did I get that one right? 

Motivation. It’s OK to question every now and then why you ever thought to get into academia in the first place. “Was this just something I fell into given some excellent scientific results?” After all, positions in government, the commercial and charitable sectors might be similarly attractive.  It helps sometimes to look around at what else is on offer – and then perhaps re-invigorate yourself that you have one of the best jobs in the world: inspiring young minds and pushing back the boundaries of discovery.

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