January 2011

A career in academic research – what does it take to succeed?


It is important to recognize that academic research positions are not all the same and that institutions differ widely in what they require of faculty members. Therefore, you should have a pretty good idea of what fits your goals as you look at positions and the distribution of work that comes with them. 


Barbara M. Sanborn received her doctorate in chemistry from Boston University. After postdoctoral training in biochemistry at Brandeis University and the University of Iowa, she was appointed to the faculty at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, first in reproductive medicine and biology and later in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. She subsequently assumed the position of head of the department of biomedical sciences at Colorado State University and just recently stepped down to return to her laboratory.

It is important to recognize that academic research positions are not all the same and that institutions differ widely in what they require of faculty members. There is a broad spectrum with respect to the amount and type of teaching expected as well as the amount of protected time for research, start-up arrangements and additional resources available to faculty members. Therefore, you should have a pretty good idea of what fits your goals as you look at positions and the distribution of work that comes with them.


In most cases, you will establish your own laboratory, recruit laboratory personnel and secure funding for your research. There is more to this than meets the eye, however, just as there is more to being a successful assistant professor than carrying out research. For starters, you need to have good instincts for selecting research projects of significant impact that have reasonable short-term goals and the potential to develop into long-term programmatic emphases. Your work should be in an area that will attract funding, ideally from more than one source. In a research-intensive environment, you should find senior faculty members who are willing to give you feedback on papers and grant applications. In fact, advice from colleagues can be valuable throughout your career no matter how senior you are.

It is important that you learn to speak and write well. Effective communication with your laboratory staff and students, your departmental and institutional colleagues, and your professional peer group establishes you as an independent investigator with your own ideas and research program. You also will need to learn to network and establish collaborations.

It also will be important for you to develop personnel and fiscal management skills in order to run your lab effectively and responsibly. Recruiting staff is a learned skill, and you probably will make some mistakes sooner or later – learn from them and choose as wisely as you can, as it is very time- and labor-intensive to train laboratory people.


Depending on your position, you may be expected to teach undergraduates and train them in your laboratory, teach and sponsor graduate students, educate professional students, and train postdoctoral fellows. Perfecting a teaching style takes a lot of effort and practice at any level. To be successful, you have to want to convey information. There is both challenge and reward in putting things in such a way that your students have an “Aha!” moment. Regardless of how much or how little teaching you do, you should do it well. Take the time to make your presentations clear, level-appropriate and relevant. I taught biochemistry for many years in a medical school and found that consulting with clinical colleagues about relevant clinical illustrations of basic principles was time well spent. If you are willing to teach outside your area of expertise, all the better, as your value to your department will increase. Use student feedback to improve your style, but do not get overly discouraged about student criticism. Also, seek the balanced perspective of a senior faculty member regarding your presentations.

Training students

If you are like me, you will find helping the students in your laboratory develop their own skills at problem-solving, conducting research and writing very rewarding. This not only advances your research effort but creates new scientists, many of whom go on to productive careers and make contributions of which you will become increasingly proud. Nonetheless, realize that it is much more time-consuming to help a student develop independent skills than simply to dictate a research protocol to a technician. You will have to learn both patience and firmness as you develop the training style that works for you.


To be a successful faculty member, you also will need to perform some service for your department, institution and profession in the form of manuscript reviews and participation in review panels and committees. Being active in professional societies has enhanced my career in many ways. Nonetheless, my advice is to phase into service slowly as your career takes off. These activities can be very satisfying, increase your scientific network and open up new collaborative opportunities as well as enhancing your recognition locally and at the national level in preparation for promotion and tenure. However, these activities also can be distractions that make you feel good and useful but divert your attention from your research and publications, which are the primary evidence of your success as a scientist. Balance is key, and your faculty mentors can help you here.

How do I prepare for this career?

All this sounds like a lot of work, and you definitely will have to develop the ability to wear multiple hats. However, those of us who are now senior faculty members all have managed to do it, learned from our mistakes and developed styles that work for us as individuals – and you can too. You can prepare for a position in academic research by developing good scientific skills and instincts. Having a strong publication record with a reasonable number of first-author publications is key to landing a position. Things that will set you apart include winning awards, participating in local or society organizations, and writing and receiving competitive research fellowships or starter grants.

Some other points to keep in mind

1. Life continues while you are in training and beyond. Your career path may take some twists, turns and even pauses as a result of personal or financial circumstances or other events beyond your control (for example, I took some detours as part of a two-career family, and the first department I joined was disbanded).
2. Develop the work ethic, skills and experience that make you marketable.
3. As much as your situation allows, be intentional about your career decisions. Always make the most of opportunities that present themselves, even if they do not seem to be getting you where you want to be – you cannot anticipate how they will benefit you later on.
4. Recognize that your research emphasis and career goals may change over time. Certainly your research approach and toolbox will change as you take advantage of new technologies. In addition, you may modify your goals at a later stage in your career. For example, I gradually developed an interest in administration in addition to research and teaching, but only after my research program was well established and my children mostly grown.

A few last bits of advice

Savor your successes, learn to accept and benefit from criticism, and persevere and learn from your setbacks. Do this, and you will develop confidence in your ability to survive whatever comes your way. Importantly, pay attention to your interests outside of science, as these will help you to balance your life and put your successes and setbacks in the lab into broader perspective. Most of all, enjoy the journey as much as the destination, as a career in academic research is rewarding and never boring!

found= true1148