January 2011

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

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.

Service

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!
 

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