Strategy for a successful academic career

The academic thoughts you read here may be interesting, but what a family member recently told me I really should be doing is helping people with designing a strategic career. So, I’ll try to begin with this entry. I have to say that we humans are generally as bad at planning our lives as we are at meeting deadlines, or eating less than we might. We are better at responding to what is in front of us, something that easily leads to the biggest academic pitfall of all. This is filling our day with committees, informal chats on department politics, and excessive lecture polishing rather than focusing on the one thing that will get you tenure: excellent, prolific published research.

In the early 1980s when my children were small, and I was an assistant professor, we had a neighbor right across the street who actually practiced the strategy of paying herself first. We were all struggling, but her family struggled more than the rest of us, because of how much they saved. They were able to keep the big picture in focus, and this is really what planning a strategic career is all about.

A former undergraduate student of mine, one who turned out to be a real star, actually formed a committee of people she respected to advise her on her life plans. She has had an amazing and varied career, has invented jobs for herself, and has let different things gain primacy at different times. She was entirely brilliant on her own, but I wonder how much that committee helped her with her bravest steps.

These two anecdotes are to illustrate the two legs of successful strategic planning: first, keeping the big picture in mind through self-disciplined planning, and second, getting advice and mentorship from a trusted few.

Managing a successful research career is a huge topic, and undoubtedly varies from field to field. Here are a few key elements. Balance the current with the future. In the present you need to see to it that the papers are written, the students mentored, courses taught, proposals submitted. For the future, you need to be open to the next big idea. Read widely. Go to meetings other than those in your most narrow specialty. Go to department seminars outside your specialty. Begin new collaborations that might grow into a new research direction.

Those collaborations can let you do something very different without too much pain or risk. I like to think of it like symbiosis. Insects that suck sap, like tree hoppers or aphids, rely on bacterial endosymbionts for vitamins, and many other things. In evolution, it was easier to tame a bacterium than to evolve all those novel functions de novo. Collaboration is like that. What is easy for you is hard for them, and vice versa.

Future entries will discuss efficient teaching, what committees you should agree to serve on, and other strategic things. Just remember one thing that may be most important of all. The academic life is fun and it is supposed to be so. We researchers and teachers get to follow our fancy, and discover new things, then share them with others.

The best strategy of all is to make what you do align as much as possible with what you love to do. That won’t take self-discipline. Save that discipline for the small-as-possible part of the job you do have to do even though it isn’t the most fun.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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