Curiosity may be the most important characteristic of a successful academic. It is something that motivates us a lot in our earliest days, but sadly, many get over it. Nurture your curiosity for a successful academic career in both teaching and research. Look for puzzles and enigmas. Find new ways to teach and learn. Wonder about things that others may seem to think solved. Wander intellectually into new areas. Bring techniques from one area to another. Study a novel organism, or a known organism in a novel way. Explore.
I think that it is curiosity more than anything that is a key to a successful academic career. Some may argue that drive alone can make a career successful. But the trouble with drive is its close relationship to competitiveness. If this alone motivates you, your research will parallel that of others too closely as you try to compete with others. Your teaching may also suffer. Curiosity gives you the freedom to go on your own path and discover completely new things in all aspects of your career.
But curiosity alone is not enough. Alone, it might cause you to stop when you think you know the answer and move on. A successful academic needs to share her discoveries with others, typically by publishing, something often best done with a funded team of eager, curious investigators. The only way to lead such a group is to be effective. By this, I mean planning and publishing the fruits of curiosity. I mean running a well-functioning group. Some of these skills are like businesses, full of meetings, evaluations, goals, and plans. But they are driven by curiosity, not profit.
I suppose that curiosity and effectiveness will take you nearly all the way there. After all, if you are doing excellent curiosity-driven research with a well-led and productive team that publishes regularly, what else is there?
This is where conscientiousness comes in. It is for all the other stuff professors need to do. It is astonishing how many small but important tasks can fill your day, or disappoint others if you fail to do them. You need to be responsible to others from attending meetings, teaching and planning classes, writing letters of recommendation, reviewing papers, serving the department, and your professional societies, and mentoring. You need to make hotel reservations, reserve flights, pay dues, and many other such things if you aren’t lucky enough to have an assistant. You need a good system for keeping track of these things, for answering emails expeditiously, and not disappointing those who depend on you. You also need to figure out how to keep these tasks from consuming the part of your day that should be devoted to curiosity. I bet I have at least 5 of these kinds of tasks a day. I sometimes do them first to get that sense of accomplishment, but I know it isn’t enough.
Curiosity, effectiveness, and conscientiousness matter. Pay attention to these three, and the rest may well take care of itself.