Confused by conflicting career advice? That’s inevitable for academics

The never-ending checklist of skills required by academia means careers advice is rarely consistent, says Maarten van Smeden

January 27, 2021
Source: istock

How does one become a successful academic? I have certainly received plenty of career advice from senior academics pointing me down the path of success, but it’s rarely been consistent.

After all, what is success in academia? Is it excellence in teaching and research, or is it managing to move up the rungs of the academic ladder by any means necessary?

One question seldom considered in these wise words offered over the years is how to manage the trade-offs between the many aspects of being a star academic. For instance, how does one live up to expectations of becoming the beloved teacher, the principal investigator, the successful grant writer, the curious scholar, the empathetic adviser, the inspiring leader, the engaging communicator, the reliable reviewer and the dutiful editor? And all the while maintaining some semblance of “work-life” balance.

For better or worse, I recently shared a summary of the advice I’ve received over the years to highlight the unclear path that lies ahead for early career academics:

  • Be the ultimate collaborator, but also don’t be. Say “yes” to as many collaborations as possible: co-author papers and grants. Learn from your peers. Share and discuss your great ideas to develop them. It’s all about synergy. But also, collaborations slow you down, distract and take the spotlight off you! Don’t be the ultimate collaborator.
  • Be the methods ninja, but also don’t be. Science is only as good as its weakest link. Don’t be satisfied applying the default analyses used in your field. But also, don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good, and don’t confuse reviewers. Just apply the default analyses used in your field. Don’t be a methods ninja.
  • Be the beloved teacher, but also don’t be. Professor means teacher. It is literally in the name. So connect with your students and help them make the world a better place. But also, focus on the science and minimise the hours teaching. Don’t try to become a beloved teacher.
  • Be an open scientist, but also don’t be. A modern scientist is an open scientist. Open up your code, your data and your publications. But also, your code is messy, the data aren’t yours to share and you should save the article processing charges to hire new lab members. Don’t be an open scientist.
  • Be the literature addict, but also don’t be. Constantly read the literature. Know the classics in your field, while keeping abreast of the very cutting edge. But also, there is too much literature! Forgo time on reading to invest time in writing your own stuff. Don’t be a literature addict.
  • Be multidisciplinary, but also don’t be. Become the best by borrowing knowledge from different scientific disciplines and by working in multidisciplinary teams. But also, be the specialist. Focus on your own discipline and team, your CV will thank you. Don’t be multidisciplinary.
  • Be the social media rock star, but also don’t be. Outreach! Get your papers more attention. Show that you can and will communicate with the public to explain your science. But also, don’t waste time on social media! Your tenure track committee is not impressed by your thousands of social media followers, half of whom are bots anyway. Don’t be a social media rock star.
  • Be the dedicated peer reviewer, but also don’t be. Be an active part of the scientific community and do your duty by peer-reviewing. The system will collapse without you! But also, peer review is a waste of your time because everything will be published anyway, with or without you. Don’t be the dedicated peer reviewer.
  • Be the frequent flyer, but also don’t be. You are international. You fly for conferences, talks, collaborations and even to stand next to a poster. But also, think about the environment and about how much time is wasted on travel. Plus, we have videoconferencing now, which is just as good, right? Right? Don’t be the frequent flyer.
  • Be the family person, but also don’t be. Don’t forget to live your life while becoming successful. And if you have a family, make it your number one priority. But also, make sure you manage everything else we’ve discussed before living your life. Don’t be the family person.

Based on the response to my advice, I’m clearly not the only academic who gets so much contradictory advice. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Survivorship bias is real, after all. Success in academia takes a lot of good fortune, given our collective obsession with reputation and prestige, combined with how random and capricious getting grants and “high impact” publications can be.

Those who made it to the top will naturally attribute any success to their own unique skills, values and decisions, which they then pass down to the rest of us as advice, while disregarding the frequently shared threads of luck and privilege in the process.

With a little bit of luck myself, I too will become senior enough to start giving the advice one day. Hopefully I’ll still remember that the seemingly crucial factors that got me there are probably much less important than they feel.

Maarten van Smeden is an assistant professor at the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. He wishes to thank Darren Dahly for his non-contradictory advice and edits.

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