How to create an overnight scientific success (in 20 years)

Inspirational moments don’t usually happen by chance. Instead, many enabling factors must be put in place over the course of a career, say Peter Hogg and Jo Cresswell


University of Salford
15 Nov 2021
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How to have an "overnight" scientific success in 20 years

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In spring 2020, Peter Hogg, a UK professor and one of the authors of this piece, co-led an international team to create a new, comprehensive, free-to-access online resource for safely taking and interpreting mobile chest X-ray images in Covid-19 environments. More than 50 academics, IT specialists and others contributed their time and expertise free of charge, and within five weeks the website was launched. To date, it has been used in 157 countries to help diagnose and treat people with the virus.

Inspirational moments and implementing solutions don’t usually happen by chance. Instead, in our experience, many enabling factors must be put in place over the course of an entire career. As well as disciplinary expertise, interpersonal and “human” skills are absolutely crucial.

There is no predicting what challenges and opportunities lie in the future, so below are some of the key elements to put in place now, which might enable you to create your own “overnight” success in 10 or 20 years’ time.

  • An excellent foundation of knowledge and experience within your own field. Also, experience of implementing the outcomes of research and creating impact, reflected by, for example, a substantial and high-quality body of research and impact, competitive external funding awards, postgraduate students and other such “esteem” factors.
  • A deep, questioning and adaptable approach to knowledge in your field and more widely. This, combined with a deep understanding of the needs of your stakeholders, will enable you to identify real problems, reflect critically on whether current responses are adequate, propose workable and impactful solutions and, most importantly, gain the engagement of others.
  • The curiosity to expand your knowledge and practice into other disciplines, enabling you to engender strong collaborations and identify and create novel, transformational projects and solutions that have a much greater reach and impact. This is critical because initiatives addressing large, complex issues require teams that reflect that complexity.
  • A strong national and, ideally, international presence and contribution to your field, built on high-quality research and/or teaching and learning, plus relationships with professional organisations, funding bodies and other relevant stakeholders and associations. These relationships will help you as you build your career, and these human connections will create shared purpose and the reservoir of goodwill and abilities needed to create something truly transformative within a short time frame.
  • A mutually supportive and collaborative network with a wide range of relevant international, personal and professional contacts. Innovation can be a lonely business, especially when challenging accepted paradigms and ways of working, and pushing the boundaries of what is thought to be possible. Proposing something so significant can trigger self doubt in even the most experienced professional. Also, others may challenge the need for your initiative or whether it can be achieved. A trusting and mutually respectful network of relationships with mentors, coaches, peers and other relationships is critical throughout your career, especially in the early stages. This helps you build self-confidence and trust, backed up by critical self-appraisal.
  • Effective leadership skills to not only create and lead diverse and inclusive teams but also to share a vision and purpose and bring everybody on board with it. This helps with the essential requirement of being comfortable with making decisions and moving forwards without having the full picture, as it is based on a mutual trust with your team and wider network.
  • Maintain enough educational and/or research insight to create a strong base of genuinely research-informed teaching. As well as enhancing the student experience, this can provide a testbed for new ideas and initiatives, particularly if the students themselves will be the end users in their future careers.   
  • Embrace an “ecosystem” approach to working within your organisation, breaking out of disciplinary and professional silos and harnessing the expertise and passion of all contributors in a powerful way. This may include genuinely interdisciplinary collaborations with other academic colleagues and partnerships working with professional services, industry partners, institutional leadership, stakeholders, local/regional/national government and NGOs.

While this list may look (very) daunting to those earlier in their career, in fact the points are all interconnected and taking action in one area will normally support development in another. Take some time to identify where you are in each category, especially noticing where you already have strengths. Understanding what is most comfortable for you to do – that’s an easy place to start. Then look at the areas that are more likely to stretch you – be creative about what you could do, and then make a commitment to take an action, however small it might feel. Oh, and think about partnering with somebody to share accountability and mutual support.

The underpinning theme, and what ultimately enabled this author and his colleagues to create a life-saving international resource from goodwill during a global lockdown, was a career spent developing the very human skills of connection, mutual respect and purpose, underpinned by a deep curiosity and a love for knowledge, world-class research and teaching, and a commitment to developing others.

We have referenced researchers in this article, but these fundamental principles can easily apply to those in teaching and learning, research management and enterprise. Building your career on these will enable you to create an impact in your discipline or profession beyond the metrics of journal papers and National Student Survey scores.

Peter Hogg is emeritus professor at the School of Health and Society, University of Salford.

Jo Cresswell is coach and mentor at Dr Joanne Cresswell Coaching. She was formerly director of research and knowledge exchange at the University of Salford.


Peter Hogg and the University of Salford have been shortlisted for International Collaboration of the Year at the THE Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here with the winners due to be announced at a ceremony on 25th November.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in London.


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