5 Top tips as you start your career [From the Experts]

Weg © Pixabay 2021 / image: RobbieWi

Congratulations! You have come this far – through the challenging years as a doctoral student or post-doc, with late nights, writer’s blocks, reviews and rewrites, committee critiques, and so much more. Followed by putting yourself out into the academic job market, with its randomness of available openings in unheard-of places that coincided with your job search timing.

With books and the family boxed and moved to a new town that you may have had to help your parents find on a map, while still hopeful of making it to London, New York, Boston or Berlin at the next phase of your career, it is time to learn another set of rules for early career success as you start your professional life in higher education. Its charms and challenges are full of secrets.

“Early Career” in academia is typically defined in terms of research capability in the five years following PhD completion, with career progression from post-doctoral appointment to tenure, promotion and beyond. This ideal path assumes steady employment and continuous research development. However, as Agnes Bosanquet and her colleagues at the University of Macquarie in New South Wales demonstrate through changing narratives, this description of “Early Academic Careers” may no longer be collectively exhaustive. Here are some tips on how to navigate the shifting sands:


  1.   Set Clear Goals

In the field of institutional ethics and culture, it is often remarked that “the tone is set at the top”.

Starting as an early career academic, venturing into uncharted waters poses the risk that unless you are very clear about who you are, what you value and what you want to achieve, you may easily get swept along by the demands, methods, character and values of your new institution.

Katrina Gardher, an expert in academic career development, based at the University of Glasgow, advises strongly that you “start early” in planning your own pathway and getting very clear where you wish to end up.

Key decisions relate to finding an ideal balance between your research, teaching, independent grant pursuit, publishing, the conference circuit, faculty committee work and public/industry participation. Do an honest evaluation of your strengths and ambitions and how each of these could play a role in the picture of a future you. Prioritise and set clear goals.


  1.   Immerse & Collaborate

Academia is an interesting mix between the highly individualistic and the collective. We copyright our research results when publishing, yet they only gain value when shared. Likewise, the antecedents to our insights and research lean on the shoulders of giants in our disciplines.

Suffice to say, a lot more is to be gained from fully immersing yourself in the faculty activities on your doorstep, while leveraging your relationships outside the institution.

Be bold and approach more senior researchers whose work and reputation may perhaps intimidate you, yet understand the limitations of developing social ties only with peers at your level of seniority or within the immediate scope of your current research or institution.


  1.   Get your Curriculum in Place

There should be an explicit link between your research and your teaching in building the firm foundation of a successful academic career. Teaching may be your biggest reward while also the one activity poised to suck up your limited time.

If you have not had much experience in the front of the classroom during your graduate student years, it would be worthwhile to attend your own institution’s academic career development programmes for young academics or search out similar opportunities elsewhere.

Central to this part of your planning is the simple understanding that curriculum development done well in year one will be a massive time-saver in the future.

Fight like crazy with older colleagues for your fair share of teaching assistants from the limited pool of graduate students. You will appreciate the value of having ruffled a few feathers when next you have an important conference paper submission deadline coincide exactly with the mid-year exam grading of a large undergraduate student cohort.


  1.   Search for a Mentor

Many success stories point back to the role an early mentor played in helping younger professionals find their path. Yet, be clear in what you are looking for. Is it someone who may focus on making you be a better researcher; or the quick-hits of being co-opted into the world of research and co-authorship with an established name in your field? Or are you looking for someone who is unselfishly willing to support the need to achieve your goals?

The pressure to “publish or perish” often shifts the focus from personal development towards output, objectively measured. When your performance is measured against outputs, rather than developing skills or making a difference in your institution’s social fabric or the real world, you may soon find yourself diverging from the path you envisaged for yourself.


  1.   Consolidate your Publishing Relationships

If you look at the data on early career academics’ mental health status, the stressors of getting through this first phase are immense. The temptation to trade your autonomy for potentially exploitative collaborations may lurk around the corner. It is important to understand which relationships support the enduring hallmarks of a sustainable, autonomous, successful academic career. Your publishing house of choice fits that bill.

Over the next few years, during the journal  “publish or perish” phase, and progressively as a book author or co-author to prescribed academic textbooks, the speed, quality and reputation in your choice of publishing house can be a game-changer.

Even as you settle into your new home and your new office, start the discussion with the publishing houses responsible for the respected journals in your field straight away. They have helped shape successful careers and may be an excellent source of advice when faced with key decisions over the next few years, as well as a pivotal player for possible introductions in your family of researchers and potential mentors.

Never underestimate what a good publisher with this human touch can add to your career.


Key takeaways

Just 1 in 10 UK early career researchers whose contract is ending this year reports that they have received forward research funding, given the COVID-19 crisis. The opportunity cost of making the wrong decisions is getting very high.

As an early career academic, like many others in this phase, you rose to your current position because you are used to succeeding. You were the smart students at school who won the prizes. You were the professors’ favourites as undergraduates and won praise for your intellect most of your lives. This raised an expectation of success. However, now entering the changing professional world of early career academia, sheer hard work and brainpower may not automatically guarantee the same levels of success. It is time to follow the expert advice and start planning accordingly.


© Pixabay 2021 / image: RobbieWi