The 10 best pieces of advice I was given for a successful and rewarding career in academia! (Part 2)

10 pieces of advice for a successful and rewarding career in academia. | Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova

By Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova

A career in academia can be many things, including highly rewarding and/or highly intimidating and frustrating. Whether you are thinking about starting a career in academia, you have just started, or you have been at it for a long time, here are the 10 best pieces of advice that were given to me --in no specific order-- to have a truly enjoyable, fulfilling, and successful academic life. I hope that they will help you as much as they have helped me!

This blog is Part 2 of a two-part series. Please check Part 1 for more great pieces of advice!

5. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

(Learned as a young kid during dance lessons)

To be successful in academia we should help and learn from one another, combining individual talents and knowledge so that the sum is greater than that of its parts. In three words, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! The more your peers and collaborators are successful, the more successful you will be too. Always help and give credit to others. This is important to remember in a competitive work environment.

4. Don’t hesitate to ask for help - seek mentors!

(Shown to me by Prof. David S. Watt, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA who taught me this when I started as an Associate Professor by taking me under his wing and teaching me by example! This was also reiterated by Provost of the University of Kentucky, Tim S. Tracy!)

Often when junior faculty start their independent career, they feel like they are on their own. This is not the case! We all need mentors at every stage of our career/life. This is how we keep growing and learning. If there is no mentoring program at your institution, or even if there is, seek mentors yourself (more than one!). You should find successful people (they do not even need to be at your institution) that you admire and who have skills that you want to learn/emulate. You will quickly find that successful people are almost always willing to help others -- they also want others to succeed. Often, they will connect you to other people as well who can help you grow in your career.

3. Take 5 minutes to finish what you started today, it will save you hours tomorrow!

(Told to me during my Ph.D. by a visiting scientist in Prof. John C. Vederas, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada)

It is much easier to finish something when you are already engrossed in it than when you have to remember where you were at or have to restart instruments or reset your work space the next day. Taking the additional time at the end of a day to finish something will save you tons of time in the end and will increase your productivity.

2. Write 1 page per day!

(Told to me by Prof. Neil L. Kelleher, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA when I asked him how he was so productive” as told to him by Prof. Christopher T. Walsh, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA)

Just do it! If you write at least one page per day, it does not matter if it is for a grant, a paper, a manuscript review, a blog, a book, a lecture, or anything else related to your work, you are making progress. (NOTE: This blog was my writing for today.) After starting to apply this advice, my productivity has greatly increased (e.g., in the last two years, I quadrupled the number of manuscripts published yearly and got a lot more funding!). It might seem impossible at first to write a page per day if you are not inclined to writing, but trust me, try it and you won’t regret it!

1. Teach students the way they want to be taught!

In academia, educating students should be at the top of your priority list. In order to teach students in the way they will most enjoy and best learn/retain the material you present, you need to know early on what they like and don’t like about your teaching methods. Teaching is not about you, it is about them! One of the best tips I was ever given was “ask the student to evaluate you after a few lectures and then adjust your lectures according to their responses/comments” (I forgot who gave me that advice and I am so sorry for that as it helps me every semester improve as a teacher. Whomever gave it to me, if you read this, please remind me who you are and I will make sure to acknowledge you properly). Here are the three questions I ask:

  1. What do you like about my teaching style/methods? (e.g., lecture notes, in-class exercises, additional homework, pauses during class for questions, discussion period, etc.)
  2. What do you dislike about my teaching style/methods?
  3. Most importantly, what can I do to improve and make this class more enjoyable and useful for you?

NOTE: this advice only works if you genuinely love teaching and/or want to become a better communicator, and truly care about the student enjoying and retaining the material you share with them, as it could take a lot of effort and adjustments in the way you run your classroom. Another great way to improve as a teacher is to sit in the classroom of the professors that you know students love. One can learn a lot by observing a great teacher in action!

This blog is Part 2 of a two-part series. Please check Part 1 for more great pieces of advice!

About Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova

I am a medicinal chemist at the University of Kentucky. My research focuses on understanding and combating infectious diseases, particularly bacterial and fungal infections. I am also the founder of the SciCats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students) outreach program. You can follow me on Twitter @GTsodikova. You can also discuss this blog on Trellis.