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

Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova | AAAS

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

10. Help your mentees become better than you!

(Told to me when I was a teenager by my mom, Michelle Boulet, Québec, QC, Canada. Note: We should never forget that our parents are our first teachers and that we can learn lessons that apply in academia from everyone and at any age!)

A great mentor is one who helps their mentees become better than they are themselves! In academia, there is no greater joy than seeing your mentees succeed. Help them learn what THEY want to learn. Connect them to the right people if you are not the right person to help them achieve a certain goal. Help them become who THEY want to be!” Be the catalyst (yes! I am a chemist) to help them be successful in whatever they aim for. (NOTE: The original quote was “A great parent is one who helps his kids become better than he/she is him/herself! In life, there is no greater joy than seeing your kids succeed...” The rest is integral).

9. Have students set goals and keep them accountable!

I am always looking for ways to improve as a teacher, as a mentor, as a scientist, and as a person. After trying many different approaches to help students become the best they could be, this is my advice to you: at the end of each year (sometime in December) have your students set goals for experiments/writing, career development exercises, conferences to attend, etc. Discuss their plan with them before the New Year so that they are ready to go when they are back in action in January. Every 3 months, sit down with them and evaluate the progress they have made towards their own goals. Discuss setbacks and successes. Have them evaluate and adjust their plan as they wish. (NOTE: This will help you with #8 as well). This will help them be more focused on and happy about their work.

8. Know at all times what each individual on your team is doing!

Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty.

After a few years as an Assistant Professor, someone told me about a free book “Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty”. I highly recommend this book to anyone in academia, regardless of the number of years you have been at it. A quote in this book that changed my management style was, “If a PI has 20 people in the lab and you ask the PI at any moment, “What is person number 17 doing?” he or she should be able to give you a two-hour talk on this without any preparation. – Thomas Cech, HHMI”. What this meant to me was not to micromanage my team, but instead to have frequent, positive, and productive discussions with each of my team member so that I could better guide them and not let the research stop as a result of a student getting stuck and not wanting to ask for help. This quote has made for a much more productive and interactive work environment.

7. Use social media to expand your academic career!

(Told to me by Gemima Philippe during the 2017 AAAS Leshner Fellows training week, Washington, DC, USA)

Start tweeting, start blogging, start putting yourself out there on your favorite social media platform. Only a few months ago, I was nowhere to be found on social media. Interestingly, if you had asked me at that time if social media was useful to help grow your academic career, I would have told you that these were a waste of time. In academia, we often have the misconception that the best or only ways to disseminate your work is to publish manuscripts and give talks at conferences. How wrong I was! Social media has changed my academic life and it can change yours, too. Be engaged with the public and the benefits will be many: new collaborations formed, new supporters of your scientific and outreach efforts, new funding, new career goals established, old career goals getting accomplished, etc. If you are not currently on social media for your work, start with one platform and see how it goes. I am pretty sure that you will rapidly see the benefits too! I started with Twitter (@GTsodikova).

6. Never hesitate to sit at the front of the room!

(Told to me by my Ph.D. mentor John C. Vederas, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada)

This advice might seem like a weird one. However, when you start a career in academia, meeting in a room filled with “important” people can be intimidating. The imposter syndrome can rapidly kick in. Before the first lecture at the first conference that I attended as a Ph.D. student, I arrived early and sat at the very back of the room. My Ph.D. advisor who knew me as a front row type of student ask me why I was sitting in the back. I told him that I believed that only important professors sit at the front of the room. His response, who stuck in my head since then: “Never hesitate to sit at the front of the room as you are as important as everyone else!” Since that day, I sit at the front of the room. We all have something to bring to the table. You should also sit at the front and be at the forefront of the discussions.

I hope to hear from others about the best tips/advice that were given to you or tricks you have developed, so that we can all learn from each other! Please also let me know if you are already using some of these or if you are planning on implementing some of them. If you try some that are new to you, I would appreciate hearing how it goes!

This blog is Part 1 of a two part series. Please tune in next week for the top 5 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.