3 harsh truths about pursuing an academic career (and how to succeed)

After you finish your PhD thesis, you might be tempted, or even excited, to pursue a career in academia. Or you might be looking at postdoc contracts because you don’t know what else to do.

A career in academia does suit some people quite well, but you need to know what you’re getting into before you set foot on that path.

harsh truths

1: There is no academic career ladder

There is no academic career ladder. It’s a pyramid, and it’s crowded at the top.

Most postdocs never progress to permanent positions (or tenure) simply because there are fewer available. and there are more people trying to get into that top tier than are retiring or dying.

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It’s certainly possible to get up there, but it takes determination, which means being certain that’s what you want. So you can make the decision to leave now, delay the decision, or make a determined effort to make progress in your career.

Not knowing what else to do is not the same as “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

The question to ask yourself is this; do you ever wake up early because you are excited by your work?

If yes, continue. If not, do something easier and better paid.

2: Being smart and working hard is not enough

Being good and waiting to get noticed just isn’t enough. Lots of other people are as smart as you, and just as hard-working.

So how can you get ahead?

You have to know what you’re aiming for, set yourself a target and a time frame, and make the decisions necessary to get you there.

If you decide, before your first postdoc, that you are aiming for a permanent position by the age of 32, that gives you a framework for making decisions.

Is that next contract going to advance your career, or just delay your exit? Is it just the first thing that came along?

Are you publishing results just to stay alive, or to make a name for yourself?

3: Contacts are the lifeblood of your career

Who you work with is at least as important as what you do.

It’s vital to find people to work with who are interested in your long-term career, people you can learn from, and people you can trust.

Absolutely the best way to do this is to treat conferences and seminars as networking events, rather than expenses-paid boredom (or stress when you have to present).

If you go to a conference and don’t introduce yourself to at least 10 people, you are wasting your time.

Those contacts are the lifeblood of your career.

It’s OK to search through job listings, but it’s better when the opportunities come to you.

If nobody knows you through your work yet, the only way to start is by meeting people personally. Get out there and get known, because nobody else is going to do it for you.

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5 thoughts on “3 harsh truths about pursuing an academic career (and how to succeed)

  1. “… you have to know what your aiming for”

    I’m sure this is an oversight but please, on an academic blog? “You’re” please!!!!

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