Thursday, 24 October 2013

Passion & perseverance: what makes the difference in academia

Dr Steve Joy

‘You need to love what you do, so seek out projects that challenge you and make you excited to go to work!’

This post is based on the results of project I co-conducted with Dr Sharon Saunders from Cambridge’s Researcher Development Programme. We asked academics & PIs to answer, in no more than one sentence, the question, “What advice would you give to a postdoc looking to make it in academia?”



The rationale for the project came from the various national & Cambridge-specific evidence which has consistently shown that the advice most wanted by those aspiring to make it in academia is – quelle surprise – from those who have already made it themselves. Yet a wide range of factors mean that, in reality, it can be difficult to access advice from outside one’s own immediate group & hence to hear a multiplicity of viewpoints.

The intention was never that individual sentences should stand alone – as one respondent put it (with a not-so-subtle hint of sarcasm), ‘Do not plan your career based on 1-sentence advice!’ But we hoped that taken together, and in conjunction with proper mentoring & career guidance, the sentences would help in a small way to bridge the advice gap between postdocs & their more senior colleagues.

What we should have known is that academics don’t like to follow instructions, and most ‘sentences’ were in fact agglomerations of sentences that had been slyly strung together with semi-colons. But grammatical & punctuational pedantry aside, we were overwhelmed with how positive & plentiful the response was (more than 125). Readers please note: your more senior colleagues are willing to help!

The key findings which I want to share today are twofold. The first is that the academics’ advice is very predictable; nobody was saying anything surprising or outlandish. In other words, how to make it in academia is not a dark art, the ways of which are known only to a few. There were lots of sentences which focused on practical advice, e.g. nearly a fifth contained some reference to publications, and a few even quoted the old adage ‘publish or perish’. Another fifth highlighted the need to acquire research independence, whether in the sense of holding an independent fellowship, becoming a group leader, or simply separating oneself from the intellectual shadow cast by one’s PhD supervisor. Let’s face it, none of this should shock anybody. You do know what you need to do in order to make it in academia. Knowledge of what’s required isn’t typically the issue.

The second finding is, I think, more telling. There was a very clear emphasis on the mindset that’s needed for success – attributes like passion & perseverance. In fact, passion was top of the list of most frequently mentioned themes, and perseverance was joint second. This advice reminds us that, in the end, what most often makes the difference is persistent hard work, and the only way to steel oneself to hard work is to be passionate & committed. One respondent’s advice was thus: ‘Do it as long as it is the most fun and exciting thing in your life, and something else as soon as it isn't.’

But here’s the brutal truth: too many of the early career academics with whom I work have no discernible passion or enthusiasm for what they’re doing. Maybe they lost it along the way, maybe they never had it, or maybe they feel it & aren’t showing it. But if you’re wondering whether academia is really for you, I would encourage you to ask whether you truly have a deep love for what you’re doing, not just a sense that you don’t know what else you would do. And if you are sure that academia is what you want, and you’re wondering how to prepare for the job market, then the capacity to communicate your love for what you do also stands out as a must.

If you’re interested in the one-sentence mentoring advice, then look out for it – soon! – on the Early Career Blog’s Twitter feed; hashtag #OSM.












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