9 Tips to Achieve Success in Academia

By Margo R. Monroe

This blog post is the first in a series that will feature advice for students, postdocs, and young Principal Investigators (PIs). We've interviewed Addgene depositors who are at various stages in their careers to get advice on choosing a lab, picking your research topic, starting a lab, and more. Before we start, we'd like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Tom Ellis (Imperial College London), Dr. Connie Cepko (Harvard Medical School), and Dr. George Church (Harvard Medical School) who took the time to answer our questions.



Advice for success in academia

How can we shape our time in academia to maximize productivity and success? We asked leading professors for their top 3 tips.

Tom Ellis

1. Keep up with the literature. He recommends setting up a few Pubmed email alerts for new papers with keywords or a Table of Contents email (eTOC) alert for every new issue of your favorite journals. “If you don't read, you're doomed.”

2. Always be sure to include various positive and negative controls to “convince [any] old skeptic professor who's seen every spurious result under the sun. Academia is about convincing results, and nothing is more convincing than showing that your experiment is definitely not a fluke.”

3. Engage in various projects and help colleagues with their work. “Your one project may be awesome but there's a chance it'll never work. If you help others out, they'll help you too; both with your research and with getting published.”

Connie Cepko

1. Work hard. There will be periods when opportunities arise. “Grab it!”

2. Don’t get caught up in the hype.

3. Passion gives you energy. What is your passion? Even if no one else is excited about it, distinguish yourself with this passion. “Love what you are doing!” It helps when the time comes to work with full force.

George Church

1. Initial and sustained motivation is a huge component of success.”

2. Enjoy Teamwork. Be friendly, open, sharing, rather than intensely competitive. Be curious and interdisciplinary.  

3. There are many different ways to succeed – as loner or gregarious;  dictator or laissez-faire; theory or practice; business-like or artistic; tech, anti-tech or pragmatic.”

Advice for pursuing careers outside of academia

Recently, graduate students and postdocs have become more aware of careers outside of academia. How do PIs assist their mentees who have goals outside of the university?

Ellis recommends that a student interested in leaving academia should present their research at conferences to obtain a “crash-course in all the real life skills that employers love PhD students to have: working to deadlines, writing up clear and attractive reports, being good at presentations and of course, networking and collaborating.” Getting out of the lab also “opens the student's eyes to the many different jobs associated with science, especially if the conference is a big multidisciplinary one.”

Cepko strongly emphasizes that people should “follow their passions, be happy, and match their personal goals to their career choices.” She points out that a PhD teaches analytical and critical thinking skills that are applicable to a variety of careers outside of academia. She has had previous graduate students and postdocs go on to work in patent law, business development, teaching, etc.

Church also encourages his mentees to follow their passion. “There are many ways to have a large positive impact in society. We need much, much more science and engineering (STEM) expertise in law, business, journalism, entertainment, politics, K-12, etc.”

Addgene's team includes many PhD scientists who have stepped away from the bench, but who remain connected to scientists and use the skills they learned during their studies. They suggest that you make time for extracurricular activities both to develop new skills and to discover what you are truly passionate about. Check out my previous post if you're looking for more information about the benefits of pursuing extracurricular activities.

Success evolves from passion

True success evolves from heart and hustle. Each PI emphasizes the importance of passion, hard work, collaboration, and staying honest with personal goals.

Stay tuned for the follow up blogs on "Choosing Your Research Project," “Advice for Starting Your Lab,” “Fun in the Lab!" and more.


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  • Thank you again to Connie Cepko, Tom Ellis, and George Church for answering our burning questions about how they manage and motivate their labs!

Update: Read the Newest Posts in this Blog Series
Our 3 PIs answer more questions, including:

Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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