How to build a successful academic career toward a full professorship

  • To the typical student it may seem that professors have achieved their status by mere academic brilliance. To the typical PhD student it may seem that a professorship is above all the result of hard management work. Finally, the PostDoc (or for that matter, the Junior Professor who is not on a tenure track) recognizes that for a professorship she would have to succeed in many tricky disciplines that remain hidden to the typical (Phd) students. It is often a tough lesson, and many PostDocs and Junior Professors leave academia hoping to find a more quiet life in industry.

    So what are these hidden disciplines? Well, if I was familiar with all of them, I wouldn’t refer to them as hidden disciplines. As for my learnings so far, I will gladly share them with this community.

          1. Focus on the research topic you love, become quickly specialized, and be productive

    Above all this means that you should not try to compete on a broad research topic. Rather, you should quickly specialize and focus on a niche discipline of the research field of interest. Once you have found your niche area of research, produce papers and get them published! In fact, this should be one of your prime goals.

          2. Connect, connect, connect

    Build local connections with professors and institutions at your university and build global connections with industry and top researchers from your field. Local connections are important, because no one can support you (in an academic sense) better than the people who know you from close collaborations. Good local connections and collaborations immensely increase your chances of having funding applications accepted. Global connections help you improve your visibility. They are perceived as the result of highly impactful research and are very worthy when applying for a tenure track or larger funds.

          3. Advertise your work

    Whenever you are asked to present your work, do it! Do it even when you are not asked to. Organize workshops, conferences and place your work and yourself prominently. Apply for funds, scholarships or fellowships and highlight the importance of your research whenever possible. In one sentence: Be your own marketing manager!

          4. Be an active member in local and global academic organizations and decision processes

    This is the “political” part of your work and it is of very high relevance if you want to get first-hand information and updates on developments in the academic landscape, such as new funding opportunities or open professorship positions. In addition, being well connected with leaders in academic organizations often helps you address problems (e.g., regarding research funding or positions) in a broader context. Hence, this kind of “political” engagement can be incredibly useful. Again, it is important to place yourself prominently and to be an active member in the decision processes.

           5. Spend a few research years abroad, preferably at a top research department/lab

    This is something I have not yet done myself, but it’s definitely on my agenda. Many outstanding research labs offer temporary positions for visiting researchers or PostDocs. These are great opportunities for starting collaborations with top researchers and thus obtaining a greater visibility of your research. An important aspect of such collaborations is that they are often regarded as proof that you can conduct and develop your research independently, which again makes you more qualified for the full professorship.  

           6. Be pragmatic about lectures, seminars, and theses

    Teach the topics that are closely related to your research and keep an eye on talented students who might help you advance your research. Keep these students interested in your research field by assigning challenging and highly interesting tasks, seminars and thesis topics.

    With all this in mind, one question emerges: Is this all worth it? Sure, if you love your research topic and are willing to deal with the challenges that come along with above points, you should go for it. After all, many difficulties you may encounter along the way make you stronger in the end.