How to better succeed in academia – what I wish I had known before

This is something I am burning to share, and thus I will write about it in this very first blog entry. I wished I had had that knowledge (or even just the wit to research it) even before I started my PhD. So far, I was lucky with all my steps on the academic career ladder, but at the moment I struggle to succeed in making the next big leap, and an accelerated and better equipped career path – an escalator, figuratively speaking – would have helped a lot.

So here in brief my advice which I would give myself, 10 years ago:

1.) Choose a promising topic and lab! Thus, get high-impact publications (really. Science. Or Nature.)
2.) Apply for awards and scholarships early on.

That. Is. It!

How can you judge the first and achieve the second?

Applying for awards and scholarships is just a matter of intense online research, finding opportunities and applying. Some fellowships are very specific and hard to find, but start by looking at CVs of famous people in your field and what they got! I missed out on that because most fellowships require less than 2 years past your Ph.D defense, so get right at it!

Well, with the topic it’s more difficult, you probably need some luck too (I had it – tons of future research directions which are novel, interesting, funding-attractive, and set apart from my current PI’s main interests so I can take them with me). You want a research area which is not over-saturated and well-funded (not sure if mine meets these criteria though, but I got into a promising photomorphogenesis project as well) – so be prepared to set out to find this needle in the haystack, YOUR particular niche.

But how do you find a lab that propels you forward in your career? A famous lab? Likely helpful, but not necessarily. A big lab? Maybe yes, maybe not – you could get on a lot of publications, or not and be just one of many worker bees.

So what is it, to look out for? Your best bet is to look at former lab members – where are they now, what do they do, did they get many and/or high-impact publications? This is the simple formula to find a PI that pushes and coaches you optimally.


Disclaimer: I had luck with my postdoc position at the University of Minnesota. There were no former group members I could research (and would not have thought of it at that time), but the topic was the perfect fit, and I felt good about the PI, Changbin Chen. And he really proved to be the best in terms of caring for my personal and professional welfare and promotion, very grateful about that. The only things I am missing are high-impact publications and acquired fellowships.