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How to Succeed in Academia



How to Succeed in Academia

By Cindy Brauer

Establishing relationships with strong, influential mentors and advocates is critical to a successful, long-term career in academia, advised Tony Hunter, keynote speaker at the recent sixth annual Academic Leadership Symposium.

A two-day course in how to lead innovative and productive research programs, the symposium was sponsored by the Torrey Pines Training Consortium, a collaboration of The Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Sanford–Burnham Medical Research Institute and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and attended by 100 local graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty members.

Hunter, a professor in the molecular and cell biology laboratory at Salk and director of the Salk Institute Cancer Center, offered symposium attendees a list of guidelines for success in academia, based on observations during his own nearly 50-year career.

At each career level, seek the right mentor and advocate, choosing scientists with good labs and quality reputations, said Hunter, noting, “Who you meet and know—and your scientific pedigree—will be important as your career progresses, particularly for letters of recommendation and reference.”

Always ask important, challenging biological questions rather than filling in the details and doing the next obvious experiment. Pursuing the solution to a big question distinguishes a job candidate from others, said Hunter.

In landing and starting that first academic job, Hunter offered several suggestions:

  • Craft job applications carefully to stand out among the hundreds typically received by good institutions and solicit feedback on your job application from colleagues and mentors
  • Negotiate the job’s start-up package; ask for three years of support for yourself and two years of running costs and specialized equipment. Develop a list of everything required to start up and maintain your lab
  • Hire an experienced lab manager who can also run her or his own projects
  • Run more than one project at a time in your lab, but do not grow too fast
  • Pursue grant support. New investigators have an advantage in receiving their first National Institutes of Health R01 grant; more challenging is the renewal or second R01 grant
  • Collaborate with colleagues, but settle project credit issues in advance
  • Your paper’s citations are important as a measure of impact. Has your work influenced the field?

Hunter’s tips for navigating promotion and tenure issues include contributing to the department and institution, e.g., teaching and committee assignments. Decide which projects postdocs scan take with them when they get an academic job. Give seminars and invited talks. Talk to peers and senior colleagues and request the department’s promotion policy document. Submit papers by the fifth year to ensure they are published in time for promotion committee review. Scientific accomplishment, but also journal stature and the paper’s citations are important promotion considerations.

Finally, said Hunter, to remain a successful faculty member, recruit good postdocs and graduate students to drive projects and add to the lab’s accomplishments. Be a responsible mentor and write recommendation letters promptly. Determine when postdocs and graduate students can perform experiments more efficiently without you, to free your time. Interact and learn from colleagues. Select pro bono tasks carefully, but do give back to the field

Following Hunter’s keynote presentation, symposium participants went on to seven laboratory career management sessions, covering such topics as team building, communication, leadership styles, time management, lab set-up and faculty tenure. Presenters included members of the Torrey Pines Training Consortium and representatives from the Goates Consulting Group, University of Texas Southwestern, Biological Dynamics Inc., and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Session evaluations were very positive, said Ryan Wheeler, manager of the Career and Postdoctoral Services Office, which helped organize the event. Feedback from attendees cited the course’s “wealth of information and delivery format,” and applauded the sessions for their clear presentation of “exactly what it takes to be successful in an academic position.”

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“Who you meet and know—and your scientific pedigree—will be important as your career progresses...”
—Tony Hunter