10 rules to survive in the marvelous but sinuous world of academia

A professor shares the (unwritten) rules he wants PhD students to know before embarking on their academic careers

By José M. Torralba, PhD - April 17, 2020
Jose Torralba and his PhD students
Dr. Jose Torralba, Professor of Materials Science Engineering at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and Invited Scientist at IMDEA Materials Institute, discusses a microstructure in the Transmission Electron Microscope with the researchers in his PhD program.

Academia is a thrilling world that offers many possibilities for an inspiring career. However, I’ve found that many PhD candidates do not know some simple rules that could help them survive. Here is some basic advice and personal tips to help you build a successful academic career.

1. Your scientific career should be based on vocation.

Vocation is a must. Academia can offer you many satisfactions but also many disappointments. If you have a solid vocation – the sense of following your calling and doing work that is meaningful to you – the sacrifice will also provide satisfaction. Will is the basis for a successful career, and without vocation, is difficult to have a strong will. The scientific career is like a marathon. (Here’s an interesting column on that topic by a PhD student1). If you want to train and finish a marathon, the main thing is to have the willingness to do it. If you do not have vocation, do not enter.

2. Learn about the “system” …

For many people entering academia, the way the system works is a mystery. How is it organized? What is the path to promotion? What are the key parameters in order to be well evaluated?

The most successful graduate students joining a company are often the ones who know how the company operates in terms of its structure, workplace culture, compensation and evaluation procedures. Graduate students entering a PhD program (the first rung in the academic ladder) would do well to have a similar mindset and learn about the way academia works.

Academia is organized into institutions (universities and research centers, public or private) with various administrative divisions (i.e., faculties or departments), and the power is not always located in the same place. But the most relevant unit inside this complex world – the “research group” where daily life as a researcher takes place – is too often unknown to applicants for a PhD position.

Life in a research unit (even at a top university) can be a nightmare or a bed of roses depending of the daily rules in this research unit. (Most of the time, this depends on the principal investigator.) For this reason, it should be mandatory to check if the research group you are applying for follows the most elemental rules for a healthy work environment.2,3

Another important issue is how the promotion system works. The promotion path (especially the tenure track system) is similar in many places, but each university has specific routes and requirements you should find out about before accepting a position.

3. … and the “ecosystem.”

In the Encyclopedia Britannica, ecosystem is defined as “the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space.” In academia, the ecosystem is complex. If we use a hierarchical classification, we can find rectors, deans and department heads, but that mainly refers to the bureaucracy and the general rules of the institution.

In the “real” hierarchy, we can find “tenured people,” like professors and associate professors, and non-tenured people in various ranges as postdocs and PhD students. This hierarchy and how it operates is likely to depend on the character and profile of the most influential person: the principal investigator, who is usually the research group leader. This person is the real boss, the one who controls the funds to do the work. Within this realm, the different PIs could be classified by another kind of system, which in biology is defined as “functional classification.”

I came up with my own functional classification that applies to any stratum of the hierarchical classification, particularly to the IPs:

  • Pioneers. A pioneer, according the Cambridge Dictionary, is a person who is one of the first to do something – who goes to a new area and builds a house, starts a farm, etc. In science, a pioneer is a person who is always trying to push the limits, always fighting for new horizons, always opening new lines. Usually, a pioneer fights strongly for the survival of their research group. To be in a place where the boss is a pioneer is a guarantee of better survival in this world.
  • Settlers. This is a person who arrives in a new place in order to live there and use the land, according to the Cambridge dictionary. In science, a settler is usually a hard worker but not especially imaginative in terms of looking for new business models or ideas. To be in a settler group could be fine to survive, but never to be outstanding.
  • Livestock. These are “animals and birds that are kept on a farm, such as cows, sheep or chickens,” per the Cambridge Dictionary. I know it sounds cruel, but in academia, there are many people that play this role. They could be engaged in any kind of project. Sometimes they act as useful people; sometimes they are only a number to grow the critical mass in a certain project. They could be here or there, it does not matter. They are necessary for the survival of the system, but they do not possess any initiative, any driving force to improve something. Sometimes the IP also belongs to this group. Keep this in mind before joining a group with such a leader.

IPs are usually the direct supervisors of academic works (i.e., your thesis or dissertation), but not always. In some cases, your supervisor also plays an important role in the ecosystem. Try to find a supervisor that fulfills the rules explained in 4,5.

A good knowledge about this ecosystem will help you understand how the members look at one another (e.g., a professor, a postdoc, a PhD student). An excellent source of wisdom here is PhD comics.6 In his “Piled High and Deeper (PhD) comic strip, Jorge Cham, who got his PhD from Stanford and was a researcher at Cal Tech, uses humor, sarcasm and sometimes stereotypes to satirize the world of academia, but it is useful to understand our unique ecosystem.

4. Avoid predators, parasites and other bad people.

Keep your eyes open for people who take advantage of others, abuse their connections, those who engage in nepotism, scientific parasites, manipulators, etc.

These kinds of people can be found in any organization, including private companies – and yes,  academia. If you see that in a research group there are people who got their positions based mainly on their connections, or because the PI is their father, spouse or uncle, try to avoid this group.

These behaviors are becoming less common and should disappear from academic life, but unfortunately, they are still present in many places.

Also avoid predators (people who exploit others), scientific parasites (people with the extreme ability to be in all places  — i.e., papers, patents, panels — while hardly doing anything). This last group is highly linked with the manipulators, people who are experts in reversing any situation to make you feel guilty if you do not do what they expect from you.

There are a guidelines that can be found easily on the internet to detect most of these negative people. In this world is necessary to learn how to identify them and how to expel them from your life.

5. Try to find a good mentor.

Fortunately, the world of academia is filled with bright, successful people who are willing to help young scholars get off to a good start. Try to find a mentor who would be well-suited to you: a person who can guide you, advise you, open your mind, give you encouragement when things are not going your way, and remind you to stay on course with the goals you set for yourself. Many wrong decisions can be avoided if you have someone with experience in academia who can point you to the correct path.

The natural mentor should be the PhD supervisor, but this does not always happen. If the supervisor does not play this role, there are many nice people who are open to being mentors. Find a good mentor, and your academic life will be much better.

6. When in doubt – ask!

Often in academic life, we lose a lot of time and effort being self-sufficient and not asking for help (highly linked with our academic ego). There are two types of doubts we may try to handle on our own:

  • Scientific-technical-academic doubts. Something goes wrong in the data results or how the equipment operates, for example, something misfunctions in one process, or you’re not sure how to initiate an academic process. You are very likely to do it wrong if you don’t ask for help. And quite often we do not ask due to a stupid attitude of self-sufficiency that leads us to do wrong things instead of asking. I lost five months of work when I did my PhD simply by not asking about the correct use of a testing machine. And I learned that I should always ask, if in doubt.
  • Personal doubts about your academic life. For these doubts, it is mandatory to have a good mentor or at least a buddy. Some examples of such kind of doubts are: which place is the best for my postdoc? How I can improve my skills on that topic? Which elective subjects are the best for my education? Which department is better to try to make a secondment?... Of course, these doubts can also include more intimate problems that could require professional help to sort out. Academic life can be highly stressful, and it’s important to look for the support you need.

7. Sometimes you have to leave to return.

The academic career is not easy. To climb to the top, you have to know the un-written rules – and in most places, “inbreeding” is not well accepted. Often, you have to leave and achieve success if you want to come back and serve on the faculty. And sometimes is not easy to know when to do it.

Traditionally, someone who started their PhD at a particular university could going on to join the faculty and secure a tenured position and finally a professorship. Nowadays, this is almost impossible. Inbreeding is not well regarded in an academic center with quality and prestige. Therefore, you have to learn to leave if you want to come back. Fortunately, this rule applies in many countries, and there are many instruments (in the form of open competitive calls) that allow the talent to come back to a country in a way that improves the candidate’s academic career. Today in the European Union, the ERC grants and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions are an excellent way to go where any good talent want to go.

8. Do not get discouraged – this is a long-distance race.

Many times, we think that in academia, everything is managed by the so- called “scientific method,” where if the rules are followed, everything should go according the prediction. But this is an error. On many occasions, the scientific method does not help us reach the goal. Frequently, science is based on trial and error, which means that failure is the norm. Failure is common, so failure must be a positive thing from the point of view that failure helps us improve. (Here is an interesting piece on growth mindset and the benefits of failure by my Elsevier Connect editor.)7

Science, big science, has been constructed on many big fails. So try not to get discouraged by failure. When we fail many times, we are preparing for a big success.

9. You have to know how to be in the right place at the right time.

This may seem like a simple statement, but, where is the right place? I know where is not the right place: the corridors teaming with gossip. The right place must be the lab, the places where people make decisions (department meetings, research group meetings), the library, the discussions in the conferences and seminars. The right place is the place where you are doing something productive. A lot of opportunities come up if you are at the battlefront, but very few if you are resting backstage or procrastinating.

10. Work, work and work.

Smart ideas do not emerge from pure inspiration. If you work hard, read, discuss, then a smart idea could materialize. There is a famous quote from Pablo Picasso, recognized as the most influential painter in modern history:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.

In this marvellous world of academia, I have found people who have reached success without hard work. Those people are lucky or took advantage of others through nepotism, connections, scientific parasitism. Nowadays these strategies are much more difficult, and people who rely on them are finding it much harder to achieve success.

Now let’s talk about another strategy. I do not know anybody who worked hard and did not build a successful career. The more you invest, the more you gain. Work is one of the most important strategies.

A final consideration

It’s not easy to survive in academia. But among all of us, we are making things much more difficult. We should act together to change practices that no longer serve us well.

Metrics has become our god. In most places, numbers are used to evaluate the merit of people: papers published, citations and H factor. There’s nothing wrong with these measurements per se, but by no means should they be the only measures of a person’s value and contributions. Where they are, many “livestock” and “settlers” are reaching the top positions in the ecosystem.

On the other hand, many other things which are important in the academic life (getting funding, supervising and mentoring students, disseminating research results and other outreach activities) are being regarded as less important. When only metrics count, we are transforming the meritocratic system to what I call a metritrocratic system.

We have to do something. Otherwise, in a few years, the new generation of scientists will be more inclined to publish (to avoid being sidelined) at the expense of doing other valuable things. And most importantly, the pioneers will disappear.

References and further reading


Written by

José M. Torralba, PhD

Written by

José M. Torralba, PhD

Prof. Dr. José M. Torralba is Director-General of Universities and Research for Madrid Regional Government, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.and Invited Scientist at IMDEA Materials Institute. Since joining the university faculty in 1999, he has held a variety of roles, including Head of the Materials Science and Engineering Department, Vice-rector for Academics Infrastructures, Vice-rector for Research and Innovation and Deputy Director of Institute IMDEA Materials.

His main field of interest is powder metallurgy and sintering, and he is a Fellow of the American Powder Metallurgy Institute and European Powder Metallurgy Association. He has published more than 500 scientific papers (250 in the Journal Citation Report with more than 5,000 citations).

Prof. Torralba is Editor-in-Chief of Powder Metallurgy and Regional Editor for the Journal of Materials Processing Technology, published by Elsevier.

What does the pandemic mean for research in biodiversity conservation?
US business students visit Elsevier to learn about Pride and I&D in the workplace
Editor in a (60-second) spotlight – Amanda Kenny


comments powered by Disqus