An Academic Career

Essential skills and qualities of a successful academic

The assumption that academics are not socially-skilled, and that we stay in our offices until we come out of a darkened room occasionally to pontificate to our students is simply not true.
Dr Angelia Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Politics, The University of Manchester

Why are skills needed?

It is important to understand the many skills and qualities required to be an academic because simply stated, having a good PhD is not enough to secure the job and to succeed.   As you read this section, note both your strengths - to highlight to future employers - and areas for improvement.  If you feel that you are lacking in a particular area, then develop a plan on how to improve.  Here are some skills required to be an academic:


Dr Anna Zimdars relates how a chance meeting led to a research opportunity.
Dr Sam Cartwright-Hatton explains how networking has helped her career.

Networking

Everyone knows that networking is important and yet it can be very daunting. Walking into a room full of strangers and being social, approaching an eminent researcher at a conference, or initiating a correspondence with someone you have never met may feel awkward and uncomfortable. Yet, this is probably one of the most essential and useful skills to have as an academic. What does networking involve?

These are some suggestions for improving your ability to network:

  • Develop a positive attitude towards meeting potential contacts, even if you are shy and not naturally extroverted. "Regard networking very positively and be systematic in your approach to networking", says John Helliwell, Professor of Chemistry.
  • Do your research and identify relevant people in your field who may be future collaborators or employers. 
  • Start to develop your own professional network, particularly if you are a PhD or post-doctoral member of staff. See if your PhD supervisor or Principal Investigator is prepared to share some of their own network of contacts. 
  • Attend the right conferences to present posters, papers or talks. Again, try to be (appropriately) forthright and social at these events. 
  • Make yourself known to other researchers on academic online networking sites like Academia.edu or Mendeley. Consider using general professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, to develop contacts with potential external collaborators (also useful in case your academic career doesn’t work out).
  • Ask yourself, who knows your work, beyond your own university or research group? If you can’t attend external academic events, see which external researchers are coming to your own university (to give talks or seminars) and attend these. Ask questions about their research and find (genuine) opportunities to engage them in conversation afterwards. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can follow up at a later time (without acting like a stalker).
  • Find events outside your university to attend which will extend your network. If you are a member of a professional institution or scholarly association (such as the Royal Society of Chemistry or the Philological Society), take an active role in local or regional meetings, special interest groups, mailing lists or conferences.
  • Apply for funding to travel to other institutions for your research or to conferences. As well as helping develop your network, this also helps develop your ability to write persuasively in order to win funding.
Recent research (Vitae "What do researchers do? Doctoral graduate destinations 3 years on", 2010) has shown that the most common way that PhDs working in Higher Education found their jobs was using 'professional, work or educational contacts'. Over a third found their jobs this way, well ahead of other methods, showing the importance of establishing your professional network to get on in academia.

Dr Kathryn Else explains how she balances her work and family life.

Time management

Ask any academic about their lifestyle and they will all say that it not a regular, nine-to-five job, but rather an all-consuming endeavour that can easily take over one's early mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays.  Having to juggle research, teaching and administration will pull you in different directions.

If you want to succeed as an academic (and also have time for family, friends and personal interests), it is very important to be organised and highly disciplined; understand your priorities and ensure you carve out enough time for your own research; and complete urgent, but perhaps less interesting tasks such as marking, as quickly as possible.


Dr Andrea Simpson shares the best advice she was ever given: how to deal with the inevitable rejections of academia.

Resilience

If you shrink at the mere hint of a criticism of your work, then academia may not be right for you.  Papers submitted to journals get rejected, proposals for funding come back full of critical comments, editors insist on rewriting and reworking the material before publication, etc.

'After all, it is an academic's job to read other people's work and find holes in it,' says Dr Angelia Wilson, Senior Lecturer.  You must, therefore, have a thick skin to handle the invariable barrage of criticism of your work, be receptive to constructive criticism, and have the confidence to defend your views and resolve issues as you see fit.


Presentation skills

Presentation skills are essential both for teaching and for presenting at conferences.  It is no longer acceptable to mumble through a conference paper, but rather you need to present your work in a confident manner, making strong eye contact and articulating with a strong voice.  Everyone can improve their presentation skills with some good training and with practice.

Furthermore, most academics are required to lecture and many are assessed on the quality of their teaching and on their own students' feedback.  'Lecturing is a big part of the job regardless of whether you are shy, so think about whether you are happy to speak in public.' says Lecturer Dr Simon Brocklehurst.


Leadership and management

From the earliest stages of your academic career, you will need to manage your own project and start to develop as a leader in your research field. As you progress in an academic career, you will be responsible for supervising the PhDs of new researchers, and possibly research groups (depending on your discipline). As a lecturer, you will be seen as a leader by your undergraduate students, and are likely to have to take on administrative management roles in order to progress.

These leadership roles are easier to tackle if you develop good project management skills early in your career and learn to take the lead at the earliest opportunity.

  • Take up opportunities for project management training while you are completing your PhD.
  • Offer to supervise undergraduate or masters projects while you are undertaking a PhD or are a member of research or teaching staff, and get teaching or demonstrating experience. Seek feedback from your students and improve your leadership style.
  • Seek out opportunities to use your initiative and take the lead, even if you are working on someone else’s project (for example as a post-doctoral researcher). Could you initiate a collaboration with another group to improve access to resources? Could you set up a series of seminars from external speakers in your field, or (co-)organise a regional or national conference?