Some Advice on Succeeding In Academia For Junior Faculty

During two Harvard Medical School Junior Faculty Orientation events in Fall 2013, I served on panels offering academic career strategies to young faculty members. On both occasions, I was the most junior panelist, so the advice offered was just as helpful to me as to audience members. I have attempted to combine some of the main messages of all speakers during these two events with those of the orientation session that I attended in Spring 2013. To get a better idea of what these panels are about, a 2012 session is available online. It is no secret that good publications and receiving grants are necessary for promotion, so I do not dwell on that here. What follows are my own views based on what was shared, excluding personal stories. I hope some of these ideas are helpful to other young faculty members and trainees.

1)   Know your strengths and weaknesses. You have to become the world’s leading expert on something. In order to do this, you will help yourself by engaging in activities that you are good at and that others recognize you for having talent. While passion is also a requirement for success, passion alone is insufficient to make you into a leading expert. Be honest about identifying your own weaknesses, and either (1) hire others or form collaborations to fill in expertise gaps that are necessary to reach your goals, or (2) steer your activities in a direction that favors your strengths. If you are excellent at many things, then pick one of them and keep pursuing it. Diffusion across too many topics at the beginning of your career may keep you from being perceived as a leading expert in any one of them.

2)   Be in control of your schedule. It is very important to learn how and when to say “yes” and “no” because (1) you will not be able to fulfill your own goals if you are constantly doing things for others, (2) if you are overcommitted and overextended you will not be able to perform any task optimally, and (3) if you always say “no” you may miss a great opportunity (not to mention the fact that you’ll likely be disliked by your colleagues). Thus, keep an open mind when opportunities are offered to you, think about whether you can realistically commit to them or whether you would like to try to negotiate a compromise, and then either wholeheartedly enter into a specific agreement or firmly decline. Questions about how to actually say “no” were common, and panelists suggested the use of grace and expression of gratitude. I recently read this helpful post about saying no gracefully.

3)   Find mentors. Mentorship has become a bit of a cliché, but most agree it is an absolute necessity to be successful in academia. Mentors must be earnestly interested in your success as an independent investigator and will oftentimes have a vested interest in you. At least one of your mentors should be someone who opens doors for you. That is, this person invites you to write reviews, speak at conferences, introduces you to others, and advocates on your behalf. Don’t be shy about meeting senior faculty. Many senior faculty members are “professional” mentors with years of experience, loads of advice, and the desire to help. Most of them are busy, so if you’d like to talk to them, you have to make the first move. Among your mentors, you should include younger faculty too. They may offer fresh advice that is highly applicable to you (e.g., How did you, as a brand new investigator, get your first R01 in this tough funding environment?).

4)   Take time for self-reflection. Each of us has to get into a “work-mode” where we finish small obligations, whether it is attending meetings, collecting data, writing grants, filling out patient reports, grading papers, or numerous other day-to-day tasks. While these important tasks are a necessity, you must periodically set aside time to think about what you are doing. What are your long-term goals? Are your day-to-day activities helping you to reach them? Are you happy with what you are doing? During these times of self-reflection, you can update your CV and objectively assess your accomplishments. If you do not take the time to self-reflect, you run the risk of getting bogged down in detailed work that benefits others more than you, or of having a career that consists of aimless meandering.

5)   Be proactive. This relates to the previous points, but goes beyond them. You have to be proactive to grow your reputation. Don’t sit back and wait for others to come up and recognize you for your greatness. You have to state what you have to offer, suggest yourself as a speaker, organize panels and courses, etc. If you are unsure about where you stand in your division/department, then make an appointment to speak with your chief/chair and ask about your institution’s long-term commitment to you (this is especially important to those on K awards). If your division/department does not follow a specific routine to bring cases up for promotion, then find out what it takes to get promoted on your own and ask senior faculty for their opinions on where you stand. If you don’t think you are in a supportive environment or run into major hurdles, then do something about it. Reach out to others for help, find ways to stay focused, and do what it takes to maximize your productivity.

Senior panelists emphasized that promotion to the highest ranks is not just about you but about the success you have engendered around you and how you have made your institution famous. There is no shortcut to meet these two criteria, and hence, like others before you, you must be persistent and perform substantial work one-step-at-a-time. The goal should not be to get promoted, but to do great work and accomplish things that you are very proud of. Promotion follows the good things that you’ve done.


Tokens of appreciation given to Junior Faculty Orientation panelists.
Tokens of appreciation given to Junior Faculty Orientation panelists.