Saturday, September 6, 2014

the vehicles for the road to success

The question about what to do to become a successful and happy academic is one that pops up regularly in all kind of early career researcher seminars, mentoring sessions and blog articles. Being successful and being able to maintain a life outside academia is a balancing act that does not always work out as good one wishes. In the last few years I have been sitting in a number of "I tell you about my career" talks given by very successful people and I talked to a bunch of senior colleagues down the corridor about this topic. Some points always re-appear in these discussions - they seem to be the core of successful-senior-colleague-wisdom on the topic "success and happiness".

 1) Don't work your ass off
This is so against everything that everyday life in academia tells us. With funding rates going down, with job insecurity, with "publish or perish" it seems like everybody who does not work hir ass off, should better start to polish their resumes for non-academic jobs. But I've heard this sentence quite often and of course it is the key to whole-life happiness. Maybe it is easy to say that one should take time off on the weekend when you are the one with the Nobel-Prize on the shelf. But on the other hand it is essential to allow myself time to recharge my batteries and to actually enjoy my life today - this is not something that should be put on hold until I maybe have secured tenure.

2) Enjoy what you are doing and check once in a while if you are still enjoying it
For me as an ECR, this is the essential bit for my work in academia. With all the insecurity and the continuous search for funding, I better enjoy my work and the opportunities university offers. Maybe I'll become a professor and I can continue doing awesome research, maybe it'll not work out and I have to find something else that interests me and pays the bills. I don't doubt that I would. And if this happens it is better to not have regrets about the years spend in academia. It is easy to miss the point where you stop enjoying your work, because you just have so much on your plate and the piles on the desk don't become smaller. Taking the time once in while to reflect about what I'm doing and if I still like to be where I am, is a very good advice.

3) Be efficient and effective
This is a life-long learning process: tame the procrastination cat in you. Learn how to approach a task that you can finish it in a timely manner. How to not waste time on minor tasks. How to focus on the important things. How to get other people to support you work. Tons of books have been written about this - it's about finding the strategies that work for you and about applying them every day. Sometimes that works - sometimes it doesn't.

4) Have a bread and butter project and have a risky, exciting one as well
One of my super successful colleagues pointed out to me that the people who will be appointed on fixed term positions are the ones who work on the edge of knowledge and who dare to jump into the really unknown.But on the other hand nobody wants to hire a "crazy" person who is only looking for the Holy Grail. University wants to see solid publications, funding agencies - even though they claim that they want to fund novel ideas - want to make a safe investment and your colleagues will take you more seriously if you publish some not so far fetched ideas once in a while. 

5) Don't piss off your colleagues
Because you never know if you meet them again in the future and in which role. Maybe they will have to decide if your paper gets published or your grant gets funded. And even though we all should be unbiased by our personal relationship to someone, we are not. Even if we try. Especially not when the other one just pooped on your lawn. So it is better to choose which fights are really necessary - and some certainly are - and let go the other ones even if it would feel so good to just grmpf$%*.

6) Have friends outside your field or better even outside academia
That helps to see that the world is not evolving around your research niche. That other people have other priorities in life and still can be happy. That working in academia has a lot of perks and privileges. Getting your head off work is necessary to recharge your brain and having a hobby can actually be quite fulfilling as well, e.g. Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt owns a 4-star winery (to take one of the super successful people with super successful hobbies (= ).    

These points alone certainly won't make me a successful academic, but maybe a more happy and interesting one. It's good to realize that life happens now already and that it does not help to wait until an uncertain point in the future to start with being happy. And I go now and bake some cake, because that makes me happy on a Sunday afternoon!

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