A paper a day keeps the doctor away – advice for surviving in academia

The academic sea can be rough at times. (Photo by the Royal Navy under an Open Government License)

The academic sea can be rough at times. (Photo by the Royal Navy under an Open Government License)

By Jonas Waldenström

As a teacher and supervisor I meet many ambitious students that want to pursue an academic career. But how should you navigate your boat through the rough and stormy sea of academia? What lessons can be learned from earlier travelers?

This is my list for you:

  1. Don’t listen to advice (or at least filter them). This is the first and probably most important advice – kind of the Fight Club rule of academia. But why? The truth is, there is no single road to the Ivory Tower (if that’s where you’re aiming). Yes, there are some patterns, but everyone up there came through a different route; a path unique to them. On top of that, those whose advice you so eagerly seek were students in another time. Some things may have stayed the same, but other things have changed. Think of it this way: they (and me) are dinosaurs and you are a furry mammal.
  2. If you read this you have already failed to follow the first advice. That’s good, you’re learning to be independent. Keep on reading if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  3. Find your balance. Don’t work yourself to pieces. Deep inside I think we all know if we work too much. Listen to that voice, and you’ll live happier. People will pretend they work hard ALL THE TIME, but no one can do that for longer stretches of time. It’s just impossible.
  4. Publish where you want. Use your own criteria for determining the target journal for your manuscript. If you are pro open access, weigh that in. If you aim for highest possible impact journal, do that, it is all fine. Many professors talk about ‘society journals’ as a publication therein has an intrinsic value. But who knows how the publishing world looks in the future, with all the novel publishing initiatives such as PLOS, PeerJ, Peerage of Science, and F1000 to rock the scene? My best advice is to read the aims of the journal before submitting, and format the manuscript as they say you should. And write well. That’s time well spent.
  5. Try not to be an ass. For your own sake, and for others. Life in academia would be much better without the rivalry between colleagues.
  6. Don’t be bitter. Please.
  7. Don’t drink too much. You’d be surprised how much alcoholism there is in academia.
  8. Keep up with the literature, but don’t bring home a pile of papers each night. Actually, ‘one paper a day, keeps the doctor away’ is a good slogan.
  9. Have fun.
  10. Read number 1 again, and heed it this time.
A cohort of prospective students wishing to embark on an academic career.

A cohort of prospective students wishing to embark on an academic career.

In case you wonder, I have not adhered strictly to this list myself. I have definitely been an ass a few times, and regretted it. I have tried to work long hours, but blessedly having three kids stopped that. I was very journal-obsessed, but that has dwindled with time. I read less than I should, but am working on it. I have fun, and really, really try to stem feelings of bitterness when things don’t work out as I had hoped.

Live long and prosper, folks.

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2 thoughts on “A paper a day keeps the doctor away – advice for surviving in academia

  1. RE: “A cohort of prospective students wishing to embark on an academic career.”

    all men. reminds me of my grad school years. and of my postdoc years. ah, but not of my adjunct teaching years, where nearly everyone was female. hrmmm. a pattern?

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