How to Succeed in Academia: Career Advice for Junior Scholars from 5 Experienced Academics
Updated: Mar 4
Are you a junior scholar wondering about how to succeed in academia? If so, this article provides a review and a brief analysis of the valuable academic advice offered to junior scholars by five of the latest Persuasive Discourse academic interviewees. The advice presented here is grouped into five steps. While it is impossible to answer all the questions one might have about academia in one article, the humble goal of the career advice discussed here is to help inspire and guide junior scholars who are at the beginning of their academic careers.
Article by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Note: This article has been written based on excerpts from interviews conducted by Persuasive Discourse, between October 2021 and February 2022. The academics included in this article are: Dr. Sannia Abdullah, Dr. Annika Björkdahl, Dr. Sara Hellmüller, Dr. Carol S. Lidz, and Dr. David Sylvan. To read the complete advice and learn about the research and work of these interviewees, please access the interviews mentioned at the end of this page.
Step 1. Choose research topics that you are most curious and passionate about.
Throughout your career, it is crucial and helpful to feel passion, love, interest, and curiosity towards the topic(s) you are working on.
According to Dr. Björkdahl, in general, good advice in choosing your research is “that you should try to follow your passion. Be bold and be curious”; because, as Dr. Sylvan says, when “you’re passionate about” your research ideas then “that passion should come through in your work.” Therefore, particularly in the early stage of your academic career, it is important to prioritize discovering the field(s) and topic(s) that not only interest you the most but that also intrigue you. For example, when choosing your PhD research topic, choose wisely. Allow your interests and curiosity about a field to guide your choice for a research question.
When reflecting on the same topic, Dr. Abdullah answered that when her “students, at times, have asked” her “for advice on how to succeed in academia,” she honestly tells them that while she does “not know the answer to this question” throughout her career she made sure to pick “what resonated with” her heart and she “faithfully followed it.” In a similar way, try not to allow yourself to be influenced by fleeting research trends. Choosing the right research theme for yourself is a highly personal choice: One needs to choose a topic that gets them excited to wake up in the morning and to keep going, once the research, analysis, and writing does not go in the desired direction.
Step 2. Learn to trust your choices, intuition, and yourself.
If when you start a new program, you realize that you chose the ‘wrong’ research topic or, you find yourself in a toxic work environment, please always remember that it is never too late to change your mind. Accept the shortcoming that you are experiencing and start making the necessary arrangements to change your topic or to safely remove yourself from the mismatched work environment.
If on the contrary to what has been addressed above, you find yourself in a safe work environment but, in a challenging academic situation, because for instance your research or field work are not going as planned, then you may consider following Dr. Abdullah’s advice who says: “At times, the decisions we make do not yield the results we are looking for and they take us in a different direction than the one hoped for. It is important to trust yourself and your choices, and to learn how to live with good or bad outcomes” and to “not try shortcuts.” Later in your academic career you will be able to observe that the hardships you will experience while conducting your research, will help you become more knowledgeable about your field and allow you to be a better adviser to students, when it is your time to nurture young scholars.
Step 3. Get comfortable with the idea of becoming a pioneer in your field and embrace uncertainty.
When conducting research and analysis, try to “be original, and do not be afraid of thinking outside established theories and methodologies” (Dr. Björkdahl); “take a chance” and “play with ideas” (Dr. Sylvan); and, most importantly, “be prepared to lead the way, to find your own place” (Dr. Hellmüller) in your research field.
Life in academia is often unpredictable and can lead one to an uncertain career path. While it is common to build on prior research and advance established theories, many academics will in fact experience early on that, according to Dr. Hellmüller, “the path leading to (academia) is neither linear nor pre-paved.” This aspect provides academics with one of the most incredible opportunities: The ability and need to create knowledge and become a pioneer in their own field.
Alongside unpredictability, Dr. Abdullah says that her “advice to young scholars is to avoid shortcuts in life, particularly in research and in academia” because embarking on a “longer path gives you more experience and maybe, along the way, you can find something better that you have never even imagined before the start of your academic journey.” Thus, it is important to realize that the element of surprise may help lead researchers towards new discoveries.
Step 4. Reach out to the well-established researchers that you admire and build your professional network early in your career.
Dr. Lidz suggests that it is very important to become “deeply knowledgeable about what has already been done [in your field], and not to be afraid of contacting the authors and researchers who have done the work. It is easy to locate people on the internet, and many are very generous with their time and eager to be helpful. Many in fact consider it flattering to hear from young scholars who are interested in continuing or building upon the same or similar line of research.”
Further, Dr. Lidz says that: “While in a program,” she recommends young scholars to become “involved in existing faculty projects and to develop positive working relationships with both the faculty, as well as with fellow students who may turn out to be collaborators in the future.”
Step 5. Always prioritize your health and happiness.
To guarantee your own success and happiness in academia, and beyond, it is crucial to join work environments that fit your personality, which allow you to surround yourself with colleagues you admire and that inspire you to keep growing. For example, when choosing your job after completing your doctorate, do your diligent research about the school and/or program you want to join, to ensure that it is a match for you and that it is an environment where you will be able to conduct the research that sparks the most joy for you.
To conclude, your happiness matters, and it is important to actively pursue achieving this state of being in order to be well and healthy. As such, please try to remember to follow Dr. Hellmüller’s advice: If you choose an academic career, which she describes as being both “fascinating” and a “privilege,” then you should try to “make sure that you always enjoy what you are doing.”
Thank you for reading.
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Sorina Ioana Crisan, PhD
Researcher, Analyst, Interviewer, & Writer in International Relations & Related Fields
Are you inspired by this article and would like to learn more about the different work done by the academics mentioned here? Is so, please read the interviews conducted with them by Persuasive Discourse and the Graduate Institute, Geneva.
Crisan, Sorina I. “Shaping the Practice of School Psychology: Interview with Carol S. Lidz, Psy.D.” Persuasive Discourse, 8 February, 2022. Available online here.
Crisan, Sorina I. “World Politics & UN Peacebuilding: Interview with Sara Hellmüller, PhD.” Persuasive Discourse, 18 January, 2022. Available online here.
Crisan, Sorina I. “Human Coding, Machine-Learning Techniques & Discourse Analysis: Interview with David Sylvan, PhD.” Persuasive Discourse, 16 December, 2021. Available online here.
Crisan, Sorina I. “Studying & Teaching Security Studies in Pakistan vs. the U.S.: Interview with Sannia Abdullah, PhD.” Persuasive Discourse, 9 November, 2021. Available online here.
Crisan, Sorina I. “The Spatial Turn in Peace & Conflict Studies: Interview with Annika Björkdahl, PhD.” Persuasive Discourse, 26 October, 2021. Available online here.
Tanner, Nathalie. “The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making.” Interview with Sorina I. Crisan, PhD. The Graduate Institute, Geneva, 8 April, 2019. Available online here.
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