Building an academic career on your own terms

Post by Dr. Eva Lantsoght

If we believe the pop culture representations, all professors are white men who sit in their office, pondering difficult problems late at night, while wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches. And yet, if only these people were to become professors and contribute to solving the world’s largest challenges, we would lack the diversity of ideas necessary to address these challenges. 

Indeed, as academia becomes more diverse, we see more and more faculty members who build their academic careers on their own terms. They refuse to fit the tweed-jacket-clad mold and courageously carve their own path into the academic world while making great contributions in their fields.

Today, I will give you some insights on what is important to achieve the goal of building an academic career while keeping your own identity and life. I’ll share my personal story, and then share the lessons I have learned along the way.

My Story

When I decided to take a faculty position in Ecuador, many of my colleagues thought I would be sacrificing my research career to be able to build a life with my family. Over the past decade, I’ve proven the contrary, through a solid output of publications and strong international collaborations

So, what has worked for me to build an academic career without compromising on important family goals?

Develop the right mindset

The first and foremost success factor is one’s mindset. When I took my faculty position in Ecuador, I knew I wanted to teach, do research, and provide service to the larger technical community. I knew that I would have a heavy teaching load, but I refused to fall into the trap of thinking that I would focus on teaching until things calmed down a bit. I set out to work on these three tasks and made sure to assign goals, tasks, and time to each of these three categories. If you plan to build your academic career on your own terms, you have to first and foremost believe in yourself. Know that you have all the skills and tools to succeed.

Establish the collaborations you need

A second important factor has been collaborationI knew that living in Ecuador would come with its challenges in terms of access to laboratories, and even access to pay-walled publications. Before moving to Ecuador, I got a part-time post-doc position at the university where I did my Ph.D. (Delft University of Technology). With this collaboration, I was able to spend time in the laboratory during the summers and get data, and then work on the analysis during the rest of the year while I was in Ecuador. 

I also looked for collaborations in North America through service appointments (technical committees, as well as editorial board memberships). Through these collaborations, I was able to widen my expertise, work on coauthored papers, and build my profile as an expert in my field of research.

Embrace the life you chose

Finally, it’s important to mention that I consider being able to build my academic career on my own terms as a factor that contributes to my success, rather than limits it. 

Being with my family-in-law near me has been a blessing, and I believe I am a happier person than if I would have made decisions as a function of only my career. Spending time at home with my family is what recharges me, and I know that the support of my husband and daughter has been important for me to achieve my career goals.

In Sum

In conclusion, building an academic career does not require you to sacrifice your personal life or fit the mold of the tweed-jacket-wearing professor. Believe in yourself, stand in your power, and contribute to your field with great research – these elements are the most important! 

If you want to read more about my story and how my career developed over the last 13 years, make sure to check out my blog PhD Talk.

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