Considering a career in academia?

19th Jun 2023

Considering a career in academia?

BNA2023 academic speakers share top tips for early-career researchers


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
Charles Dickens

We have all heard the ambivalent tales surrounding a career in academia. The appeal of investigating a topic we love, the possibility of being involved in cutting edge scientific discoveries, the satisfaction of a well-designed experiment that supports our hypothesis… But also, the endless grant-writing, the long and unpredictable working hours, the constant pressure to publish, and the fierce competitiveness and instability that characterises the profession. 

Many early career researchers are faced with the arduous decision of whether or not to take the next step in the academic world. I am currently battling with this choice myself, hence, at the BNA2023 International Festival of Neuroscience in Brighton, I have reached out to over thirty of the presenting academics, to collect opinions and advice from individuals with a variety of backgrounds and career stages. I was immediately overwhelmed by their eagerness to offer their guidance with the potential next generation of researchers. Here, I have attempted to distil their advice, in the hope to share their energy and enthusiasm with you. 


The golden rule: follow your interest and your passion

Of course, you’ve heard this one before. Nonetheless, it was stressed by most, and with good reason! If you find an area of research that you are truly passionate about, it will be much easier to think creatively in your daily work, comments Professor Brundin. Conversely, if you aren’t really interested in your research question, it might be difficult to stay motivated, especially when things are not working out, underlines Dr. Koya, from the University of Sussex. The bottom line being “Don’t choose the academic path half-heartedly”.

The land of opportunities

Many researchers highlight the incredible opportunities that came with an academic career.

I love that academia allows you to pick questions that interest you, and work with a team of people to try and answer them. Working as a collegiate and collaborative group to try and make the world a better place, is a real privilege”, shares Dr. Henstridge, from the University of Dundee. 

One gets to really satisfy their desires to unravel many of the mysteries about the world, while working with highly creative and intellectually stimulating individuals from all over the globe”, continues Dr. Koya.

For Dr. Rae the independence to pursue her own academic interests has been “fantastic”. She goes on to explain how an academic career can also offer opportunities beyond research. For example she particularly enjoys the freedom to campaign on cultural issues in science, such as environmental sustainability. 

It is important to keep in mind that it can be useful to take advantage of opportunities whenever they are offered, even if they don't seem particularly relevant at the time. Professor Robinson explains how early in her career, helping in other researcher’s projects resulted in interesting publications while also enabling her to develop new and useful skills along the way.  Other opportunities such as public engagement activities and teaching can be equally beneficial, and were frequently mentioned.

Don’t be scared to nurture other career paths

Nonetheless, some researchers pointed out how academia can be a “tough slog”, and it’s not for everyone.

Competition is fierce and there are big transitions to make at each career stage. There is no shame if you come to the realisation that it’s not for you. There are lots of amazing opportunities out there, look around and speak to people. Don’t be scared to seek out a Plan B and nurture other career paths”, highlights Dr. Henstridge.

Others emphasise the importance of being able to say no and avoiding taking on more then you are comfortable with. It is okay to change subject, supervisor or career trajectory if you are not happy where you are. No decision is final, and wherever you end up, you will have learned useful lessons along the way. 

Practical check-list for thriving (or surviving) in academia

Finally, here are some more practical tips to keep in mind, if you do decide to give the academic path a shot. 


Several academics stress the importance of liaising with fellow researchers, both within your group or institution, as well as in the wider scientific community. Finding congenial peers, helping fellow scientists and in turn asking for help, are all actions that will improve your daily life as a scientist, and most likely your career in the long run. Interacting is paramount for building your network of future CEOs, professors, grant managers and policy advisors, mentions Dr. Kronenberg-Versteeg from the University of Tübingen, who explains that that her network has been an invaluable resource on many occasions. 

Think ahead

Another common tip was to think two, three or even five years ahead. Whist this might seem daunting, it can be valuable to plan your current experiments, papers and networking activities accordingly.

"Be strategic on what achievements will get you where you want to be next”, suggests Dr. Martinez Gonzalez, from the University of Edinburgh. "If you have a clear sense of where you want to be next (e.g., applying for fellowships, permanent positions) it can become clearer what you might need to achieve your goals (papers, new contacts, evidence of teaching or supervision)", explains Dr. Gegg, Research Fellow from University College London. 

Try, try and try again

Many highlight the importance of staying motivated, focussed and persevere through highs and lows. “Enthusiasm, hard work and perseverance with a sprinkling of luck/good timing will get you there”, continues Dr. Gegg. Professor Wardlaw also reminds us to aim high, both with publications and fellowship applications: “if you don’t ask, you won’t get”. Finally, when you eventually succeed, it is important to remember to take the time to celebrate the highs, whatever they may be!

Stay alert and think outside the box 

One last recurrent piece of advice is to stay focus and alert, both in keeping an eye out for interesting opportunities or gaps in scientific knowledge.

Pay attention to the outliers. All the golden nuggets are in the unusual and unexpected. Major advancements occur from failed experiments rather than from expected results”, says Dr. Nath, clinical director at NHI. 

On this regard Professor Nutt, from Imperial College, encourages early career researches to place this quote from Aldous Huxley above their desk “Orthodoxy is the diehard of the world of thought. It learns not, neither can it forget, or as we would say today—think outside of the box.

Considering a career in academia? Head over to our Career's section.

Written by L. Sophie Gullino
Edited by Thomas C. Nicholas
BNA2023 Marketing Assistant 

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