Nine Tips for Thriving in Academic Research

Being a scientist is demanding. The long hours, evolving projects, and challenges of navigating their growing careers can leave researchers feeling overwhelmed.

You are not alone. In fact, 82% of scientists we surveyed sometimes feel overwhelmed at work.

As members of the scientific community, we can all learn from each other’s experiences and help each other thrive. Over the past two years, STEMCELL Technologies has interacted with scientists ranging from graduate students to seasoned principal investigators who shared their advice for the next generation of scientists with us. See what they have to say.

1. Read Voraciously

When I first started my Masters degree, my supervisor shared with me an article from Science Magazine: “Fortune favors the well read”. The message of this article is self-explanatory, but is one that is often forgotten by new graduate students. Reading often, reading voraciously, and reading material outside of one’s immediate field of research is the best way to prepare for any future opportunity.

Evan Warner, Graduate Student, Vancouver Prostate Center

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2. Don’t Let Failure Stop You

It’s really easy when you come in the lab and your experiments are all failing and everything takes forever to really kind of get down on yourself or to try to measure yourself to other people or other labs, but you have to be kind to yourself. There are so many ways to contribute to the scientific enterprise; you have to identify your strength and then move that forward.

Dr. Judd F. Hultquist, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Northwestern University

Science is a marathon, not a sprint. Do what you do because you love what you do. You will fail much more often than you will succeed, and most steps (publication, grant/job applications) involve dealing with direct criticisms from others.

Dr. Kevin Beier, Assistant Professor, the University of California, Irvine

If something is obvious and easy, it’s probably already been done. The most important and interesting experiments are often the hardest to do. They might fail the first time but stick with it and the satisfaction of finally getting an answer is worth the struggle.

Dr. Sara McKee, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Queensland

3. Stay Motivated

My recommendation is to be nice to yourself. Be your own best friend. You have to advocate for yourself. You have to be generous with yourself and you have to be forgiving of yourself. I’ve seen scientists be successful in so many different ways, but everybody that I’ve seen become a successful scientist has been willing to treat themselves with the respect they would treat anyone else.

Dr. Judd F. Hultquist, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Northwestern University

I would advise the next generation of scientists to stay curious and stay determined in their work. Science is not easy, and we often face experimental failures and make erroneous hypotheses. Be persistent and keep trying; when the going gets tough, do not lose sight of your initial motivation to do science. Stay firm in your belief that you can contribute to the scientific community and improve the lives of people through scientific innovations, novel discoveries, and development of improved treatments for diseases.

Blaise Low, PhD Candidate, National University of Singapore, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology

This may sound clichéd but not giving up easily, staying focused, planning, delegating, and trying to find creative and enterprising solutions to a given problem/scientific question is the advice I will give new students.

Dr. Payel Sil, Postdoctoral Fellow, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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4. Be Proactive and Seek Opportunities

Have a clear understanding of yourself and the science you expect/want to do, especially given the current climate of funding. As I’m exploring career paths, I feel it is of paramount importance that you know your strengths and weaknesses. Be proactive, seek opportunities, volunteer and learn, and always see what you can contribute to a team, no matter how small or big it is.

Dr. Swati Dhar, Research Scientist, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago

5. Attend Scientific Conferences

I would suggest that attending scientific conferences and listening to suggestions from experts is as important as working on the bench doing experiments and publishing papers. I strongly recommend young researchers to find the right forum to present their work and network with the scientific community to learn about resources and support to advance their research.

Dr. Dipanjan Basu, Research Instructor, University of Pittsburgh

I think that the most important advice I could give to someone willing to get into science would be to go to as many conferences and international meetings as possible, to open up their minds to new research approaches and collaborations. And that you have to fight and work hard to get funding to attend these conferences.

Dr. Tomas Gonzalez Fernandez, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, Davis

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6. Reach Out and Build Your Network

Don’t be afraid to approach well known or senior investigators, particularly ones you might like to collaborate with, to discuss your work. They will often be far more supportive and encouraging than you might have expected.

Dr. James Brown, Lecturer and Principal Investigator, National University of Ireland Galway

I think the biggest thing I learned so far in my career is to never underestimate the power of collaboration; sometimes the brightest ideas come from working across unexpected channels.

Dr. Ana Camelo, Research Scientist, Immunology, MedImmune

The most important part of networking is the follow-up, send out a LinkedIn invite or an email the next day (don’t leave it too long, they might have forgotten you) and remind that person about the interesting topics you talked about.

Dr. Fane Mensah, Scientific Community Manager, Synthace Limited, @Fane_Mensah

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7. Get Social and Communicate Your Science

Seek out opportunities to communicate your research to scientists and non-scientists. I don’t just mean via traditional peer-reviewed publications and scientific presentations, but through joining outreach programs, social media, professional organizations, as well as speaking with businesses and philanthropists. By practicing and honing your ability to communicate through various means and medias, your authentic voice and personal brand will grow, in addition to helping you build your network that will undoubtedly aid you in the future.

Dr. Sarah Lepage, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Guelph, @sarahimlepage

Young researchers should get exposure to the life science ecosystem not just through academia and industry, but also through entrepreneurship. Communicate your science, share your thoughts with others and find creative ways to discuss challenges. You or your research project might contribute to the next new innovation!

Dr. Fane Mensah, Scientific Community Manager, Synthace Limited, @Fane_Mensah

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8. Find Good Mentors

Have mentors. Every successful person that I have read about has had a mentor. One need not rely on their immediate vicinity. Seek out your path, and when you think of your career, no person is too small or too big to become a mentor. You just have to be genuinely interested and ask. And don’t forget to return the favor by doing some mentoring yourself. It is very gratifying, and is a great learning experience.

Dr. Swati Dhar, Research Associate, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University

Never underestimate the value of good mentors in your grad school/ postdoctoral journey to empower you. Your professors, colleagues, collaborators, and well-wishers are going to be instrumental in accomplishing your goals and pushing your career forward, so it’s important to build strong professional relationships.

Dr. Payel Sil, Postdoctoral Fellow, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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9. Do What You Enjoy

In my mind, research is not a job, it's a passion. It can't be done half-hearted. But if the passion is there, it is the most rewarding thing.

Dr. Susanne Heinzel, Senior Research Scientist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research

The biggest tip is to do what you enjoy because this will drive you through the challenges you encounter in your journey.

Dr. Payel Sil, Postdoctoral Fellow, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Don't work for the accolades; work for yourself. If those things come, great—make time to enjoy them. But if you find satisfaction in the day to day, you will be much happier.

Dr. Kevin Beier, Assistant Professor, the University of California, Irvine

I have raised three children during my career in science and it is very important to me to show them that hard work does pay off. I have learned that if you are passionate about what you do, nothing can stop you and you can make an impact in your field.

Cori Fain, PhD Student, Mayo Clinic

These tips will help you build a healthy career in science, but applying them takes time and effort. Between reading, attending conferences, networking, building a relationship with a mentor, and communicating science, how do you find the time to fit everything in?

One way is to work smarter instead of harder. This involves identifying inefficiencies in the lab and adopting smarter technologies. For example, how efficient is your cell separation technology?

Scientist working in the lab

Efficient Tools and Technologies for Life Science Research

Accomplish more in less time and with less effort by making smarter choices for the tools you use in the lab, including cell isolation and cell culture technologies.