Academia is an ecosystem of universities and research centers whose primary purpose is to conduct scientific research, expand the boundaries of human knowledge, create new scientific content, and educate a new generation of scientists. 

Academia was traditionally seen as an ivory tower: a monastery of sorts where you can only build your career if you join at an early age and stay loyal and committed for a lifetime. Now, the boundaries between academia and industry started melting. Today, companies often diversify and strengthen their R&D departments by collaborating with universities and running joint PhD programs. Furthermore, individuals who spent many years in industry and developed successful careers there, and are often willing to conduct a full- or part-time PhD as a part of their self-development.

An academic career is a combined research/teaching position within an academic institution (as opposed to, e.g., an R&D department in a company) with an intention to spend the majority/the rest of the professional life as an active researcher (rather than, e.g., a Lab Manager, or a professional Grant Writer). This typically implies a necessity to get promoted to a PI at some point—although, in some countries, there are also other possibilities such as becoming a Senior Postdoctoral Researcher.

You might be asking yourself, “Even if my personality profile fits the academic lifestyle, and I fancy spending a few years of my life investigating an interesting research subject, is this really an option for me? Isn’t academia only suitable for geniuses who were training in one narrow discipline since early childhood?

The answer is, “No. Not anymore.” The numbers of PhD positions and PhD graduates have been steadily growing since a few decades (Schillebeeckx et al., 2013), and this trend is most probably not going to change any time soon. You certainly don’t need to be an Einstein to land a PhD candidate position. If you ask successful professors with an impressive record of scientific discoveries, they will tell you that what brought them so far in academia, was their personality, namely diligence and persistence, rather than an inborn talent or an IQ. As Thomas Edison liked to say, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Furthermore, academia adjusts to the new reality. Today, instead of working on a shear survival, the developed society is occupied with multiple other interesting topics of global interest. Therefore, the scope of research topics that you might potentially study, morphs accordingly. Namely, you no longer need to be into probability theory, particle physics, biotechnology, or agriculture to pursue a PhD. 

Today, reputable universities also launch PhD programs oriented at, e.g., sociology of the today’s entertainment culture, social media and their impact on society and industry, or other actual societal problems such as, e.g., high degree of insecurity and depression among the young Z generation employees. If you are passionate about any topic related to society and public good, there is a good chance that there are PhD programs that might accept you. Or, that you might write down your own research proposal and get public funding from one of multiple international open grant programs.

Having that said, the number of full time faculty positions is growing much slower than the number of PhD candidates jobs (Schillebeeckx et al., 2013). Therefore, if you take a decision to try, it is better to keep expectations low and assume that you are not going to stay in academia for the rest of your professional career. 


Academic researchers have ranks. It works a bit like belts in karate, or ranks in the army. The lowest rank is a PhD, which is a certificate that you can function as an independent researcher. With this academic title, you are eligible to apply for high-ranked academic positions such as a Postdoctoral Researcher, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, or Full Professor. Therefore, your journey in academia typically starts with landing a position of a PhD candidate. In most countries, the formal requirement to join graduate school is completing a BSc program in prior. However, starting a PhD program right after BSc is usually challenging, therefore, in practice, most of the PhD candidates are MSc graduates in fact. 

You need to know that at most research institutes, the structure of the working environment is different from most companies and public institutions. Namely, the structure is modular. Every department is divided into labs/research groups, which are effectively little companies with their own budgets, and their own problems. 

In some countries such as the United States, PhD students belong to the common cloud: they are granted a fellowship and belong to the graduate school which spans across labs, and have the autonomy to change labs and bring their fellowship with them during their time in grad school. In other countries such as the Netherlands, PhD students are effectively employees of the labs they belong to, and they are fully dependent on the lab PIs.

Furthermore, there is an “understream.” When you enter a research institute, you will soon learn that there is a net of close connections and interdependencies between people who are already employed there—as they are much more dependent on each other than you would think at first. Cliques naturally form in working environments when senior employees work with each other for way too long. Companies know about this caveat, therefore, they break cliques by shifting managers around the company on a regular basis. 

Unfortunately, in academia, this doesn’t happen. Once senior researchers are offered tenure contracts, they often stay in one place for the rest of their professional careers—which often means as long as 20-30 years. So, what will happen if people work next to each other for so long? Easy to predict that some circles of mutual support and mutual adversities will form.

Therefore, as a new kid on the block, you can discover that some PIs in your new workplace have not spoken to each other for many years because of some disagreement they once had. Some people owe each other favors from previous projects. And, you can painfully learn about it during your project—for instance when you find out that a few authors have been added to the author list on your paper for no apparent reason. The distribution of power also dynamically changes over time, and only a few people understand what’s really happening behind the curtains. 

You can only be certain about one thing: quite like in an army, if you are of lower rank then someone else, you are never right. 


You Are the Master of Your Agenda

Of course, as in every other working environment, you will need to attend some obligatory meetings: the gatherings of the lab that you are a part of, the regular progress meetings with your supervisors, the seminars at your department, the conferences. 

However, apart from that, you will be in charge of administering your daily life. You won’t have a secretary or a manager that will tell you what the schedule for the week is. You won’t even have official office hours. In the vast majority of the research institutes and research groups, it is not expected that you are always at the site with the typical office hours, i.e., 9 am — 5 pm. Of course, it can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your ability to self-motivate yourself throughout the day and organize your workflow.

And, you can be sure of one thing: no matter how easy you walk in, or how late you leave your office, there will always be at least a few people in the building who working at the moment. And, you will always have more points on your to-do list that you can possibly manage. For this reason, it is easy to develop that itchy feeling that you don’t work hard enough—no matter how hard you work. Many early-career researchers suffer from the impression that they are not dedicated enough. 

And, it takes them years to learn that longer working hours don’t mean better results and that they need to develop the proper work-life balance. Some of them never manage to reach that balance anyways.

Academia Is a Form Of a Monastery…

…in which you are guided by your teacher, or your master, also known as your promotor. Promotor is our formal boss, who is responsible for the content of your project and for the quality of your thesis. This person will need to formally approve your thesis and invite the committee members for your PhD thesis dissertation. 

However, in practice, your promotor plays much more important role than just that. When you enter your PhD, you barely have any idea about how research looks from the kitchen. Your promotor has to teach you about the art of doing science: the craft of coming up with the right research questions, conducting responsible research, and convincing the audience that your results matter. 

Good promoters also introduce their students to their professional network and make sure that the students build themselves a solid safety net since the beginnings of their research career. They make sure that their students get off the ground, fly high, and become truly independent researchers after their PhD comes to the end. This is also why the choice of the right promotor is so crucial in the course of the academic career, and why it pays off to spend time looking for the right person to work with before you embark on your academic journey.

Short Contracts

On the one hand, academia resembles a monastery where practicing and celebrating science is an almost religious practice. On the other hand however, academic life is more stressful than a typical monk’s life—mostly for the reason that in the early stages of the academic career, contracts are short. A typical PhD contract lasts between 3-6 years (depending on the country). Postdoctoral contracts are typically even shorter and in many countries, as short as 1-2 years. 

In practice, in means that you often need to relocate to start a new job in another country, and as soon as you find yourself a cozy place to live, unpack your belongings, and figure out what your new project is all about, you have to start thinking about how to land your next contract.

Some people enjoy this adventurous lifestyle, especially when they are young, don’t have too many commitments, and enjoy traveling as such. However, for most people in academia, the necessity to swap contracts is a major liability, and one of the major reasons to walk away from academia at some point in their careers.

Watch Your Academic CV

For the bystanders, it might look like academia is highly collaborative: virtually any publication has multiple—often, even hundreds—authors. However, you should know that in fact, as an academic, at the end of the day, you will always be assessed for your individual academic achievement. Namely, throughout your career, you need to collect the portfolio of research projects you have participated in—and it is preferred that these projects resulted in a number of peer-reviewed research publications. Your portfolio will influence your chances of landing personal grants, internships, and next contracts, and therefore, progressing with your academic career. 

It is because your grant applications will be assessed by public granting institutions. For experts working there, the fact that you actively participated in multiple published projects is an indication that you are productive at work. A good publication record will convince them that giving you more trust and more public money to manage is a good investment that will give good return to the society. Your potential future bosses will also pay more attention to your job application if they see that you can deliver publishable manuscripts, as published papers is a vital currency for them as much as it is for you.

On Publishing in Academia

Of course, all researchers working in academia know the importance of publications in building a career in science. Therefore, you can prepare yourself for the fact that games will be played (more about it later in this chapter). Namely, this system incentivizes individual researchers to maximize the number of publications where their name appears, and also fight for a good spot on the authors list. 

As a rule of thumb, in most disciplines of science, the names at the beginning and at the end of the authors’ list are seen as the most prestigious. Therefore, many team members might try to secure these places as stop paying attention to the project when it becomes clear that they cannot achieve this goal.

Moreover, not every publications is respected the same. Although technically, you can always publish your manuscript online on one of the open preprint serves such as,, or, in fact, the peer reviewed publications are still considered more prestigious and reputable. “Peer review” means that you need to send your work to one of the journals listed on a so-called Master Journal List. These journals are indexed and Academic journals have ranks known as Impact Factor. If you decide to go for an academic job, you will hear about Impact Factor much more than you would ever wish, as it is the real currency in academia.

This number reflects the average numbers of citations that articles published in this journal used to get in a certain time window. Impact Factor can vary in time, and is typically updated on a yearly basis. In fact, the numbers can also vary a lot between subfields of science: the more populated field, the more researchers working on the topic, the more citations and the higher the Impact Factor. 

Therefore, while in some branches of pure Mathematics, Impact Factors rarely reach more than IF=1.0, in mainstream areas of medicine and genetics, they can often reach as much as 30.0 or even 50.0. For this reason, your overall academic success is related not only to the quality on your work but also, to the popularity of the subject you are working on.

The Peer Review Process

It is also worth mentioning that people who need to make final decisions upon publishing your material are the editors of the academic journals, who ask (usually, anonymous) reviewers for their opinions. 

Reviewers are usually other researchers within the research field associated with the theme of the manuscript. In the review process, the reviewers have power over you in a sense that you are obliged to answer to every single comments that you receive from them or otherwise, your manuscript will not be accepted. 

Although the vast majority of reviewers aim give you constructive feedback, once in a while, someone overly critical or bitter (just because they happened to have a bad day, or because they work on the same research subject yet don’t have as exciting results as yours) can bash your work. 

Of course, you can kindly disagree with the reviewer’s comments and explain the reason why. Yet, if you refuse multiple requests from the reviewers’s side, the editor might eventually make a decision not to publish your work. At the end of the day, editors usually are former researchers but they not necessarily specialize in the same narrow discipline in which you work. Therefore, in the case of a dispute, they use to trust the reviewers’ opinions.

One thing to add is that, the review process can take long months, and often even years. And, you can get a rejection at each stage of the process—even after multiple rounds of corrections. In case you get rejection, you have the right to send your manuscript to another research journal. However, you are back to the starting line, in the sense that all the review process starts all over again—usually, with the new set of editor and reviewing team, whose you need to convince to publishing your work once again.


Next to publishing your papers, you should also care about the citations that your work receives. It is because the fact that you published your work in a reputable journal doesn’t mean that your particular paper will have an impact. If other researchers cite your work, this is when you can say that at least, you work got noticed in the field and influenced other researchers’ work. 

This is why one of the measurements personal success in science is a so-called H-Index. If you have H-index of 10, it means that you co-authored at least 10 publications which, to date, received at least 10 citations each. To increase your H-Index, it is not enough to write and publish more manuscripts—you also need to receive more citations per manuscript from the scientific community. Of course, this prompts lots of researchers to include self-citations in their manuscripts… Well, what can you do—it is survival after all!


In practice, this system generates high degree of pressure on academic results. Before you even get involved in a project, you need to ask yourself: is this project even publishable? Is it of enough interest to a broader academic audience to get credit for reputable research journals with decent Impact Factor and get published there? In that sense, doing science can stop feeling like personal adventure and discovery mission, and start feeling like a game in which you need to score points to stay in the game for as long as you can. 

So, how does the daily life look? Well, it much depends on the field of science that you are going to join. There are 3 main types of workflow:

1. Applied STEM Sciences.

“STEM” stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Applied sciences aim to directly apply the results of the research projects into creating new technologies, drugs, software and hardware solving societal problems. For instance, creating new treatment practices and diagnostic tools for healthcare, creating new infrastructure, building green solutions, improving on logistics, improving on the sanitary conditions in the developing countries, to building new functionalities in all industries, from financial markets, through meteorology, to pharmaceutical industry and even spacecraft. 

Today, there is a strong trend in applied STEM sciences to form research consortia: to pool the know-how and the manpower over multiple research groups working all around the globe to be able to achieve more and more ambitious goals. 

Working within a consortium is an artistic mess. Juggling projects, struggling with an overflow of emails, running to way too many meetings, trying to keep up with the recent findings in the field, applying to grant calls, sending conference abstracts, promoting your research (and yourself as well!) via social media… And, next to all this, trying to come up with some content that is fresh, creative, and useful for humanity. 

While working within a consortium, you still need to take care of your individual publishing record. Typically it means that next to getting involved in large, consortium-wide projects, you still need to cut out some smaller project for yourself, and lead that project as the lead author. Within a consortium, multiple researchers might develop research projects using the same data set that belongs to the consortium. Therefore, you need to keep your yes open, get track of what other people around you are doing at the moment, and make sure that your project is unique and distinct in topic from all the other projects to avoid a conflict of interest.

On the good side of things, although working in consortia makes your life hectic, it also brings many good qualities to your time in academia. As a member of a consortium, you are involved in many projects at all times whenever you want it or not. And, other people need you: ask you questions, ask you for advise, ask you for help with their projects. People are sociable by nature, and as a member of a consortium, you will never feel unnecessary or isolated. 

As you are under pressure to interact with lots of people—e.g., by regularly presenting your results to the consortium members in other countries—you will also naturally build a personal network in your field. You don’t need to scramble and make extra effort beyond working hours to build a network: it will just happen. So, with enough self-navigation skills, working in a consortium can become a start into a great career academic career for you. 

2. Fundamental STEM Sciences.

Fundamental STEM sciences mean pure sciences such as Mathematics, Theoretical Physics, Computer Science, and many others. Without fundamental findings, there would be no applied sciences. However, since fundamental research does not yield as direct impact on industry ad economy, then typically, governments invest less resources in supplying these branches of science.

Therefore, researchers working in fundamental STEM sciences are the minority. They typically enjoy much more peaceful working life than researchers in applied STEM sciences. They use to have one, individual, well-defined project and one leading mentor or a few mentors to work with on the daily basis. They use to work in a cozy office, with a steady working rhythm, and a few major checkpoints during the year when they present their work in a seminar or a specialistic conference in their subfield. 

This setting works just perfectly for some people, while others experience a deep feeling of isolation and a low level of satisfaction from work in such conditions (Tomasello, 2019).

3. Humanities/Social Sciences.

In humanities, the daily research life much differs from daily life in STEM sciences. Instead of conducting experiments in laboratory conditions as applied STEM scientists, or proving theorems as fundamental STEM scientists, you perform literature research. Which means that you analyze some topic by reading through tons of source materials, e.g., old documents from certain points in history or related to a particular public figure that are never analyze before. Or, you analyze certain current  societal problem by conducting field research: analyzing the problem based on a number of informational interviews (or, sometimes also automated surveys).  

In humanities, you are supposed to be the head of your project from the get go, and your mentors rarely influence the course of your project. Many PhD candidates in humanities publish in peer-reviewed literature as sole authors—which is rarely the case in STEM science where your promoter or other senior researcher is pretty much always involved and listed on your publications as a co-author. 

In general, it s hard to get a fully-paid PhD candidate position in humanities. The numbers of paid positions are low because most governments don’t invest in these branches of science as much as in STEM sciences—where the output can often be applied in industry and monetized. 

However, if you can eventually land such a position, you research life can be really happy. Just imagine spending a few years  wit high degree of autonomy and freedom in daily life, reading on topics that you are excited about, discussing with other researchers in your field who share your passion, forming your own opinions, and writing articles and booklets that explain your findings to the broader audience and get that audience engaged in your topic as well.

Of course, just as in fundamental STEM sciences, in this type of a PhD program, you can also experience some solitude. However, PhD programs in humanities usually leave the PhD candidates with more time to compensate for this solitude by developing a vibrant social life and getting involved in a range of extracurricular activities than the PhD programs in STEM.


A Chance To Land a Permanent Position

If you combine a deep level of knowledge in a particular discipline of science with good networking skills, with a little bit of luck, you can climb up to a faculty position. It will secure you a permanent contract, which can (almost) never get terminated.

And the permanent contract allows for, among others: high salary, high sense of security, working with intelligent people, the opportunity to define research problems all by yourself, plus a stream of young labor to put your ideas to life, numerous travels to the most beautiful places, and a high level of social approval. And that’s a (busy but) happy life!

Working With Friends

When you become a senior researcher, you are free to come up with any collaborators for your projects you wish. In particular, you can choose your close friends! It is a rare opportunity in the job market, and this can make working life a real blast.

An Opportunity to Get Paid for Learning

A research career effectively means that you earn on your self-development. In no other working environment, this is the case! You get a salary for learning for a lifetime and becoming a better version of yourself. If you treat life as a journey, academia might be the place for you.

High Social Approval

Similarly as in cases when you work for any other public institutions and NGOs, you can enjoy high degree of social approval. To some people, it doesn’t matter all that much while to others, it is one of the major perks of becoming an academic. The society as a positive picture of academics as humble, modest, hard-working people who work on behalf of public good. Therefore, whenever you talk about your job, you will likely meet with lots of positive reactions from your environment. And in some countries, such as in India, a scientist in the family is the reason for the whole family to be proud!

The Ability To Share Your Work With the World

As an academic, you are encouraged to share your know-how. In the private sector, companies protect their know-how by Non-Disclosure Agreements. Anyone who breaks the rules will need to face serious consequences. Companies don’t organize international conferences so that everyone can present to the other companies’ representatives how they executed their projects in every detail. No one shares their pipelines so that it can be reproduced. 

In academia, however, the results your work are a common good that belongs o the society. Therefore, after your work gets published, you can proudly share your pipeline and results in every detail—preferably documented in a way than anyone can reproduce your results. Therefore, if the possibility to openly share your results with the public matters to you, academia is the place to go.

You Put Your Name On Your Work

This point might sound like detail at first. However, for many people—especially those who have an artistic and creative nature—it is motivating and empowering if they can put their own signature under their work. 

When you are in academia, you put your own name on every single research paper, and then it becomes visible to everyone around the globe. In industry, on the other hand, the whole team produces a new product or a document under the brand of the company, and the public opinion doesn’t know what your exact input was. 

Of course, a good manager will make sure that you are recognized for your achievements within the team—yet still, your name won’t be mentioned in the history books even if you did something truly groundbreaking. Therefore, if it’s important for you to be recognized for your work, academia is one of the few places where you are guaranteed to get this recognition.

Your Work Becomes a Part of the Human Heritage

If it matters to you how you will be remembered, your research will not only be published under your name but it will also become a part of the world heritage for as long as humanity exists.

Who knows—maybe a hundred years after you pass away, your research results will lead to a solution to some big problem related to the society or environment. Such scenarios happened on many occasions before.


The Daily Life Might Differ From What You Expect as a Laic

Many people fancy working as researchers as they are fascinated by the vision of studying topics such as astronomy, the origins of the Universe, wildlife, human cognition, ecology, or some specific sociological phenomena that they find extremely important in today’s world. For this reason, they apply to join graduate school expecting that from now on, they will be spending their days surrounding by likeminded people, and discussing the big problems in the world.

Well, unfortunately, in most types of academic projects, such moments are extremely rare. The daily life is all about sitting in your office and reading the specialistic literature, planning projects in every detail, meticulous and often tedious execution of these projects. Whenever you join Friday Afternoon Drinks with your colleagues from grad school, you are all typically too tired to even think about work anymore. The leading topics become: planning vacation, concerts in the city, who-is-dating-whom, the plans for the next Day Out, games between professors in the institute, whose contract ends next and how to possibly keep this person around by landing a grant, etc. Anything but science!

Occasionally, you will present your progress at a seminar to your colleagues or during 1-1 meeting straight to your boss, or your supervisor. Once or twice a year, you might also attend a conference where you have a chance to get into more philosophical dispute about what you do in an international and informal setting. But that would be it! In daily life, the work is systematic, structured, quite mechanistic, and often even boring. For this reason, many people coming to academia only because they dreamt about doing science after watching fascinating documentaries at the Discovery channel for years and years, soon get disappointed and often drop out.

Easier To Get in Than To Stay

In most working environments such as corporations, consultancy companies, or prestigious institutions, it is hard to get in. However, once you manage to sneak in and present yourself from good side, you can land a permanent contract and safely keep on working in that place for as long as you wish. In that sense, it is harder to get in than to stay. Academia, however, is a direct opposite of this model. Today, there are lots of open PhD candidate positions, and the numbers are probably still about to surge in the next years. 

However, as mentioned before, the numbers are against you (Schillebeeckx et al., 2013). Not every PhD graduate can stay in academia, and some of them need to move to industry. In some fields of science and in some countries, less than 1% of all the PhD candidates end up with a full-time, tenured faculty positions! That means that effectively, you have less than 1% chance to work in a profession that you get trained for.

Universities are aware of this problem. Therefore, next to training early career researchers in science, they also invest in building career centers and developing courses and internship programs for PhD candidates and Postdoctoral researchers. The aim is to help researchers develop transferrable skills that will also prove useful in industry jobs beyond academia. However, you need to be aware that at the end of the day, you need to take charge of your career development when working in academia. You need to discover what your core competencies and what your possible scenarios for the future career will be all by yourself—your employer won’t answer all these questions for you nor find you the next job. Many academics make a mistake of postponing their career planning until the end of their contracts when it’s basically too late. 

An Insane Pressure For Results

As mentioned before, peer-reviewed publications are the academic currency. Nowadays, the Open Science movement is trying to change this situation, e.g., by honoring also other forms of contribution, such as, e.g., creating open software (e.g., published via GitHub), patents, achievements in mentoring early career researchers, etc. However, the changes in the academic system are slow, and peer-reviewed publications in high-impact journals are still the safest way to secure your future on the academic career path. 

This results in extreme pressure for individual results and often results in p-hacking, or, the pressure to do p-hacking. In short, p-hacking means committing conscious methodological mistakes to improve on the statistical significance of the study results. It can involve, e.g., re-analyzing the data multiple times with multiple methods and multiple sets of parameters, and skipping the results unfavorable for your research hypothesis, hiding null results, excluding “outliers”, i.e., data points that lead to results inconsistent with the research hypothesis, discontinuing a research study as soon as partial results show the desired effect, etc. 

In fact, there is a broad range of practices that can fall into the “p-hacking” category. Many early career researchers are not even aware of the fact that their pipeline is erroneous and it involves some form of p-hacking. Plus, p-hacking is extremely hard to detect in the peer review process. For instance, how can the reviewers ever find out that large chunk of the data and results were not reported in the manuscript? They can’t. Therefore, it is often the case that no one even corrects the mistakes coming from p-hacking. 

Unfortunately, in some cases researchers also consciously p-hack when their publication record, and therefore also their contract, depends on it. The contracts are so short and the publication pressure is so high that they have to face a serious moral dilemma: is it better to honestly report the things as they are, even if the results that you’ve produced according to your original plan are not impressive and don’t show any interesting effect? Or perhaps, is it better to massage the data and rerun the analysis hoping that the next time, the outcome will be more exciting for your boss and for the rest of the research community? Given the harsh and uncertain nature of academic life, no wonder that some people choose to massage the data. 

Especially given that, in case when at the end of your contract, it turns out that your research project doesn’t lead to any interesting and impactful results, unfortunately it’s you and not your boss who has to bare all the consequences—even if your boss was the one who proposed the project. It is because tenure track professors can feel safe about the continuity of their contracts while you need to worry if your publication record is not impressive enough. It is yet another reason why p-hacking happens in academia.


As mentioned before, in every competitive field, you need some star qualities to get far. In the common opinion, what you need in academia the most is brains. Namely, that the most accomplished researchers are the biggest brainiacs with the most creative minds. Well, it used to be the case centuries ago. Of course, brains are still necessary to build an academic career. However, now, in the times of harsh competition for positions, social media, and the race to build personal influence, brains are not enough anymore.

Namely, in today’s academia, researchers who eventually land tenure positions are usually those who have some aura of grace and wisdom. They are eager to speak to the general audience about what they do, and whenever they speak, it sounds like ground truth. This type of “karmic energy” earns them respect, allows them to convince others to their concepts and opinions, get followers who are willing to adapt their research concepts, and create “impact.” 

Successful academics are often those who also manage to create a persona. To their environment, they appear to be so smart and talented that everything comes to them effortlessly—even though in fact, they work overnights and have their struggles, but never admit so. It pays off to develop such a persona, as more senior academics and grant agencies are willing to invest time and money in such people as potential future leaders.

Therefore, many academics put on a happy face—they only talk and tweet about their recent papers, contracts they have just signed, some other professional achievements, and happy events such as exotic vacations. They attempt to create the impression that life is easy for them. It is easy to get depressed when looking at these “perfect” figures. These people work hard and play it cool while they wiping everything they didn’t succeed in under the carpet.

The latter trend has recently started to change though, which is related to the Academic Twitter culture. Namely, most academics are active on Twitter, and it is more and more accepted and even encouraged to share personal failure and hardship  to the Twitter audience, regardless of your academic career stage (Cheplygina, 2020). Yet still, a person who seems to be a happy and flawless paper-producing machine stands higher chances of long-term success in science than individuals who are honest about the amount of failure that they experience daily.

The Pressure To Relocate

Even though you work in an international environment and have collaborators abroad, for some weird reason, there is still an expectation that you should gain an “international experience” by traveling abroad during your career. Or that you should at least swap institutions around the country a few times to broaden your perspective. For many people at a young age, it is an exciting part of academic career. However, once you reach the age at which your family becomes your priority, the necessity to keep on relocating becomes a liability.

Poor Teamwork

As mentioned before, academia is quite individualistic. Many teams exist only on paper—at the end of the day, every team member needs to take care of their own academic CV anyway. This system does not promote effective teamwork at all. One thing to make clear here is: teamwork in academia is not poor because people in academia are egocentric. Quite the opposite; they are often willing to help others beyond the working hours even if it means compromising on their work-life balance. However, the academic system does not promote teamwork but rather, individual working style. 

Every project is meant to result in at least one research publication, and your place in the sequence of the authors on that paper determines how your scientific achievement is perceived. As a result, academics have an incentive to get their name onto as many papers as possible while at the same time doing as little as possible for each one of the projects they participate in—as their publication record will be the major factor that the granting agencies take into account while dividing the money for future projects. 

Furthermore, since academics prioritize finishing projects in which they are the leading authors, they often delay giving input to the projects in which they are supporting authors, and as a result, block them. The situation is the same unhealthy we look at the employer-employee relationship. Unlike in industry, in academia bosses and their employees often have contradictory goals. 

Namely, your boss often wants you to exploit their own research ideas which they developed many years ago. Now, they work on building their name even further rather than helping you work out your own future line of research. Of course, there are examples of wonderful academic bosses who will prioritize mentoring you and helping you in your career over their personal goals, and make sure that you have a maximum degree of synergy in your collaboration. This is, however, not a rule.

Additionally, in many countries (such as the Netherlands), your salary is paid straight from your lab’s budget and not from the department’s budget. In a way, this means that you belong to your boss. Therefore if you lack teamwork and support, and  if you wish to change your research group, you need to find a new job elsewhere. The situation is different in some countries such as the US where graduate schools offer fellowships. Theoretically, you can change your lab affiliation within the same graduate school during graduate studies, but it makes your life harder and it’s often perceived as a failure.

Games, Games, Games

In terms of personal strategic games, academia is not much different from the corporate setting—and in fact it is often even worse. There is just not enough room for everyone to stay “till the end,” therefore, people can get to any length to improve on their chances to stay in the game. So, there are lots of games you will need to tolerate to survive in academia—the more competitive field, the more gamified the research becomes.

For instance, if you are a member of a large consortium, you can expect that once in a while, some extra author(s) will magically appear on your publication even though they had nothing to do with the project. 

It happens because your professor owes something to someone else, or because it is an internal rule within the consortium to list all the members as authors, or for any other unrelated reasons. And once in a while, your paper will be rejected only because an anonymous reviewer is not fond of some of the researchers on the authors’ list, so they make it personal, and anonymously bomb your work.

An in general, you will need to learn how to maximize your outcome… And it often means quantity over quality. The times when you could have spent a few years developing some concept alone in your cozy office are a long time gone. If you want to stay in science for longer, you need to play the game, and strategically plan your research projects in a way to maximize your chances for publishing your work, and increase the impact of your work as much as you can. 

Recruitment is part of the academic game as well. From time to time, you may lose a position to another candidate—even though they had a much more modest academic CV than you—just because they had a personal bond with the research lead of the project. Honestly speaking, it’s hard to get any jobs more senior than a PhD contract if you don’t know anyone in the lab you are applying to. 

Lab leaders know that hiring someone for a contract is a few-year long commitment to work with this person daily, therefore, they prefer to make safe bets and hire people whom they’ve met before. Even worse: it is often the case that positions are opened with a particular candidate in mind and announced to public only because they formally need to be. In reality, you have little chance of getting the position no matter how good you are.

However, gamification of the research process doesn’t necessarily need to be bad news for you. If you enjoy the formula of TV shows such as “The Survivor,” you might be well suited for the academic career. In fact the rule here is the same: to stay in academia for a lifetime you need to not only be a strong researchers, but also outwit, outplay and outlast everybody else.

Delayed Gratification

In private companies, employees usually need to accomplish several small tasks during the week. And, typically, they get small personal rewards for completing each one of these tasks. It might be a token of appreciation as small as the proverbial “handshake with the boss,” yet still, it is a joyful moment. 

On the contrary, academics need to develop sacred patience as the days of triumph are scarce. Once or twice a year you will score some publication and celebrate. Once or twice a year you will present at a conference or a seminar. Other than that, research is an everyday grind away from the world. Therefore, you need to find the ways to motivate yourself. It is also good to find a peer group for mutual support. Otherwise, your life will get hard.

Poor Correlation Between Personal Income and Quality of Work

Especially at the early stages of an academic career, your salary depends on the number of years of professional experience rather than on your skills and ability to conduct research. If you publish ten papers during your contract and your peer will publish just one while spending half of the working time on drinking coffee at the canteen, you’ll be still rewarded the same.

No bonuses, no special allowances. Sometimes, it can even work the other way around: the time spent on drinking coffee with colleagues can often result in getting more job opportunities than the time spent in solitude on the actual work. 

Luck Factor

There is a strong luck factor associated with an academic career. If you don’t secure a publishable PhD project, and if you don’t find several good mentors to support you at the early stages of the academic career, you’ll have a hard time receiving your first personal grants, and staying on the academic career track for longer—no matter how talented you are. Unfortunately, many talents have been wasted because of the PhD project planned out poorly.

Lack of Working Stability

Even if you are a strong researcher, you’ll get unemployed as soon as your contract ends. Also, the research scene changes constantly, and the state-of-the-art solutions in science rotate as well.

You might come up with something clever in your PhD, and your solution becomes obsolete ten years later just because there are other, new solutions using new equipment developed in the meantime. Even as a PI, you are not entirely safe: the research landscape can change a lot from the day you get your tenure contract until the day you get retired.

High Frustration Levels & Impostor Syndrome

Currently, a lot of attention is dedicated to mental health problems in academia (Woolston, 2019). Even if you manage to find an enjoyable academic job, you’ll still need to work with people who are not happy about their current situation. If you are a type of person who can easily empathize with others, and usually share the emotions of people around you, this might be draining in the long-term. 

There is also one common problem in academia: the impostor complex (as also mentioned before, in the chapter dedicated to Consultancy companies). Most academics suffer from this syndrome at some point in their careers. It might be related to the fact that as an active researcher, you are the leader of your own research project. As such, you need to present competence, confidence, and leadership skills at work. 

For more, your family, neighbors, and friends from outside academia usually are proud of you and treat you as the “smartest person in the room.” While in fact, you work on a research question that probably no one ever answered in the history of mankind. Your daily life consist of going through one bottleneck after another, you often have doubts about how to proceed, and you can’t ever be certain of the outcomes of the project no matter how good you are. No wonder that you don’t feel as certain about your mental capacity as the rest of your environment. It’s easy to get the impostor syndrome in such conditions.

False Impact

In academia, everyone dreams about major discoveries that will lead to a Nature paper or even to a Nobel prize. Yet, not everyone can succeed at these—such achievements are so prestigious because of their scarcity. However, everyone can launch a Twitter account and start collecting followers. Unfortunately, many academics wrongly take building social media presence as a sign of impact on the society. And, they compensate for their frustration coming from a lack of academic success by collecting likes, retweets, and follows. 

This chase after popularity is often associated with hypocrisy of sorts. For instance, when some topic becomes popular on social media, everyone gets on board and Twitter immediately becomes a machine of activism. So, if you produce viable solutions to real-world problems, prepare for a healthy dose of frustration as it will take ages before anyone will find out about your work and notice the value that you produce among the sea of memes and slogans from people who have no solutions at hand, yet feel compelled to inform the rest of the world that “they care about the problem.”

You Need To Learn How To Network in the Right Way

Networking skills necessary in academia differ from networking skills useful in industry. While in other working cultures, the impact of your network grows linearly (or even quadratically!) with the number of people you know, in academia it doesn’t. 

Here, it’s much more important to create a safety net—find several solid researchers within your field with whom you resonate on the personal level, and who will be willing to collaborate with you in writing grants and conducting research projects for many years to come. Some professors publish manuscript and write grants in these little cliques for their whole careers. 

Remember that those who cite your papers often don’t know you as a person—they cite you because they find your paper to be informative for them. Thus, it’s not compulsory to reach out to thousands of people, shake hands, and make a personal connection with each one of them. This is a mistake people often commit in academia: they make lots of casual friendships with other researchers at conferences and on Twitter thinking that now they’ve built a network. 

However, when it comes to looking for the next contract, they are surprised to find out that this whole “network” of casual connections isn’t too helpful.

Modern Slavery

Even though we have been living in the twenty-first century for over two decades now, there are still remainings of the Middle Age slavery system in academia. For instance, in the Middle Ages, recommendation letters were used to pass staff between different members of the elite—the opinion of the previous owner was the only source of information about the competencies of the low-born peasants. 

Today, in times of the Internet, all the information about your competencies and professional experience is available online 24/7. Yet still, your new “owner” (to read: your next academic boss) prefers to know what your previous “owner” thought of you. Although the vast majority of academic employers aim to be fair towards their employees and help them career-wise, in many cases, negative recommendation letters successfully blocked careers of talented early career researchers


There are three main ways of landing a PhD contract. These are the following:

1. Applying to one of the job offers announced online.

 Academic positions, including PhD candidate contracts, are typically announced at online platforms such as Academic Transfer. I most countries, new positions in public institutions must be announced online, therefore, you can be certain that if working in a specific field and at specific university interests you, you won’t miss the openings. 

This path seems the most obvious to take: you see an announcement for a new PhD position on a fascinating topic. So, you wrap up your documents and apply. However, it is not an optimal way to landing a PhD candidate contract. Unfortunately, in practice, many PhD candidate positions are announced in public only because they need to be, while in fact, the preferred candidate is already known to the recruiting team. 

Furthermore, even if you are invited to the interview, it is still a gamble as you need to decide to work closely with your future promotor for a few years based on one conversation. You don’t know you will click when it comes to working on the actual project. And in fact, your promotor will influence your well-being and your chances of building a career in academia even more than the project you choose! Therefore, this scenario is a gamble.  

2. Applying through personal contacts.

In this scenario, you first get in contact with a professor you are willing to work with on a particular PhD subject. If that person notices your potential and receives grant funds necessary to offer you a PhD candidate position, you can have a great start to your PhD. As mentioned above, a good connection with your promotor is the major factor for success when it comes to successfully getting through your PhD and defending the PhD thesis.

In that case, it is still better to make sure that you can be an official member of the graduate school, as it will give you more sense of belonging to the group. Even with the best promotors, opening a few years working in isolation doesn’t work too well for most people’s morale. 

3. Writing your own research proposal and taking part in an open grant call.

The last option is to write your own research proposal and take part in one of the multiple nations and international grant calls. If your proposal wins with competition, you have the right to pursue the project of your choice. You will also receive a formal grant in a form of a personal fellowship that you can bring with you wherever you go. It is a luxury, a personal achievement, and a great start to an academic career, but it also comes at a cost. 

Namely, writing viable, publishable research projects is a stunt! Even to established professors with 20-30 years of experience, coming up with new PhD projects is a challenge, as it is challenging to find the right risk-reward trade-off in the project. Moreover, if you haven’t worked in this academic field before, your technical jargon and your choice of references might be poor and it might not fit the expectations of the experts who will be reading the proposals. It might lead you to a major waste of time—you might spend weeks polishing an application that has no chances of getting through. Not even close.

In that case, it is a better idea to first get in contact with a professor whom you envision as your potential future promotor, and ask them whether they would be willing to help you create your research proposal. If they see potential in you and are willing to work with you, they will likely also support the idea of writing an independent proposal for you to land this project. They have a good incentive to do so because in that case, they don’t need to spend their (usually, tight) budget on your contract, but rather, external money will be pumped to their lab. And, with their endorsement and help, you will have much finer chances of winning the competition.

In summary, it is always better to start your search for a PhD candidate position by searching for a person you are willing to work with. Remember that even the most interesting research project will become hell to you if your promoter turns out to be a bitter, grumpy, micromanaging individual who has ego trips and doesn’t share your outlook at how science should be done.


To embark on the academic career track, you will need to first get to the graduate school and obtain the PhD (or, Doctor of Philosophy) title. There are also other routes, such as Doctor of Education (DEd), but let’s focus on the most popular route. 

The PhD certifies that you are capable of conducting independent research. In most countries, to obtain this title, you need to prove your aptitude by publishing peer reviewed papers in academic journals and with your leading authorship. In some countries, you also need to pass a professional exam. In either case, your PhD programs ends with the public PhD defense.

You can complete your PhD in multiple forms. 

1. Graduate School.

Firstly, you can choose to start a full-time contract within a graduate school. This is an often choice among students of STEM sciences. 

Graduate school is a good option because it provides you an environment where you can develop as a researcher: a large group of early-career researchers at similar career stage as you, who share your research interests, attend the same seminars and social events, and experience the same difficulties in daily research life. PhD candidates studying within grad schools usually experience less isolation and mental health problems than PhD candidates beyond graduate schools. Therefore, this form of studies is advisable.

2. Individual PhD.

 In humanities and some branches of fundamental natural sciences, most of the PhD positions are individual. In this system, you only work with your promotor and, sometimes, with some collaborators of your promotor. 

This form of a PhD is such more individualistic and isolated. Yet, on the good side of things, the requirements are also typically lower. Therefore, this option is often chosen also by professionals who already work full-time or part-time in industry, yet they still dream about completing a PhD on a topic personally fascinating for them as a side-kick. In that case, they go through the whole PhD program part-time, usually after working hours and without any remuneration. Their contacts with their promotor usually boil down to discussing the progress once in a while, until there is a crucial mass of work that can be wrapped up as a dissertation, and defended as a PhD thesis. 

Although many people go for unpaid, part-time PhD in their free time, it is not an advisable option. Every PhD projects is a huge intellectual effort. If you decide to do it for free, you will sacrifice all your free time for the next few years only to be constantly overworked, sleep-deprived and deeply frustrated as you do all the job for free—the same job that others, who do full-time PhDs, are paid for.

3. Industrial PhD.

Industrial PhDs are held within companies that collaborate with universities. Ideally, such a PhD program is the best of both worlds as it gives the academic research aptitude while at the same time, also training you in terms of how companies in the associated industry operate. 

However, you need to be careful when choosing this path because universities and companies usually have misaligned goals. Namely, companies pay for your contract and want to make sure that the output of your research project contributes to the products and services that are currently under development or contribute to the long-term development plan of the company. They also typically don’t support revealing all the details of the project to the public, as it might break the company IP and out the company in jeopardy of getting scooped by competition.

At the same time, your promotors, namely the academic professors who supervise your project, are typically more interested in the novelty and research that you conduct, and publishing your work in peer-reviewed literature than in the commercial value of your project. And, publishing in reputable journals often requires revealing your dataset and full pipeline to the public, so that your work is fully reproducible. 

As a summary, the question, “Whether or not to do a PhD, and how to choose the optimal PhD track?” is a broad topic. For more information, please take a look at the blog post “What You Should Know Before Starting a PhD” (Bielczyk, 2020). 

So, How To Land The Job In Academia?

Whichever PhD track you eventually choose, you will need apply for jobs according to the academic standards and not industry standards.

Namely, you need to remember that in academia, “academic CVs” are used in place of “resumes.”—which might be a huge cultural change for you if you previously worked in industry. An academic CV is typically much more massive in content than a resume, and contains all your verifiable individual achievements so far: all stages of your education so far, additional certifications, all the positions you occupied, the list of seminal projects your’ve conducted, the list of your previous publications, patents, personal awards and stipends, public appearances, press notes, extracurricular activities that might give a hint that you have leadership skills (all from organizing little events to blogging or podcasting. 

In practice, it is often more than 10 pages of text! On the other hand, academic CV typically doesn’t expose your soft skills and core competencies as such—the philosophy is that, your work speaks for itself. You might add a note of your hobbies and private interests though, to give your CV a more personal touch.

The way of writing motivational letters is also different from the way you do it in industry. When applying for positions in private companies, you should underscore why you want to join the particular team and which skills you can bring to that team. 

When you apply to an academic position, you need to primarily convince the employer that you are passionate about the research topic that the position is about, that this research topic is almost your obsession, and that you will go to any length to make this project work, even if it means working 24/7.

Of course, in the recruitment process, soft skills, the ability to present yourself and communicate, and well as the ability to work in a team also matter. 

However, the ultimate questions that the employer will ask themselves before signing the contract with you, will be, “Is this person determined enough to go through the whole process, and through the dark times that every PhD candidate goes through?” and “Does this person have the technical aptitude necessary to complete and defend this project?” As you can see, it is a different angle than most recruiters take when employing candidates for industry positions.


Specific Mindset and Uniform Political Views

Academic community is univocally left-winged: there is (fortunately!) a high degree of diversity in terms of culture and ethnicity, and an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards LGBT+ movement and all sexual minorities. Academics are also typically involved in the issues related to climate and ecology, and closely follow political debates in this department.

However, it does not mean that academia is overly tolerant to all kinds of views and opinions. The problem is, most academics who never worked outside their research field and didn’t spend much time “in the real word” on the open job market, don’t have any financial education. They often treat private companies and entrepreneurs as evil cash machines, without any basic understanding that money doesn’t grow on tree and that they are paid their salaries from these “evil cash machines”’ taxes. 

For them, working is public sector equals being a good person, and working in for-profit companies and organizations equals being a bad person—and you can’t talk them out of this thinking. Therefore, if you have capitalistic views and support right-winged parties that opt for low taxes and giving incentives to entrepreneurs, you might meet with a lot of misunderstanding from your colleagues.

Networking at Conferences

To stay in the loop as a top researcher in your field, you need to showcase your work at major conferences in the field at least once per year—and often more. And, conferences are so much more than just sharing the project results! A decent scientific conference has more of a picnic rather than congress atmosphere—especially in the evenings! 

Conferences are usually held in beautiful locations all around the globe, and they offer not only options for sharing knowledge, but also for sightseeing and a great dose of leisure. They are also a great occasion to make new friends in the field, build long-lasting bonds with the collaborators that you already have, and meet all these smart people whose exciting work you use to read online, in real life.

There are also some group habits you should know about. For instance, at almost any major scientific conference, there is a traditional conference party (well, usually there is more than just one party during the event!). And when you enter that party, you may learn that professors who are occupied with writing Nature papers and  leading international research organizations in daily life, after a few drinks become masters of salsa, break dance, dancing on the table, and alike.

And of course, as the member of the group, you are expected to go to the dance floor as well, and show off your dancing skills (or a lack thereof). The vibe at such a party is like in a wedding where people of all ages dance together. Therefore, no one really cares whether you can dance or not—it’s all about socializing.

Academic Twitter & Academic LinkedIn

And an academic, you need to build your personal portfolio of successful research projects, but also, your public image. After all, to progress with your academic career, you will need to become a leader of sorts. Therefore, next to collecting publications and citations, academic discussion also moved to social media, and collecting followers there.

Therefore, today, as an academic, you should also build your presence on social media, Twitter and LinkedIn in particular. The discussion going on there is usually a  mixture of scientific discussion about the new findings in the field, talking about the difficulties in everyday research life, and stories of personal failure that aim to be uplifting for those researchers who suffer from the impostor syndrome. Personal branding in academia is based on two pillars: demonstrating that you are an expert in your field and an active, successful researcher on the one hand, and an empathic human with their own laws on the other hand—even if you are a leader!