How to Succeed in Academia

I obtained my master’s degree shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Even though I was in Berlin at the Free University, the economic situation was not favorable and it was impossible even to get an interview at a biotech company. The only option to not stall my career, and to have some form of employment, was to embark on a PhD.

I was lucky enough to get a position at the Max-Planck Institute for molecular biology, which is a very prestigious institute. Eventually, I landed where I am now, teaching in the Biomedicine Program at DIS Copenhagen. I’m Kristine Freude and I’m going to walk you through my personal advice on how to succeed in academia.

What made me want to work in academia

I had a PhD mentor who was an old established professor in Drosophila genetics and I admired his giant office stuffed with books and his endless knowledge about genetics. Besides from that, he also seemed to have a lot of time to ponder scientific questions. He was the one who made me want to become a wise professor, someday. 

With my PhD in my pocket, I was eager to explore the world. To be completely honest I was more focused on finding a PhD close to the beach in a sunny country than the scientific direction I was headed towards. I applied to positions in Australia and California, and I was lucky to score a position at UC Irvine in a very well-respected lab working in the field of developmental biology.

How I planned my success

I actually never planned it very well, so I’d like to share my experience on simply what to do and what not to do.

Choose your lab on PI (principle investigator) merits

I should have chosen a lab for my postdoc based on the merits of the PI. Instead, I went to a PI who just started her laboratory. This made it harder for me to get published in Nature, Science, and Cell papers, however, it did give me the opportunity to have a close mentorship. I learned a lot, not only about the scientific, but also all the practical aspects of running a lab. Nevertheless, if you look at very successful academic scientists — being with a PI who regularly publishes in high-ranking journals increases your odds to be successful. However, on the downside, this will also put you in a highly competitive environment. Truth is, publications are still the main key of success.

Be aware of funding

The sooner you get personal funds and prizes, the better. Besides the scientific publications, this is the other very important pillar of being successful in academia. At first, I was not aware of the importance of funding and I was late to getting personal funds – in the middle of my postdoc. If you are a foreign student, make sure you know the conditions of the country you are employed in and your access to national funding. For example, as a foreigner in the U.S., it is crucial to obtain a visa ASAP, so you can qualify to apply for NIH funding.

Develop a diverse teaching portfolio

Supervise students as much as you can and volunteer as a co-teacher. Giving lectures is also a good way to ease your fear of public speaking.

Find a mentor

The most important point of being successful in the field of science is to find a mentor who can support you. Keep in mind, your mentor should also have the ability to push the right buttons in the system to advance your career.

Personally, I only realized these crucial aspects later in my career, but I was exceedingly lucky to find a mentor who helped me along. In my opinion, publications, funding, and having a supportive and influential mentor are the key factors in a successful career in academia.   

Kristine Freude got her PhD at Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics and Free University, in Berlin, Germany in Human Genetics. She did her Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at UC Irvine and was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University Copenhagen as well as an Associate Professor at the University Copenhagen. Kristine has been with DIS since 2016. 

Kristine’s courses

>> Research Assistant: Neurodegenerative Diseases

>> Epigenetics and the Environment

Research opportunities

>> Stockholm

>> Copenhagen

Hear from more faculty

>> Faculty Spotlight

Leave a Reply