The Hard Road to Success in Academia

Today, I will talk about at topic that not many researchers talk about, which is the long and hard road to become a professor in academia, and why some people give up before reaching their goal at different stages of their career. I will talk about this topic because I was recently reading about researchers who decided to leave academia to do something else due to the difficulty of getting a tenured professor position or permanent researcher position.
A list of researchers that have posted about the reasons why they have left academia can be found below, and has inspired this blog post:

By reading these posts, some observations are:

  • Several people complained that there are not enough professor positions that are available. This is true as there are much more persons who obtain a PhD than persons who can become a professor.
  • Someone can become a post-doctoral researcher after the PhD to gain more experience, but there is typically a limit on the number of years that one can work as a post-doctoral researcher. So this is a temporary solution to get more time before finding a professor position. Some persons have done up to 6 years as a post-doctoral researcher after their Ph.D but could still not find a faculty position and thus decided to give up and do something else.
  • Some persons complained about the low salary of working as a post-doctoral researcher compared to what they would earn in the industry. Some also mentioned the unability to have a stable job, sometimes having to sign a 1 year contract, while some other have been more lucky to sign for 2 or 3 years.
  • Several people complained about not choosing where they would live (for example having to accept a post-doc position in another city far from their family)
  • Some people enjoyed working as a post-doctoral researcher but it is is a temporary position as there is typically a limit on the number of years that one can be a post-doctoral researcher.
  • Some persons complained that many entry-level faculty positions in universities are short-term contracts and are not permanent. This is a reality in many places. In fact, after my Ph.D and doing my post-doc, I even started with a 9 month contract as an adjunct professor position in Canada, before getting a 3 year contract, and now a 5 year contract. Also, several permanent professor who retired were replaced by temporary jobs to reduce costs.
  • Some people have given up on academia to work in the industry or start their own business among other things. Some have decided to do something completely different such as starting a knitting store! Some have decided to even go back to studying to obtain a degree in another field.
  • Some people have said that they actually gave up on many other things to try to succeed in academia such as spending less time with their daugther, working every evening and week-ends to work on papers and books, and also gave up on other things that they like. Thus, by leaving academia, some have said that they are now happy to pursue other dreams.
  • Several adjunct professors have tried hard to get a tenured position but gave up. Some reasons are the inability to get national funding, after applying multiple times and failing. In some countries like USA, the success rate appears to be very low in some fields.
  • Some researchers have complained about some toxic working environments such as other people trying to sabotage their research, etc.
  • Some researchers have talked about the negative psychological effect and depression due to various factors such as having to work hard, a toxic work environment, and to pressure to obtain grants and get tenured.
  • Some people claim that a good amount of luck is required to be successful in academia.

I have to say that it is true that it is not easy to succeed in academia. I personally had to go through many challenges to become a professor and eventually get a full professor position, and be successful in my field. I also had to give up on several other things that I like to succeed. And I had to work hard for more than a decade, almost every day from morning this late at night (which I still do, by the way). But now, I have a good position and I am quite happy of what I do. For me, all this hard work was worth it as I like doing research and I enjoy teaching. But I certainly gave up on some other things that I enjoy to focus on my research career. For example, I also enjoy other things like learning languages, drawing, playing guitar and running as hobbies, which I do not have too much time to do.

For the young researchers, my first advice is to learn to know yourself and what you really like. If your dream is to become a professor, it is possible but you need to work hard and work smart to be the most effective and reach your goal. You also need to make a realistic plan of how to attain your goal. I have written several blog posts to give advices about how to be successful in academia that you can read:

Hope that this blog post has been interesting! If you want to add something, please share your comments in the comment section below.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor working in China and founder of the SPMF open source data mining software.

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2 Responses to The Hard Road to Success in Academia

  1. Mahreen Nasir says:

    Thank you Dr. Philippe Fournier-Viger for a nice article. Like always, a good piece of advice.


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